Never one to take the obvious route, Bob Dylan was hardly likely to start aged 70. His 90-minute show at the Hammersmith Apollo includes no encore, minimal crowd interaction and only a handful of classics – yet still manages to be an incredible night of live music.
Having long grown tired of his own back catalogue, the Minnesota man has taken to completely re-imagining his songs: the sound that he and his five-piece band now create is closer to 12-bar blues than folk balladry.
They begin with ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’, Dylan barking its sprawling lyrics beneath a rather fetching hat of his own. Now suffering from arthritis, he favours the keyboard over the acoustic guitar, but his rasping harmonica playing remains undiminished. After ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ – now a rollicking country-rock number – it emerges for the brooding blues of ‘Things Have Changed’, prompting huge cheers from the crowd.
Always more of a poet than a singer, Dylan’s voice remains an acquired taste. It’s grown more gravelly over the years, too, masking much of the poetry of his lyrics: half the fun is now spent trying to work out which song he is actually singing. Not that the devoted audience seems to mind: there are more standing ovations here than at a night at The X Factor.
And, in fairness, there’s plenty to get excited about. The descending chords of ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Minnie The Moocher’-style backing brings the sound of New Orleans to west London; ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is glorious, galloping rock ’n’ roll; and ‘Desolation Row’ builds to a thundering crescendo of electric guitar, lap-steel and swirling organ.
During such moments, Dylan’s genius is clear for all to see. But when the band return to the 12-bar blues templates, the gig starts to resemble a high-class open mic night rather than an evening with the world’s greatest songwriter: if you’ve written lyrics as brilliant as these, why you’d want to bury them beneath plodding blues riffs remains a mystery. But after 34 studio albums and half a decade of performing, Dylan has earned the right to be a little uncompromising: if he thinks ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is better as an atonal blues jam, then that’s exactly what it’s going to be.
Dylan saves the best for last. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, the counterculture anthem from his classic ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, cues a mass sing-along – even if Bob and the crowd are singing completely different melodies.
If no encore is forthcoming, the audience has at least enjoyed a fantastic support act in the shape of Mark Knopfler. The former Dire Straits man cherry-picks songs from his solo career, including the Celtic-rock of ‘What It Is’ and harmony-filled ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’. Now as bald as coot, he has no more need for the iconic headband. But his fantastic finger-style playing is in attendance, and he decorates ‘Brothers In Arms’ and ‘So Far Away’ with some tasteful riffing. Like Dylan, Knopfler can’t claim to be a classically brilliant vocalist – but when you can play guitar like this, who’s complaining?
Words by Rick Pearson