It’s unbelievable, it’s strange, but true – but there he is once again, reigning supreme in his Shadow Kingdom. He is back on the job, singing his heart out for us all, in Oslo Spektrum, the chosen venue of the night, returning here for the first time after a fabulous show the summer of 2019, back then before it all crashed to the ground in pandemic nightmare, before another war in Europe, where “brother rose up ‘gainst brother in every circumstance, they fought and slaughtered each other, in a deadly dance”. (When Dylan spoke of his origins not far from here when he played in Oslo at the Norwegian Wood Festival in 1998, he was also speaking of the land where his paternal grandparents left Odessa for a new life in Minnesota, USA, following the pogroms of Jews in 1905.)
There is an end to everything, and the “Never Ending Tour”, the one that lasted from summer of ´88 to the fall of 2019, the one that consisted of 3064 concerts, came to an abrupt end when Bob Dylan had to cancel tours both in Japan and US in 2020, then returning like the bird Phoenix in a new disguise, fall 2021, with “Rough And Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour 2021-2024”. And what a wonderful return that was. This night he is back in Oslo once again for a sold out show.
It’s a few minutes past eight when something is happening on stage, the thunderous chaos of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 suddenly appears, the shadows of musicians finding their places, strumming their guitars in battle with Ludwig, and goes for a rough and rowdy start with “Watching The River Flow”, Dylan strangely hiding behind his piano with his unmistakable guitar solos, then changing to piano and we can see his head on top of it, like in some old-school puppet theatre. From where I sit, in the middle of third row, it’s obvious that the band leader isn’t satisfied, shaking his head, making gestures to the band, not getting the groove he’s after. This continues through “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”, Dylan with a more charged performance with commanding timing. Then he rushingly invites us into the night’s wonderful landscapes of life and death, the songs of experience from his last album, so far, “Rough And Rowdy Ways” (2020), with the real prologue of the evening, “I Contain Multitudes”, and then “False Prophet” where Dylan is sneering his “I’m the enemy of the unlived, meaningless life”. The audience comes more and more alive, hoping for the best – everybody wanting this to be a great evening. For me, there is still something lacking, that final spark that makes a Dylan concert magical. Maybe Dylan thinks the same when he sends half the band backstage for the next song, in a “don’t-come-back-before-I-tell-you-to” kind of manner, leaving just Bob Britt on the guitar and Donnie on the violin for a swinging “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. And – for me – it’s after this it really happens, when the band returns and Dylan, in his black western style suit with embroidery, takes some careful steps from his hiding behind the piano and to the microphone, launching into “Black Rider”. There it is – the magic of Bob, in a fabulous rendition of the mystical song to the unwanted company of the you in the song. The Guilty Undertakers of a band is dead serious, following the captain’s orders – and I am relaxing, this night for sure will be great. In Dylan’s rap of “My Own Version of You”, the humorous and tearful lost battle of eternal life and eternal creation, the singer starts to smile, part gentle and part diabolic, having a great time. “Thank You!” he shouts, and continues in Norwegian, “Takk skal du ha (I think I said that right?) Takk skal du ha”, a prince charming maneuver that leads right into a seductive “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, winning the last non-believers of the audience over, even the ones that don’t know or remember where the song comes from, quite different from the original Hank Williams-like finale of “John Wesley Harding” (1967). Bob Dylan now is both smiling and laughing.
I’m really not the objective one, of course, but in my humble opinion the rest of the show is impeccable. The beautiful heartbeat of “Crossing The Rubicon” is majestic:
“What are these dark days I see?
In this world so badly bent
I cannot redeem the time
The time so idly spent
How much longer can it last?
How long can it go on?
I embrace my love, put down my hair
And I crossed the Rubicon”
It’s about doing what you got to do, being brave, being busy being born until the end, no matter what the rough and rowdy ways will bring. It’s the “Rough And Rowdy Ways” theme, combined with Dylan’s always present “Memento Mori” perspective in life, from the first to the last of his albums, but in the last one more than ever. This summer he even included the line “in ten, maybe twenty, years, I’m gone” in the song. It might be back.
In the completely rewritten “To Be Alone With You” he is singing and swinging about how his “mortal bliss” is to be alone with you, but it feels like he is singing to us – this is it. This is his joy, to be alone with us. How could it not be, heading for a total of 3900 or maybe 4000 concerts?
His few unsteady steps from the piano to the microphone is his way of saluting the audience, himself seemingly feeling much more assured behind the piano, sometimes his head disappearing shortly before the next song, a few seconds later popping up, restless and eagerly starting the next song of the night. No time to loose.
“Key West” becomes one of the blue highlights of the evening, this beautiful meeting on the borderline between the world and the world we can’t see – deeply related to the meditation of the “Highlands”, this time we’re listening to the sad-eyed prophet of the lowlands – Dylan’s timing and phrasing is razor-sharp in a song that moves in quiet grace through the night. You can hear a needle drop, it’s like the audience collectively is holding their breath. Magic!
“Key West is the place to be
If you’re looking for immortality
Key West is paradise divine
Key West is fine and fair
If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there
Key West is on the horizon line”
The freight train of “Gotta Serve Somebody” is starting slow with Dylan’s spoken first verse, then picking up speed to be the night’s most rocking song of them all, the audience united in cheering from the first few words, a lot more than in July 1981, when Dylan started his first show in Norway with this song. He has spoken about his own ability to divide the audience, when all he wanted was to extend the lines and connect the dots of all the musical and literary traditions he was passing through. Well, tonight it feels like we are united in gratitude to the old man who is still standing before us, reminding us that we always have to choose.
For many of us the most beautiful moment of “Rough And Rowdy Ways” comes with the song “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”. In his live versions of the song, Dylan infuses the song with even more melancholic tenderness, reminding us once more that there is no such thing as a never ending tour.
“Well, my heart’s like a river, a river that sings
Just takes me a while to realize things
I’ve seen the sunrise, I’ve seen the dawn
I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone
I’ve traveled from the mountains to the sea
I hope that the gods go easy with me
I knew you’d say yes, I’m saying it too
I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you”
The evening’s nod to the Great American Song Book is “That Old Black Magic”, Dylan still safely behind the piano, but in a great performance of the joyful song, in a very Louis Prima way: “‘Round and ’round, I go/In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in/Under that old black magic called love.” The audience loves it. Dylan loves it, too. By the way, the drummer, Charley Drayton, is just perfect for Dylan 2022, tasteful & humble all throughout the show.
Then, “Mother of Muses”, the prayer of inspiration & power to continue the travel, nevertheless – but also acknowledging the yearning for peace.
“Take me to the river, release your charms
Let me lay down a while in your sweet, loving arms
Wake me, shake me, free me from sin
Make me invisible, like the wind
Got a mind that ramble, got a mind that roam
I’m travelin’ light and I’m a-slow coming home”
The jaunty version of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” leads us into the finale, the singer tongue-in-cheek and self-consciously, maybe acting a bit proud of his journey, after all, and in spite of the words of the song, though reminding us of the meaning of doing things your own way.
“You won’t amount to much, the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes, throw ’em in the crowd”
And it seems about right when he shouts “I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand”. That’s how it is. He owns them all.
He is greeting the audience one more time, before he humorously introduces his band, the rough-and-rowdy-ness from the start of the show is forgotten, after all maybe as much about him as about the band, after all it is the first show on this leg of the tour, though about the 75th show of the “Rough And Rowdy Ways Tour”. It already has been one helluva ride.
The evening’s show ends with a majestic and beautiful performance of the classic “Every Grain of Sand” – released the year of Dylan’s first visit to Norway. It sums it all up – the rough and rowdy way from rags to riches, the bitter dance of loneliness, hearing the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea – a great conclusion to what became a wonderful start of the Europe Tour 2022. Makes you want more!
In the end, for a few moments, Dylan steps out of the dark and into the spotlight, quietly receiving the applause, shouts and greetings once again. His unsteady steps shows a bodily fragility that is opposed to his powerful performance and his continuously unique skills as a performing artist, his timing and phrasing. It’s like Robert Shelton observed when he as an journalist for New York Times, “discovered” Dylan this very month in 1961: “All the “husk and bark” are left on his notes and a searing intensity pervades his songs.” 61 years later these word still rings true. It’s about putting the song through, not yourself even when you are in the September of your years.