“This is an old simple love song,” Bob Dylan murmurs softly into his microphone – or at least, that’s what it sounds like. He speaks in a low, quiet, languid tone, all sharp edges and gravel. The cavernous Manchester Evening News Arena seems an odd place for the seventy-year old Minnesotan, a monolithic structure more accustomed to hosting corporate pop shows than septuagenarians. But Dylan is no ordinary folk singer-songwriter; he is arguably the folk singer-songwriter, in addition to being the architect of a canon of songs enshrined in musical history. It’s difficult to think of another individual whose craft possesses such a far-reaching legacy.
Robert Zimmerman, as he is legally known, is making his biannual visit to the UK, as part of the latest leg of his Never Ending Tour (the name of his constant touring cycle since 1988 – tonight’s show is his two-thousand, three-hundred and fifty-eighth performance in twenty-four years). It’s not a solo show either; he is accompanied by former producer Mark Knopfler, perhaps better known as the frontman of eighties rock juggernauts Dire Straits, in the position of co-headliner. On paper, it’s a tantalising double-bill for fans of roots rock, electrified country and folky blues, and there is a clear mutual respect between the two artists, despite never sharing the stage.
|Bob Dylan performs live in Milan in 2011.|
(Courtesy of The Midnight Cafe)
Knopfler hasn’t been idle since the dissolution of his former band in 1995, with six albums to his name and the seventh, Privateering, due imminently. He chooses to eschew the bigger hits in his arsenal, instead settling for a rambunctious seventy-minute Celtic-rock ramble through his solo catalogue. He debuts two new songs – including his upcoming title-track, all sea-faring accordion and rattling acoustic guitars– and otherwise focuses on folk-stomp throwdowns like Why Aye Man and the delicately-strummed gems of Hill Farmer’s Blues. After an elongated rendition of grave-song Marbletown, he makes a concession to Dire Straits to finish, delivering a magnificently haunting Brothers in Arms, all poignant trembles and mournful guitar tones. It’s beautifully atmospheric, shiver-inducing and perfectly executed.
But Dylan is the main attraction, and after a short interval, he shuffles unassumingly onstage and takes up position behind an organ. Illuminated in warm shades of honey yellow, his brimmed hat casting shadows over his face, he looks exquisitely dapper, like the mysterious man at the end of a dive bar who doesn’t really belong there. Joined by a five-piece band, they rattle through a sleazed-up Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat and a jaunty take on old favourite Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, augmented and beefed up on a bed of lap and pedal guitar.
|Bob Dylan performs live at Bluesfest in 2011.|
(Courtesy of Torsten Blackwood)
There are obvious flaws though, and they’re pretty big. Arena sound is a refined art and years of touring theatres and outdoor venues across the world renders Dylan’s mix imperfect in the cavernous bowl. It echoes drearily on the quieter numbers, such as Tangled Up in Blue, and drowns out Dylan on Honest With Me. The latter is arguably a blessing in disguise; withered by time, Dylan’s once elastic whine has been reduced to a hoarse rasp that fails to wrap itself around the vocal lines of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and grizzles through Highway 61 Revisited with a flat, pained growl.
But sometimes it works unexpectedly well. That “old simple love song”, Simple Twist of Fate, sounds more careworn, more resigned, to touching effect under the plaintive imperfections. His band are superb too, in particular guitarist Charlie Sexton, who adds grit to the rolling Thunder on the Mountain. Dylan himself also performs ably; he hammers the keys with a surprising ferocity on set closer Ballad of a Thin Man, and improvises on Like a Rolling Stone, his vocal rising to a howl as he delivers kinetic blasts of organ. In this mode, his deficiencies suddenly don’t matter; he captivates his audience in a burst of animalistic snarling passion. They conclude with a crunching run through All Along the Watchtower, brutally recast in the vein of Hendrix, and with a quick wave, Dylan and band slip off as feedback fades into the background. He may be vocally spent, but The Voice of a Generation is an old dog who can still pull off the odd trick; when he does, it’s thrilling to watch.