I’m speechless! I just don’t know what to say – and I have to say it at once!
The show tonight was by far the best of the nine I’ve seen this fall. It was beautiful beyond words, it was unforgettable and I am flabbergasted & overwhelmed by emotions after a unique concert, and after Mr Dylan’s returning to the stage – twice – after the show was over. The audience demanded it with wild and unstoppable applause – twice – and the walking miracle of an artist for the second and third time greeted us with syncopated movements with his arms. From my seat at the middle of second row I could see he was moved by the whole scenario himself, saying goodbye after the last show in London, at least this time, the city he arrived in for the first time sixty years ago this fall. And what a show it was! I’ll tell you more in a bit.
Even if Bob Dylan might be most known by all the rules he broke, all the renewal he invented & his radical attitude both as a singer and a poet, it is important to remember that he, like most of the great artists, first and foremost is a carrier of tradition, sometimes in a puritanical way homaging inspirations, but mostly using it as building blocks for renewal, for growth and evolution, throwing it all into that melting pot of the artist’s mind & artistry. With careless love & theft the lines are extended from both the known and the unknown heroes of the past. The most original artists represents renewal, often in a radical way, but always on a platform of history and tradition. This is the way it was done in the Bible, this is the way Miguel de Cervantes & William Shakespeare did it, and this is the way Bob Dylan does it, always knowing & pointing the way back to the roots, to the well of inspiration just around his cabin or basement door, always taking a cleansing bath in tradition when needed – as we know from 1967 and the “Basement Tapes”, as we know from the early nineties with “Good As I Been To You” & “World Gone Wrong”, and most surely other times not resulting in albums, maybe a left turn in the live set, maybe the spark to write another song. The second half of his career his diving into musical & literary traditions has been the method as much as anything – for him the future was a thing of the past, his creative wellspring of intertextuality was never-ending, too. Even if he’s not into philosophical dogma, he uses his findings and his unique affinity of language in both poetry, rhyme & allegory – his references and inspirations mostly, if it really matters, out there in the open for all to see, leading to the Pulitzer Prize “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”, to the Nobel Prize of Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, and to Barack Obama’s words when giving Dylan the Presidential Medal of Freedom: “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. The unique gravel-y power of his voice helped redefine not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel.” Bob Dylan was always extending the lines and connecting the dots, both musically & literary. I also think about this night of his triumph at the London Palladium – reigning supreme for four shows – three of them great, the fourth – transcendent.
Inside the album cover for “Rough And Rowdy Ways” is a beautiful photo of a meeting between Jimmie Rodgers & Carter Family, both important inspirations for Dylan, and for American and Americana music ever since. In a re-written version of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”, he and Mavis Staples even recreates the recorded and staged meeting between the two from 1931, and using lines from Carter Family songs in the new version. It’s great and its partly hilarious, but stand as a perfect example of Dylan, The Melting Pot, making a cultural jambalaya of gospel, soul, blues, country & folk in the same project. The including of the picture of Jimmie, A.P., Sara and Maybelle tell us much about the spirit of the album, but also of the spirit of the “Rough And Rowdy Ways World Tour”. Dylan might not be what he was, things might not be the way they were, but Bob Dylan is still the eternal melting pot & guide to the tradition and to they which work he depends on.
Walking through the history of all human race in the fabulous British Museum today, makes you think of both roots, tradition & cultural evolvement through the last thousands of years, reminding us that the human heart is the same through centuries and millenniums. I was moved to tears by listening to an Egyptian lovesick poem thousands of years old, you can see their struggle for life, the preparing for death and their love of art and beauty, their fight against death and their hopes for afterlife. They slept with both life and death in the same bed, they loved and lost and tried to take care of their family and children, they stood between Heaven and Earth, and sometimes, not all times, they did cross the Rubicon. Something never changes. Such as the human heart.
Talk about Egypt, when Bob Dylan in 1996 named his own record label “Egyptian”, it might of course be inspired by more than one thing, twenty years after “Isis”, and many years after singing both “Little Moses” & “Go Down, Moses” through the years. Whatever it was, he released only two albums on this label, as far as I know, the tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers & the Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, each tipping his hat to the traditions he has promoted and shed light on in all these years, in so many different ways. So also at the London Palladium, the perfect frame for Dylan’s music these days. Classical music, music that will live on through the ages, like music used on both intro and outro for several of the shows. Dylan defines himself as a classic. Of course he do.
So, what could we expect the last night, except another great high-level show, as the three before? Two extra microphones in front of the stage had been there already at the last shows, indicating Dylan’s own taping of the shows, but for what reason? The live album we have been missing for more than thirty years? Could that be the case? The microphones looked at us with empty eyes and didn’t give an answer.
“Watching The River Flow” surprises us most by a seemingly endless instrumental intro with Dylan’s piano in front, verse after verse, better and better each time, a real warm-up, before Dylan starts to sing, the lights goes on and the audience is welcoming him. The sound gets perfect during the song and stays that way the whole night. “Most likely you’ll go your way (and I’ll go mine)” continues to tell us the reasons to quit, with Dylan’s very interesting long pauses between the first and last part of the refrain, the band never quite sure of how long they will be. Dylan smiles happily during the song, that might be a good sign for tonight.
For the record: I just won’t repeat for each song that they this very special night came in their most utmost versions, because they really did. Just WOW! I expected a lower energy towards the end of the show, but no such thing happened – Dylan was beaming of raw energy all through the night, for the whole standard string of songs brimming of links to what came before us.
A superb “I Contain Multitudes” contains a long list of musical and literary traditions that the “I” in the song delves into as part of his multituding attitude – there is of course Whitman, Poe and Blake, as well as Beethoven and Chopin, and yes, of course, Warren Smith and the rich rockabilly & Sun Records tradition that gave us “Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache”, of course beautifully covered by Dylan himself. To name a few. “I’ll see to it that there is no love behind”, Dylan sings. He will use all of it tonight.
“False Prophet” comes strolling proudly along in this fall’s new cool outfit, a walking blues that might be more inspired by J J Cale than by Billy “The Kid” Emerson who was cited in the original riff of the song. When he sings “When your smile meets my smile, something’s got to give” he sends a big, fat smile to the audience.
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” has gone through a transition the last days, and tonight the tight connection between Donnie’s violin & Bobby’s piano works perfect, the swinging groove has come to stay for the song that obvious invites us into a deep dive in both cultural history and geography.
After a fabulous “Black Rider” with to many literary links to discuss here, comes the mystical “My Own Version of You” with its obvious debt to Mary Shelley, someone in the audience yells at fitting places, Dylan is on his phrasingly best when he barks “to hell with all things that used to be” and promises us that he won’t get involved in any “in-a-sig-a-ni-a-fig-a-nant detaiiiils”. He’s having fun, also tipping his hat to Willy Shakespeare during the song.
The very crowd-pleasing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” gets into a musical groove far from the original version who was marinated in the country tradition of Hank Williams, which Dylan love so much. Tonight it’s more latin rhythms than rockabilly, both pre-rock.
“Crossing The Rubicon” makes me always think of the John Lee Hooker ways of grooving the blues, while the literary and historic roots of the story might be well known. Another fabulous version. “To Be Alone With You” starts with Dylan singing slow and tender this country song with new lyrics, one in the audience shouting Yeeeah after each line, before the uptempo part starts. Dylan smiles during the song, and comes out from the back of the piano to greet the stimulating shouter by rising his hand in the direction where the shouts came from.
“Key West” is obviously both a history lesson, a geography lesson & a lesson in making a dreamscape, combined with a long string of references to inspirational voices for the “I”, like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac, as well as Louis, Jimmie & Buddy. Dylan’s vocal is strong and crispy clear through the whole song, his phrasing pitch perfect, and he throws in some beautiful jazzy piano chords through the song. The problem tonight is that almost each song is a highlight in their own way.
“Gotta Serve Somebody” rocks the house, the audience responds just like they should, imitating the gospel shouters at the right place. In “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”, Dylan sings “I’ve traveled a long road of despair”, but the smile on his face make it less credible tonight. “That Old Black Magic Called Love” is just prima – Louis Prima that is.
Dylan plays a beautiful improvised verse of “Wild Mountain Thyme” (or maybe “Shenandoah”?) before it ends up in “Mother of Muses”, the song where I the other night’s thought Dylan was holding back in his performance, not so tonight – a beautiful version. “Goodbye, Jimmy Reed” continues the great co-operation between Donnie & Dylan tonight – on the border of telepathy, Bob is watching their communication and smiles, the audience is quietly dancing in their seats to the beat.
Dylan was so intense into the music tonight that he almost forgot to talk, just a smiling and laughing introduction of the band came as usual, no thank you’s before that. “There’s a dying voice inside me”, Dylan sang in “Every Grain of Sand”, but that was really not the voice we heard this night, quite the opposite. We who attended London Palladium this night will never forget it. When Dylan receives the applause from a screaming and hollering audience, and comes back the second and third time for more thanks from the audience, and more hand and arm movements in the air from Mr Dylan it was like he signed and sealed this whole fantastic evening for all of us, to be cherished and saved.
Bob Dylan might be both a walking contradiction and sometimes a larger-than-life enigmatic character of mythic proportions, surely a legend in his own time, but now, almost frailer than the flowers, he still is the keeper of the flame, still carrying a torch of inspiration, still eagerly pointing to tradition and what came before him, also in the forthcoming book we all are waiting for. The miracle is that he also delivers a concert so rich, warm and impressive as the one tonight, and with this topping an already long string of great shows in Europe. I might pinch myself tomorrow morning – did it really happen?
As often before, he might be the best in describing what we experienced tonight, picked from his beautiful liner notes for the tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers: “He (is) a performer of force without precedent with a sound as mystical as it (is) dynamic. His voice gives hope to the vanquished and humility to the mighty.” That’s how it is.
What a night! Let’s just hope it shall be released!