Bob Dylan at Royal Albert Hall, London, 28th November 2013 review.
“When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” The phrase is particularly apt for Bob Dylan, who has always told stories about who he is and where he came from, in his speech and in his songs, where he has created a rich alternative American myth. Where blues singer Ma Rainey might collide with Beethoven, or where Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the rest of human history, can take place on Highway 61, the road that leads from Dylan’s home state, Minnesota, in the freezing north of the USA, down to the deep south where so much of his musical form has its genesis.
Which makes it fitting that Dylan should be most remembered in the popular imagination with the Royal Albert Hall for a gig he didn’t play there: the famous 1966 recording of his first electric tour, during which a fan shouted “Judas!” at him before the final song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, was in fact recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.
But Dylan has never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and why should we? His first gigs at the Royal Albert Hall since 1966 feel like a laying to rest of the demons unleashed by that “Judas” catcall. As recently as 2012, Dylan was still fulminating about being cast in the role of “the most hated name in human history … and for what? For playing an electric guitar?”, confidently predicting that his critics would meet their ends in the fires of Hell.
Age has done nothing to dim the fire of his words and music. The set on thursday focused heavily on his most recent albums, most particularly last year’s extraordinary ‘Tempest': anthems of paranoia and dislocation, kicking off with a rollicking ‘Things Have Changed’ (“I’m a worried man, I’ve got a worried mind … I used to care, but things have changed”) to guilt and self-questioning: “What good am I if I say foolish things? If I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings?”
Every so often his new material spits out a violent spark of fury, as seen in the last year’s interview with Rolling Stone, or the otherwise lovely ‘Soon After Midnight': “Two-timin’ slim, who’s ever heard of him? I’ll drag his corpse through the mud”.
Put like this one might wonder why Dylan continues to draw huge crowds in every city he visits, particularly given his constant touring schedule. And not just old fans come either; Dylan’s audiences are split almost equally these days between those who can remember the sixties and seventies and those – like myself – not even born then. The answer, as he might say, is blowin’ in the wind; in the extraordinary sound made by his band, these days led by himself on piano, and the ingenious and affecting ways he reinterprets both old standards and new songs. Dylan is never content simply to “lay down his weary tune”. Every song must be made unique, night after night, a constantly changing stream of aural interpretation.
This means that the songs, rather than remaining in a particular time or place, grow and develop like old friends. ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, which once seemed a bitter reflection on his split from his wife Sara, is now, almost 40 years later, a glowing and even humorous evocation of the strange tricks played by time, with Dylan smiling into the past like Job meditating on his lost children and wife as the sun fades into the distance.
‘Long and Wasted Years’, from the ‘Tempest’ album, the last song he played before the encore, almost seems a sequel to the famous ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, another reflection on the dual tracks shared by himself and his wife, only here, from the perspective granted by time, their paths have become untangled, and seem to be heading into the future in the same direction, though separate: “Two trains running side by side, forty miles wide… So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years.”
Suffering, pain and anger never have the final word in Bob Dylan’s songs. The evening finally reaches the gods with the final two-song encore of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. ‘Watchtower’ almost seems an evocation of the Crucifixion scene, with Jesus looking down on the world from Golgotha alongside his fellow victim the good thief: “‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief. ‘There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth'”.
The song finishes with a near quotation from the prophet Isaiah, in a passage predicting the coming of the Messiah: “A wild cat did growl; two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” Similarly, in the Book of Job, God speaks to Job from the whirlwind – or tempest. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, one of Dylan’s very first songs, returns to this elemental imagery, but holds out the possibility of an ‘answer’ to the problems of man’s lack of compassion for men and the evils of war and slavery.
Dylan’s songs – to which he has invited comparison with Shakespearian imagery by naming his last album ‘Tempest’ – speak through the tempest of life as a “still, small voice of calm” in the words of John Greenleaf Whittier. Or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, they “ride time like riding a river”, taking spiritual truths and deep emotions and making them into musical fact, night after night around the world.