Bob Dylan’s live show a revelation

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I wasn't expecting to have an epiphany at Bob Dylan's intimate show at Brisbane's The Tivoli on Wednesday night.

The clichéd nature of such a situation would sicken me if it wasn't so real. I've grappled with the deeply personal revelation ever since and I think I've made sense of it. But, like every great Bob Dylan song, who knows if I'll ever know exactly what it meant.

My stomach churned for hours before the show. What was clearly excitement felt so close to nerves that I cursed myself for my insatiable need to see this show. What if it destroyed the fantastic memories of Dylan I've collected through hundreds of hours of listening, reading and watching? 

As you'll read in every report of Dylan's latest Australian tour, the man and his band are utterly faultless right now. The Tivoli show was no exception. I’ve been accused of being a Dylan apologist in the past, but we should admire the fact Dylan performs what he wants, how he wants. I’ve grinned at the hundreds who streamed out of the tent during his brilliant 2012 Bluesfest sets. I’ve argued with anyone who'd engage me that his polarising show is as much a part of his genius as his hit records. He's not pretentious, he's Bob fucking Dylan.

Besides a shrill woman behind me proclaiming "Seen him, heard him, over it", during 'Tangled Up in Blue' (the nerve!), Dylan's genius was sufficiently acknowledged by the 1500 in attendance at the rare club show.

 

His newest material – and yes, he plays plenty of it – sounds best. 'Beyond Here Lies Nothin'' leading into 'Workingman's Blues #2' as third and fourth song is a powerful and brilliantly executed double hit and it's at this point the show shifted. Dylan started to look comfortable and, for the first time in my life, I felt like maybe I was witnessing Bob Dylan having fun. 'Pay in Blood' – the highlight of 2012's Tempest – was scarier than on record, which is no mean feat. Dylan had us believe he really did "have dogs that would tear us limb from limb".

The handful of "classics" he played got a mixed response. The early showing of 'She Belongs to Me' largely fell on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until he sang the song's title 'Tangled up in Blue' that most people acknowledged it. One exception was the brilliant 'Girl from the North Country'. Opening line "If you're travelling..." was all it took to elicit a mammoth cheer. But the highlight came with Highway 61 Revisited's 'Ballad Of A Thin Man'. Not many people have heard this classic barked at them in such close quarters and that privilege wasn't lost on the crowd.

The aforementioned epiphany came at the most unlikely moment. Dylan crooned 'Trying to Get to Heaven' from his 1997 comeback record Time Out of Mind. It's a great song and an excellent record, but it has never ranked anywhere near the apex of my favourite Dylan moments. Perhaps it would make the top 200?

Bob Dylan's vast catalogue is intimidating. Take away the demos, the bootlegs, the live recordings and compilations and you have 35 fully-fledged studio records to get your head around. Some of them are masterpieces, some of them fall flat, and taking the plunge into this hefty catalogue any time in the past couple of decades takes a certain commitment. The right guidance makes it far easier.

I had two people in my life holding my hand as I meekly approached Bob Dylan's discography beyond the hits. But I never acknowledged that until three-quarters of the way through Wednesday night's performance.

Maybe it was the theme of mortality in 'Trying to Get to Heaven' that planted the seed in my head. During that song, it struck me that both of these guides were now dead.

The two men never met. One was a teacher, a figure of seniority and authority. The other was a friend, a peer. They couldn't have been more different and they loved Dylan for very different reasons.

The teacher loved Dylan the pop star. He related stories of seeing Dylan in the '90s and hating it. He played an incredible version of 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright' and took me deep into the work of Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt to understand where this music was coming from. He didn't like the way Dylan performed these days. He acknowledged his importance, but thought Dylan was failing as an entertainer. This man succumbed to cancer ten years ago.

The friend loved Dylan the agitator and Dylan the poet. He'd quote Dylan after he drank too much whiskey, he was endlessly fascinated with religion in a way that was surely inspired by the great man, and relished the musician’s steadfast devotion to messing with his fans. One of my earliest memories of my friend was a discussion we had about Time Out of Mind, which he was listening to on his Discman at the time. He died this year.

Despite their disparate appreciation of his work, both of my Dylan Sherpas would have loved Wednesday's show at The Tivoli. Dylan somehow consolidated the most challenging and most appealing aspects of his performance to give a stunning display of what he can still do as a 73-year-old man.

Both of my guides recommended songs I would have struggled to uncover alone. They both gave insights about this great artist that were important and that were formative to my musical education.

What did I glean from this minor watershed moment? This could be the nerdiest thing I've ever said, but you should talk to your friends about Bob Dylan. I've started myself. I tell everyone who'll listen to pick up 1983's Infidels. I love the record and figure it's as good a starting point as any for those who want to stray from the most beaten Dylan pathways. Share your knowledge, and be open to others sharing theirs.

On Wednesday night, there was no overwhelming feeling of being in the presence of greatness. Bob Dylan mustn't care much for adulation. The way he walks on and off stage, the changes he makes to his songs and the way he completely doesn’t acknowledge his audience suggests as much.

I like to think Dylan insists to performing at this age because he knows his songs will make us feel things we've not felt before. Maybe even have unexpected revelations.

But, like every good Bob Dylan song, we'll never know the truth behind it.

Dylan somehow consolidated the most challenging and most appealing aspects of his performance...
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