Dylan at the Albert Hall
On the way in to the Albert Hall tonight, I told a friend that, what with the inconsistent quality of his recent tours and the cost of tickets on the grey market, this might be the last time I would be seeing Bob Dylan live. The first half didn’t do a great deal to change my mind. It had its moments, most of them when Dylan was not at the piano, where his erratic contribution seemed to muddy and confuse the ensemble sound. A brusque “Things Have Changed” gave the evening a challenging statement to start with, and “Pay in Blood” and “Love Sick” seethed with a sullen power, but “Duquesne Whistle” was a bit of a mess and a metrically refracted version of “Tangled Up in Blue” wasn’t exactly a treat. After the interval, however, the lights seemed to come on — the lights inside the music, that is, since the highly effective low-level stage illumination seldom varied.
The band found its range straight away on “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, Dylan delivered a rather beautiful “Simple Twist of Fate”, he growled effectively through “Early Roman Kings”, and then came the moment I’ll treasure. Everything came into focus on “Forgetful Heart”, the lovely ballad he wrote with Robert Hunter for Together Through Life: his voice, the band (with the brilliant Donny Herron on violin) at their gentlest and most discreetly responsive, the melody, the lyric, the restrained harmonica-playing. I’ve been going to see him in concert since 1965, and for me this ranked with “It’s Alright, Ma” from that year at Sheffield City Hall, “Like a Rolling Stone” at Earl’s Court in 1978 and “Barbara Allen” at the NEC in 1989.
“Scarlet Town” was almost as good, another example of the marvellously warm and alert support given to him by Charlie Sexton (lead guitar), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), Tony Garnier (bass), George Recile (drums) and Herron on pedal steel and rhythm guitars, mandolin and banjo as well as fiddle. At these moments you could hear the sound Dylan is after nowadays: a wonderfully flexible blend of bluegrass, Western swing and Chicago R&B. And it was a treat to watch the musicians catching each others’ eyes as they tried to predict the dynamic shifts and unpredictable endings, mostly with success. And by this time, too, his piano-playing had sorted itself out.
There were seven songs from Tempest included in the set list, and Dylan delivered them with such a persuasive sense of an engagement in his own creative present that if I didn’t have it already, I’d be out buying it this morning. “Roll On, John”, not a song I’d previously cared for much, turned out to make a perfect finale. So probably not the end of the affair, then.