Last night I was on my way to see Bob Dylan in concert in my home town for the first time, at a venue a few hundred yards from where, almost 60 years earlier, my girlfriend and I had listened to Freewheelin’ all the way through, squeezed together in a record-shop listening booth, before buying it, taking it to her parents’ house, and listening to it all the way through again. And then again.
Walking through Nottingham to reach the Motorpoint Arena, as the refurbished ice stadium is now known, I saw a chip shop in the Lace Market, formerly a coffee bar called the Jules et Jim, where three schoolfriends — Ian Taylor, Jeff Minson and I, a sort of Peter, Paul and Peter — had sung “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963. On Stanford Street I passed the site of Dungeon Club, the basement where — at the height of Bobmania in early 1965 — the harmonica player of the R&B group I was then in performed a solo mini-set of Dylan songs that attracted a lot more enthusiasm than our normal Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf repertoire.
It was also in the spring of 1965 that I first saw Dylan in person, at Sheffield’s City Hall on the first date of what would turn out to be his last solo acoustic tour. Since then I’ve seen him as often as I can — many times in London but also in Birmingham, Paris, Rome, New York and Philadelphia. Precious memories include a heart-stopping “It’s Alright, Ma” in Sheffield, a staggering “Like a Rolling Stone” at Earls Court, a blistering thrash-metal “Barbara Allen” at the NEC, a sweet duet on “Dark Eyes” with Patti Smith in Philly, and a gorgeous “Forgetful Heart” at the Albert Hall. In the week leading up the Nottingham concert I saw him twice at the Palladium, giving the first show a five-star review in the Guardian and then enjoying the second one even more.
But when I say that last night in Nottingham felt like the best concert I’ve ever seen from him, I’d ask you to accept that hometown nostalgia had nothing to do with it. Until a surprise right at the end, he played the set I’d heard twice at the Palladium. But in a place at least three times larger, with none of the inherent warmth and intimacy of the historic London theatre, he sang the same songs — nine from Rough and Rowdy Ways, seven older compositions of his own and “That Old Black Magic” — with an intensity and verve that gave them a different kind of life.
His singing was good in London, but in Nottingham it was astounding. Every line was nailed with phrasing that was always adventurous but never eccentric. I don’t think it was a change of emphasis in the sound mix: it was all in the vigour and projection of his delivery. As a result, songs like “Black Rider”, “My Own Version of You”, “Key West” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” had a new confidence and richness, with a heightened sense of tension and release. The arrangements took on a different life, too. The Arlen/Mercer standard was brought off with a crisp panache. The twin surf guitar interludes on “Gotta Serve Somebody” were hair-raising. The three-movement version of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” — first out of tempo, then Latin, then barrelhouse — was a delight. The rearrangements of “To Be Alone With You” and “Every Grain of Sand” glistened.
His piano-playing also seemed better integrated. The upright he’s using on this tour is adjusted to sound high and bright, almost like a tack piano, with a tone so close to that of the two guitars of Doug Lancio and Bob Britt that they’re sometimes indistinguishable. But during both Palladium shows there were moments when he crossed the line from playful to wilful, as if he were trying to lead the songs astray, occasionally sticking a major-key note into a minor-key song, or doing that thing he sometimes used to do on electric guitar of working out a short symmetrical phrase and then stubbornly repeating it over and over again with the chords changing under him. It crossed my mind that he might be trying to turn himself into the Thelonious Monk of folk-rock piano, looking for the notes in the cracks, the notes between the notes. But in Nottingham, with the exception of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way”, there was little of that; instead everything he played was directly relevant to what the band was doing and where the song was heading.
Where the concert was heading was towards the unforgettable moment, after the band had taken their bow, when they returned for the only encore of the tour so far. “I don’t know if many of you know, but Jerry Lee has gone,” Dylan said, “and we’re gonna play this song, one of his. Jerry Lee will live for ever, we all know that.” The song, an exquisite choice, was “I Can’t Seem to Say Goodbye”, a country ballad by Don Robertson, recorded by Lewis in 1963. After one chorus, delivered with quiet elegance, they were gone. But what a memory they left. Maybe even the best of all.