This Bob Dylan article was written by Jessica Otterwell, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Gavin Wells. Photo by Paolo Brillo
The Royal Albert Hall and Bob Dylan have had a long and varied relationship, dating back to the start of his career. Much has been written about Dylan’s tempestuous tour of England in 1965, including his debut Albert Hall performance. It was immortalised in one of the first Rock documentaries, D.A Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. At the time, the reviews were mixed; “who was this anarchist who sounded like Donovan?” wondered the British press, always missing the mark.
Yet, here fifty years after that debut performance, stood the man who had created a genre, who had changed the lives of so many people and his fans were rapturous. The last time Dylan played the hall (in 2013) was the first time he had played there in forty-seven years. It was an emotional and extremely special evening and I was very keen to witness what Dylan was going to do this time around.
As the hall lights faded to black, the cheering began as a shadowy figure in a boater hat and western style suit meandered onto the stage, his band surrounding him. As a master of reinvention, it’s interesting to note that Dylan has adopted and stuck with an almost Americana style for many years now and his band excelled in playing this. The audience hushed as he began with ‘Things have changed’, and in a deviation from the normal, guess what song he’s playing now game, the melody stuck quite faithfully to the original. The same occurred on ‘She Belongs to me’, it was never going to be the ballad that it originally was, but it was close enough. Then Dylan began to play the Harmonica and the crowd cheered. This was after all, a man who at times it seemed almost as if he invented Harmonica playing. This was what the crowd wanted; this is who they had come to see.
With this going on, it also meant two things; One, the crowd seemed relaxed in the mood and perfectly content to let Dylan sing whatever he chose, and two, most notably the man himself seemed in very good spirits. Following a gnarling and thirsty ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’, the lamps that surrounded the stage dimmed to the pale yellow of a gas lamp on a city street. Dylan put his hand in his pocket and sang a cover of Irving Berlin’s‘What’ll I Do’, one of the first songs from his most recent album of standards, ‘Shadows in the Night’. This was warmly received and Dylan looked at ease standing at the microphone, adding world weary perception to the song.
The first half of the show rounded with a lively Tangled up in Blue, as Dylan put a fresh twist on the opener from ‘Blood on the Tracks’. Announcing the interval was in fact the first and only time Dylan spoke but nobody seemed to mind, it is after all, what we have come to expect.
The second half concentrated on material largely post-2000 and ‘Shadows in the Night’. Band members were offering backing on Double Bass and Banjo, while Dylan took helm at the Piano for ‘Spirit on the Water’ (Which caused a number of fans to dance in their seats), ‘Long and Wasted Years’ and a particularly poignant cover of ‘Autumn Leaves’. Many artists have released a standards album but few have managed to do so with the relevance that Dylan has. It was on stage being performed that these covers stood up against Dylan’s own compositions and he told them as stories of loneliness and regret in that rolling drag of wisdom and danger that he is so famous for.
The evening came to a close with a Violin and Piano led version of ‘Blowing in the Wind’, causing shouts of, “We love you, Bob” to echo around the impressive building. Finally, closing with ‘Love Sick’, an odd choice, I thought for a finale but then I realised, he’s Bob Dylan, he can do as he pleases and we were all more than happy to let him.