Dylan still creates magic on stage

GREAT WITH GRASPING GROWL: Bob Dylan.
GREAT WITH GRASPING GROWL: Bob Dylan.

Some complained that they could not see him. Others missed his guitar work. A few who came ill-prepared, ignorant of Bob Dylan's 21st century output, may even have been dismayed at the unfamiliarity of the material.

For the true fan though and those who were there last Saturday at Hamilton's Claudelands Event Centre, mindful that this was a 73-year-old man rather than any earlier incarnation of the living legend, the concert was a dream come true.

Not since Louis Armstrong graced the then new Founders theatre 51 years ago has Hamilton hosted such an international act as Bob Dylan. For the vast majority this was an event to remember.

If the purposely dim lighting was an understandable concession to vanity and if the fact Dylan left the playing of the guitar to others perhaps points to a lessening of either ability or confidence in that area, in all other respects the performance was one of a vital and still relevant artist. Whether standing at the microphone, taking aggressive harmonica breaks or seated at the piano, he was every inch the star.

Dylan's distinctive wail - sometimes a whisper, sometimes a growl - filled the room, making a mockery of the man's age as well as answering any questions about the venue's acoustics. It was a gig where lyrics could be heard and where he who was singing them was in a mood to deliver. Direct crowd interaction was limited to a brief "thank you" before intermission but Dylan's body language was unexpectedly sprightly and he played like he wanted to be there.

Six of the 19 songs came from Tempest, his latest album. Easily the most tuneful of these was the album's opening track, Duquesne Whistle, though as played it has already evidently evolved.

A further five numbers dated from between 2000 and 2009, beginning with Things Have Changed, Dylan's Oscar winning single from the soundtrack of the film Wonder Boys.

The balance represented an eclectic sampling of the world's greatest back catalogue, from a beautiful, piano-based reinterpretation of Blowin' in the Wind as encore to a heartfelt What Good Am I? that was remarkably close to the original version from the very fine 1980s album Oh Mercy. You could say the same of Love Sick, the number which initiated Dylan's late century renaissance a decade later. Time might have weathered what was always an unconventional, idiosyncratic voice but whenever Dylan's goal is to replicate a song live as he recorded it he gets closer than most critics would concede.

For me the high points were two songs from the masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. Neither Tangled Up in Blue nor Simple Twist of Fate sounded much like they did on vinyl in 1975 - for some in the audience it took a couple of verses before they recognised what was being played - but the harmonica work was nonetheless moving and the lyrics retain their power.

To hear the master cut loose on his trademark instrument was the purest joy. Judging by the crowd roars, I wasn't the only one feeling the magic, either.

It was a week for 1960s artists to reassert themselves. The day after the Dylan concert I watched a performance by the surviving members of Monty Python, a recording of the legendary comedy group's last ever show, performed live on July 20.

Considering that John Cleese is in his 75th year and at 73 Michael Palin is the youngest member of the troupe, the Pythons do a most credible job delivering material that in some cases dates back 4 decades.

Cleese hasn't quite the lung power of old and there was never any suggestion that he could revive the classic Ministry of Silly Walks skit but both he and the others have lost none of their comic timing and the routines are still funny.

Eric Idle is in particularly good voice, reviving and in one memorable instance updating those underrated songs from The Meaning of Life before leading a collective chorus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by way of poignant if predictable encore.

Put in the impossible position of having to decide between writing new material and giving the hardcore fans what they wanted, the Pythons err on the side of greatest hits.

Happily, it is an option that Bob Dylan continues to resist. On the strength of Saturday's performance there's plenty of gas left in the Zimmerman tank.

Manawatu Standard