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It's been a good while since I last attended an arena gig, preferring much smaller venues which appear to be better suited to music. These days if you want to see your heroes and idols, then the crush of an arena is quite possibly your only real option. I shouldn't really complain about the fact that there was no steady gradient down to the stage, it clearly stated on the ticket that the stalls were spread out over a flat level surface, it's an ice skating rink after all, but the cramped conditions, including the rows of chairs that made an allowance for bums, torsos and heads but not arms or legs, left a lot to be desired.
Moans and groans aside, both the sound and the lighting were excellent and at just under two hours, the length of the concert was just about right for this event. The other thing about arena gigs is that you tend to make a weekend of it rather than just treat it as a flying visit. You tend to buy the programme, t shirt and the kitchen sink as well. Bob Dylan happens to be one of those iconic figures in popular music who will always draw a crowd even if that crowd would actually prefer to see him to do something else, like talk for instance, or play the guitar, neither of which he did tonight. Bob is predictably unpredictable and you never know what you're going to get. Yet seeing Dylan do precisely what he wants to do, is really all we can expect.
Later, after the show, a busker from Prague stood outside the arena and proceeded to entertain the crowds as they left the arena with a list of familiar Dylan songs performed in the way they were originally intended, same words and the same melodies. One or two observers were overheard to say "this is better than what we've just heard", which of course is nonsense. What we witnessed earlier was an artist going about his business, performing songs from a repertoire that traverses almost 60 years, revisiting, re-imagining and rejuvenating the songs to reflect a 76 year-old's perspective on a life's work. If Dylan were to perform the songs the way he did in 1966, it would have been only slightly better than a tribute act.
Smartly dressed and donning a white Telescope hat with a black band, Dylan emerged onstage after a short strummed guitar piece and launched into the opening song Things Have Changed. The autumnal backdrop, lit by seven huge supertrouper spotlights, gave the impression that presentation was more important than Dylan actually lets on. It's all about presentation, even down to the attitude, the sneer, the Oscar on stage with him. The audience was treated to the interchangeable second song, To Ramona, which on other occasions on this tour might have been Don't Think Twice It's Alright. It could also have been mistaken for The Times They Are a-Changin', with its familiar lilting guitar intro.
Bob Dylan had two stage positions tonight, which he would alternate between throughout the show, three if you count both standing and sitting at the piano. The other position would be to the left of the stage, standing upright utilising a rather stilted Rod Stewart-style microphone stand manoeuvre, which at one point became slightly more animated, almost rock and roll if you will. This is where much of the crooning would occur on such songs as Melancholy Mood, Stormy Weather, That Old Black Magic and Autumn Leaves, if you like that sort of thing. Highway 61 Revisited however saw Dylan return to form with a belter of a delivery, with a band that seemed as together as possible, featuring in no particular order, Tony Garnier on both electric and upright bass, Donnie Herron on pedal steel and violin, Stu Kimball on electric and acoustic guitar, George Recili on drums and Charlie Sexton on lead guitar.
For those in the audience wishing for something of the old Dylan, they need look no further than the mid-set appearance of Tangled Up in Blue, which on this occasion was not so much slowed down as re-paced, allowing for spaces between the lines of the verses, which was achieved whilst losing none of the song's power. Desolation Row was also selected for an airing, which was also well received by the fans. Although such old songs made a welcome appearance in the set, the more recent songs left the greatest impression, the songs that appear somewhere between the Great Bob Dylan Songbook and the Great American Songbook, Pay in Blood, Love Sick and Duquesne Whistle, for instance, each of which demonstrated Dylan's continued affiliation with the art of songwriting, despite abandoning it over the last three album releases in favour of Sinatra-type covers.
Dylan refrained from any verbal connection with the audience other than through the songs of course and seldom exchanged anything other than a nod or a wink with members of his band, who were equally as restrained throughout the two-hour set. I imagined a furrowed brow beneath the brim of his fedora, which incidentally was rarely removed during the concert, perhaps once or twice in order to run his fingers through his enduring wiry locks and then more permanently during the final bow at the end of the night. When I say bow, I mean to say that he and his band members gathered at the front of the stage and remaining upright and just peered out at the audience as if they were witnessing the funeral service of a ruthless dictator; stiff, impersonal, non-committal, yet fully expected.
After finishing with the song that Dylan's career was founded upon, Blowing in the Wind, revised from five decades past and cleverly disguised as a slow country crooner, the band left the stage for a fair period of time, accompanied by sustained applause, Dylan and his band eventually returning for the final song, a rather faithful reading of the ever powerful and sneering Ballad of a Thin Man, which served as a perfect finisher on this occasion.