I went to see Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall, the first of what was for him a three night stretch and his first time at the venue since the chaos tour of 1966. My friend and I walked into the venue at 7:30pm and the speakers were already announcing that he was coming on stage in 5 minutes. So, a few minutes after we took our stalls seats, on Dylan was - like another world appearing in this one and it's an odd adjustment to make, because it's Dylan and there's so much history and, if you're a devoted follower of Bob (I confess I am) a heap of an intensely personal relationship with the artist's work. It doesn't make sense coming from work and the tube and the pub and the street and seeing him, this glorious anomaly, up there sharing time and space with me.
He seems to know this, as the first few songs establish the reminder of where you are - in his world - from the off. He's in the Albert Hall for the first time since he was being booed in the UK and he begins with "I used to care but things have changed". It's not the greatest version of the song he's ever played (although it doesn't slack) but the chorus reinforces who he is, what he's done, what this place means, where we've all gone in the meantime. The second number She Belongs to Me pulls us solidly into the whole strange mystery of what he does - it can't be put into any other words or context than what we have here in our ears and eyes; the song admits that the singer doesn't know what this muse that sings to and through him is but it's happening and he's opening the door to it again. By the time he's singing Beyond Here Lies Nothing, he's seduced me into thinking "well, he's right - what is there outside this world that gets created when he sings this stuff" - he's singing for his audience and tempting us to see that
"I love you pretty baby
You're the only love I've ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne"
And just as if he's casting a spell which seems to be just about Bob Dylan, one performer and the audience he's wooed and won the gate fully opens and there's an entry point here to the truth that beyond what any of us create from our sharing our love, there's nothing.
The past few times I've seen him I've been struck by how, physically, Bob Dylan on stage is this compendium of weird gestures and stances. There are these odd ways of standing, these strange and ersatz gesticulations, this way of playing the audience and holding the mic stand which brings to mind a kaleidoscope giving glimpses of lounge singers, minstrels, vaudevillians, Vegas showmen, silent film clowns, starlets, melodrama hams, 50s pop stars - all these crazy collective memories of what a popular performer does on a stage. It's like he's so totally performing for us that he's a old time performer - he can't be described of doing anything natural - and so this ironizes the whole performance of Bob Dylan and we're watching a legend consciously perform as an old pro. Coming from anyone else, the gestures and stances might be cod or clichéd or dated but coming from Dylan they're done with a wink, a sense of "aw, shucks, y'know how important I am and and you're going to let me get away with this." Dylan has always been sophisticated theatre games.
He plays a fair bit of piano (zero guitar, which is sometimes on/sometimes off these days - is it a choice or is the arthritis playing up?). Watching him at the old Johanna, I had this vision of how this is that kid from Duluth, Bobby Zimmerman, who wanted to be Little Richard and did a spell on the keyboards with Bobby Vee's touring band way back in the late 1950s under the name Elston Gunnn. Zimmerman, Gunnn, Dylan, Blind Boy Grunt - all these ghosts playing in that shell up there on stage and brought to life. A ghost machine that can scare you it'll psychotically Pay in Blood, make you swoon with over some gorgeous Simple Twist of Fate, remind your Forgetful Heart of how you used to be and lull you into a false sense of things having become a too diluted Spirit on the Water before the the mask is changed again you realise that that this is just another tease:
"You think I'm over the hill
You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time."
Near the end of the set - which was pretty heavily drawn from recent material with only two 60s, two 70s, one 80s number and the rest from the last decade and a half, to emphasis that this is most definitely not nostalgia - the man who'd begun by wooing us and reminding us of our affair with him performs a killer version of the recent Long and Wasted Years; it's a bitter lament of a man who has some time ago fallen out of love with his partner and reflects on the bad time they've for quite some time together through their life (and now it's, it is hinted, the Apocalypse). Dylan performs this centre stage, the giant organ of the Albert Hall lit ostentatiously above him; the sound is 50s dragged up like glam and the drum punch stops to the song crack the mind before we're dragged out of each halt by the winding guitar. Dylan barks the lyrics at us and jolts as if he's a Jerry Lee Lewis zombie electronically revivified. At the close, he snarls "so much for these long and wasted years." The song stops and the concert comes to its formal end. He's gone from the stage and the effect is shocking - as if he's got us here, seduced us, played with us and then suddenly turned on us, broke up with us and finally walked out. It's daring and thrilling and not something you expect from someone who, if he were anyone else of a similar stature, would be either preserved in aspic or telling us how much he loves us all. It's both not what I excepted at all but there again, of course, exactly the kind of moment I expect Bob Dylan to deliver.
This Tempest storming out is, of course, another trick of this particular Prospero's. He's soon back on, playing an encore consisting of a killer psychedelic All Along the Watchtower and the elegiac Roll on John. He's show that he's still a conjurer to be reckoned with and his staff ain't broke, there's still a whole lot of shaking going on.