Bob Dylan @ ICC Theatre, Sydney 18th August 2018
There’s a dire warning before Bob Dylan takes the stage at the ICC Theatre – “filming and photography will not be tolerated, please turn off your electronic devices”. It’s a sign that Dylan is either still extremely protective of his image and his art or those newfangled contraptions (phones) are a blight on the concert experience, for him as a performer. Regardless, it is a novel two hours spent without the customary sea of white screens popping up between you and the stage.
To the sound of a single guitar, Dylan and long-serving cohorts stride on stage, resplendent in their matching suits, and take their positions – their leader behind a black grand piano. He barely ventures out from behind it for the rest of the night, other than to give stylistic directions or make a call to go to a different song.
Dylan is now settled into a regular setlist that gently morphs and changes from night to night, an old gem here, a re-introduced classic there. It’s a finely-tuned two hour show and covers half a century of music. The sole failing of the night is immediately apparent with the head-scratching sound mix. Virtually no warm, bottom end in the rhythm section and the guitar and piano all sounding brittle and sharp. The drum sound is straight out of a mid-80s Dire Straits-inhabited super studio, all gated reverb and no subtlety of tone. When bassist Tony Garnier switches to upright bass it improves, and when George Receli picks up his brushes, that too is much easier on the ears. It quickly becomes apparent that it isn’t going to change, maybe that is the sound that Bob is hearing for his music right now, surely it can’t be a side effect of the new theatre, given its state of the art fit-out. Regardless the band still play brilliantly and Dylan still clearly has the fire of live performance still burning bright.
Virtually all the songs were given fascinating twists and re-workings over their recorded versions. Any real Dylan fan would know that is a given with his live shows. Most worked but some fell flat. It Ain’t Me Babe failed to gain traction while Tryin’ To Get to Heaven, which hangs on that line in its chorus, felt wholly underserved. Tangled Up In Blue was another that strayed too far from the dynamic and melodic wonder of the version we all know. When it did work the songs felt revitalised and hypnotic. Desolation Row, a dark and moody reggae version of Love Sick, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, complete with a thrilling musical outro reminiscent of the Kinks, Gotta Serve Somebody, now stripped of its gospel flavour, and a groove-heavy dig into Ballad Of A Thin Man. They were all highlights with Dylan exploring the songs, playing with his phrasing and the band following his piano cues, tousled nods of the head and changes of stance from seated to standing, with legs planted wide. It was in those moments where Dylan’s voice sounded strongest and more urgent, and at times, as on Don’t Think Twice… effortless and melancholic as his voice hit sweet romantic high notes.
Tracks from his recent Sinatra-centric albums were nowhere to be seen, instead it was a cross section of songs, both popular and deep cuts from classic 60’s records and latter-day landmarks such as Time Out Of Mind. Blowin’ In the Wind appeared in the encore with a wonderful violin intro, reminding us of the timeless relevance of much of Dylan’s work. It capped off a night that was at times technically frustrating but at its core showed the mesmerising brilliance of the master who primarily serves his songs and his own restless creativity. He knows that a large portion of his audience will follow him for the ride yet he still offers tantalising glimpses of the recorded versions for those who prefer their musical history untainted.