Last year Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a feat that surprised even the man himself. “If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I'd have about the same odds as standing on the moon.” he said in his acceptance speech.
The Swedish Academy awarded him the prize for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." And no one can doubt that. He should also be awarded something for his dedication to touring. He recently revisited the UK for some live shows, the latest UK leg (he was last over in 2015) of his so-called Never Ending Tour which began back in 1988 and has seemingly yet to stop.
The live gigs saw him performing from his latest album Triplicate where Dylan reinterpreted 30 songs by American songwriters including Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. He also played some of his back catalogue—and if you’ve ever seen Dylan live in the last 10 years or so, then you’ll know hearing them is an interesting experience.
Dylan live can certainly be an intimate affair, although this year saw him do a stadium tour, but it can also be a jolt to the system if you’re expecting a nostalgic reminisce of old classics. That’s not to say he doesn’t play them, he does, it’s just you probably won’t recognize them as such. Instead Dylan, impish and uncompromising, completely corrupts and changes the songs fans are most familiar with. The melodies are often so-different they are abstract, Cubist even.
The giveaway will be when you notice a lyric you recognize. You’ll catch a certain “They're selling postcards of the hanging / they're painting the passports brown / The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town” and realise you’ll listening to the intro—or some refracted version of it—to “Desolation Row.”
I once saw him launch into a very recognisable version of “Just like a Woman”—and just as the crowd enthusiastically began singing along, Dylan changed the tempo, and suddenly no one was singing, because they couldn’t follow the jangled, fluctuating, garbled rhythm. But I’ve also seen him do a version of “London Calling” at Brixton Academy that had the crowd belting out the lyrics, totally immersed in the moment.
“Many of the classics were there but you may not recognise them.” noted the the Liverpool Echo in their review of his latest Liverpool gig. “Sometimes I feel Bob Dylan concerts should come with health warnings for the uninitiated.” it continued.
His London show, it seems however, was met with greater approval. “He hasn’t sounded better in 20 years.” ran GQ’s headline for their review. “If there were ever a time in the last twenty years to see Bob Dylan live, now is that time.”
Bob Dylan performing at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Photographer Don Hunstein - (This image is available to buy below)
Dylan, at 76 years old, is as contradictory as ever, his live performances it appears differing even from one night to the next. But when it comes to an icon like him, fans wouldn’t want it any other way. Well, OK, maybe the odd classic sung as it was on the album. Just one.
Still, if you’re looking for the Dylan of old, stick with the Bootleg series which provides outtakes, alternate versions, and more. If you’re looking for surprises and the unexpected, the live shows will provide.