With great expectations, it is easy to be disappointed and hard to be impressed. After two brilliant shows in Copenhagen, I just expected more of the same high level, without major changes. I was still surprised tonight.
This evenings gig was the London Palladium, a beautiful classic theater, built in 1910, and a place that has welcomed a large number of great artists through the years. It was this very theater that both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington came to when they first visited Great Britain, and a large number of american singers in the tradition Dylan recently has explored, performed here in the post-war period, be it Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, one of Bob Dylans favorites, Johnnie Ray (“The first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with”), or, yes – Frank Sinatra.
In his speech to the Nobel banquet, Dylan actually mentioned this place by name:
«When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, or the London Palladium.»
Many would know that at that time he had never played in London Palladium, and that this was a dream that apparently had not been fulfilled. Dylan probably knew at the time that the deal with London Palladium was in place, but it’s a good story anyway. Dreams can come true, we must know.
The concert begins precisely, and Dylan comes walking in his polka dot shirt and ditto scarf, as a kind of rock’s Lord Fauntleroy. From my place on the second row, right in front of Dylan’s piano chair, it’s clear that the sound can not be measured to the perfection of the Opera in Copenhagen. Although it was a little better as the concert went on, the difference remained big, at least where I sat. The advantage was that Dylans voice was presented crispy clear through all the show. And Dylan started playing with his phrasing already in “Things Have Changed”: I am NOT that EAGER to MAKE a misTAKE. An anonymous version of “Don’t Think twice, it’s alright” is followed by a rocking and rolling “Highway 61 Revisited”, where Dylan clearly finds great joy hammering at the innocent piano.
But then it´s time for my surprise – something new is happening – I’ve considered Latin-rocker “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” as one of the weaker moments in the set, but tonight Dylan adds more ingenuity to the piano solos, something the audience is also responding to. Spontaneous applause along the way, which again inspires the pianist. He has always had the piano chair standing long and sitting at the end of it. Tonight he has put the chair a little bit tilted, and is now sitting just on a small corner of it, in a position that apparently every moment could result in an involuntary limbo beneath the piano, but he succeeds nevertheless. If Dylan relates the song most to Otis Rush and ‘All Your Loving’, Howlin’Wolf’s ‘Who’s Been Talkin’, or Santana’s version of Peter Green´s ‘Black Magic Woman’, it’s not easy to say – here’s a bit of everything and the evening version is one of the best I’ve ever heard. The same happens to “Duquesne Whistle” and later “Spirit On The Water”, the piano player sparkles and makes also this songs fly, even if these songs often/usually don´t really lift anymore – for me, that is. But tonight is different. Again – Dylan runs a piano solo at the end of “Spirit on the water” which produces shouts and applause in the hall. “You think I’m over the top?” He sings. The answer is unequivocally: “Noooo!”
The London audience also knows how to appreciate a good “croon”, and the audience really loves “Why Try To Change Me Now”, where Dylan catches the fourth microphone (the only one of them he uses tonight), goes down into the hockey position with the microphone, and again feeds us with a spoon – there’s no reason to believe he’s going to change now.
“Stormy Weather” is the only song from “Triplicate”, and it is performed in a very blue version, Dylan standing at the piano, striking heavy chords – the first of all the “songbook” songs not performed by Dylan in front of the stage. A beautiful moment.
«Tangled Up In Blue» are always one of the most welcomed songs, as usual, but I´m really awakening when Dylan enters into a rare vocal groove on the next song, “Early Roman Kings”, suddenly Dylan’s cool and jazzy phrases gets the band on its toes, it sparkles of joy and musicality, and the singer continues this from verse to verse in a way that makes this basically plain blues riff to the absolute highlight of the evening. Great performing art, and just the kind of moment you dream of when you are going to concerts.
The next big highlight is “Desolation Row” – I think it’s been great every night, but out of the dark there’s a new amazing funky flamenco-inspired version that gets both the vocals and the lyrics flying low over London tonight:
«At midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row»
A completely brilliant version! Another highlight of the earlier concerts is now, at least temporarily , retired, the beautiful “Scarlet Town”. It has been out since the “Stormy Weather” set in. “That Old Black Magic” makes everyone swing, the pace makes it all seem as an athletic thing to do, where drummer George is the one who is the hardest working guy – Dylan dances with the microphone and remains in full control over a very demanding song. “Ballad Of A Thin Man” closes the show and it works perfectly as a closer. Dylan stands wide-legged at the piano and emphasizes both paranoia, claustrophobia, anxiety and pain with his intense use of the black keys. He is standing a few seconds in front of the audience, receiving their praises, and then gets lost in the shadows. As I said – I expected a great concert – the surprise was that the pianist Dylan managed to lift even the more anonymous songs significantly this evening and in this way he also inspired the great singer Dylan to another level on the same songs. The sound in London Palladium was a not as good as Copenhagen, but this was largely a really great start of the three-day row of concerts in this fine hall where Beatlemania also ruled in the 60’s. An historical scene, but even more historic tonight, when also Bob Dylan has been here. Looking forward to the next two shows.