Bob Dylan might have received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the iconic singer-songwriter has a penchant for oration – that ain’t him.
In fact, the 77-year-old didn’t utter a single word that wasn’t sung the entire night at his Brisbane concert on Friday. But with a peerless catalogue of songs filled with masterful lyricism as deep as Dylan’s, and a backing band comprised of longtime lead guitarist Charlie Sexton, rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, bassist and musical director Tony Garnier and drummer George Receli, who needs between-song banter?
There is a strict no-photo policy – with threat of ejection for those who breach the rules – but this is no audiovisual extravaganza, with Dylan and his band performing in front of a red curtain that suggests intimate theatre more than indoor stadium, and it’s refreshing to attend a show that’s not accompanied by a sea of glowing screens
A few minutes after the advertised “8pm sharp” start time, the band begin in earnest, as Dylan takes his place behind the baby grand piano at the front of the stage – where he spends the majority of tonight’s set – and launches into one of his more recognisable numbers from the past couple of decades, Oscar-winning 2000 song Things Have Changed.
The evergreen It Ain’t Me Babe is given a drastic overhaul, as is the band’s fresh take on Highway 61 Revisited and it’s clear from the outset that although Dylan has no problem revisiting his back catalogue, he has no interest in delivering jukebox renditions of his hits, with the majority of tonight’s songs arranged given blues, bluegrass, country and gospel rearrangements. Simple Twist of Fate, from Blood on the Tracks, is a highlight, and garners a suitably raucous response – particularly when Dylan gets on the harmonica.
At 77, Dylan’s vocals style has developed into more of a gravelly rasp, rather than the nasally drawl of decades ago, but it’s a quality that adds well-worn character to iconic songs such as When I Paint my Masterpiece, although his voice does falter at points, notably during Pay in Blood.
Tangled up in Blue bears so little resemblance to its original arrangement it’s rendered almost unrecognisable until the chorus. Conversely, on Desolation Row, Dylan’s vocals are powerfully evocative and with the accompaniment of the rhythm generated by Garnier’s plucked upright bass and Receli’s innate shuffle, it makes for one of the night’s standout moments, and Garnier truly gets a chance to display his percussive prowess as Thunder on the Mountain reaches its climax.
After finishing the set proper with Gotta Serve Somebody, Dylan and his band return for a pathos-filled, country take on Blowin’ in the Wind, followed by Ballad of a Thin Man.
Sure – some things have changed, but for the most part the blues-tinged arrangements complement Dylan’s characterful vocals, and more than five decades after he was derided as Judas for daring to go electric, he’s still unafraid to reinvent himself. Few musicians have earned the right to be described as icons, but Bob Dylan certainly has.