At 75, most would start thinking about a pension, an allotment, and one of those chairs you get in and out of with a remote control. Even for a musician, it seems an advanced age to be lugging guitars through airports, sleeping in and out of a tourbus, and readjusting your watch to a new time-zone every week. And while I doubt the illustrious Bob Dylan sleeps on a tour bus (or carries his own guitars, I may be wrong), the hat-wearing veteran rocker’s commitment and desire to bring music to his audiences, puts those half his age to shame. This year, for the first time on his (literally) Never Ending Tour since October 2011, Bob Dylan visited the Bournemouth International Centre.
Dylan’s latest album, Triplicate, a triple-CD epic of popular covers from the Great American Songbook, was released on March 31. While most artists tour simply to promote their latest album, the pop culture icon has been touring almost non-stop since 1988, and shows no signs of letting up. This latest UK leg saw him back in the Windsor Hall of the BIC on May 4, with a five-piece backing band of musicians who are clearly well-rehearsed and in-tune, as hardly a note goes awry all night. Dylan and co saunter onstage at around 8 o’clock, Bob bringing up the rear, a nondescript figure under a white brimmed hat, and takes his place behind a smaller-than-grand piano. Familiar tour opener “Things Have Changed” gets everybody warmed up.
Perhaps best known for wielding a guitar, acoustic or electric, it may come as a surprise to the crowd that Dylan spends most of the night behind a piano, moving casually toward the middle of the stage to grip an over-tall mic stand during the numbers where he’s accompanied by brushed snare drum washes and echoed slide guitar. The two Frank Sinatra covers – “Melancholy Mood” and “All or Nothing At All” – are, like all of tonight’s songs, met with rapturous applause, but it’s the old classics which get the warmest reception. Pockets of applause erupt throughout the hall at the beginning of songs like “Tangled Up In Blue” from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, and a tasteful rearrangement of “Blowin’ In the Wind” from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
The crowd themselves are distinctly mature. This isn’t uncommon for Bournemouth, but most in attendance look as if they were around for Dylan’s folk renaissance in the 1960s, and I got a few funny looks for being among the small contingent of attendees under 30. Time may have lowered Dylan’s voice considerably, and while he was never much of a physical dynamo onstage, it’s clear that he and his band are happy to let the music move and speak for itself. The set design is gorgeous, yellow spotlights creating a noticeably vintage sense of class to the proceedings, and while photography is forbidden, that doesn’t stop a number of people, unprepared to avoid capturing their hero on film. Most peculiar was the Stratocaster positioned in front of the drumkit, probably set up just in case Dylan felt like having a strum – he didn’t, but guitarists Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton do a stellar job, as well as Donnie Herron on the pedal steel, Tony Garnier on bass, and George Receli on drums.
Judging by the atmosphere, and post-show murmurs, it’s clear that many in the crowd were happy to disregard Bob’s latest phase, and longed for a setlist of songs from pre-1968. Perhaps it’s not unreasonable to claim that Bob’s weathered, dry vocalisation doesn’t completely lend itself to the kind of songs once brought to life by Sinatra, King Cole, etc., but every part of tonight’s show is executed with strict professionalism, and it’s clear by the way Dylan enthusiastically works the mic stand that he’s enjoying himself. A few more self-penned numbers by the first songwriter ever to receive a Nobel Prize might not have gone amiss, but 21 songs in, it’d be almost impossible to deny the setlist’s variety and panache, ending with a note-perfect rendition of 1965’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”.
I’d love to be able to conclude by saying it’s a rare honour to see someone who, centuries from now, will be remembered as among the most influential artists in popular music. However, considering the great man’s worth ethic, I wouldn’t doubt that we could see him back here again in a few years. The man hailed by Rolling Stone as the Greatest Songwriter of all Time certainly doesn’t look like he’s about to hang up the hat.
Josh Will Eden