The lights go down. There’s a sense of anticipation that almost crackles in the air. Which Bob Dylan are we going to get tonight?
Will it be good Dylan or bad Dylan? Brilliant Dylan or atrocious Dylan? Over the past four decades I’ve seen them all. I’ve been listening to his music even longer.
The answer comes as the man himself appears in the spotlight and opens the show, as he has every night on this latest leg of his famed Never Ending Tour, with Things Have Changed, his Oscar winner number from the turn of the millennium.
Things certainly have changed as we will discover in an evening that mixes Dylan classics with his American songbook covers.
His voice is stronger than it has been in years, his five piece band is superb and Bob himself seems almost chirpy. I say ‘almost’. He’s as idiosyncratic as ever, performing either from the piano which he plays rather badly or striking attitudes with the microphone stand from the back of the stage. He does an almost imperceptible jig here, a shuffle there and an occasional self-conscious hand on hip pose. He looks like a rather camp gunslinger but the music is amazing and his vocals are masterful.
The growl and yelp of yesteryear seem seriously under control. Songs from across the decades somehow gel in a manner that they have no right to. Duquesne Whistle, Stormy Weather and Tangled up in Blue sit happily side by side. Highway 61 Revisited and Melancholy Mood do not seem strange partners at all.
As for his recent elevation to Nobel Laureate for Literature? Four songs in and he’s already referenced everyone from Ovid and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Duane Eddy and God. He’s very well read, it’s well known.
Intriguingly Dylan’s 2012 album Tempest supplies no fewer than five songs. Great material but there is of course even greater material missing. It’s an argument that could go on for ever. You’ll never please everyone.
For me the most telling moment came during the encores when before closing with a wonderfully faithful to the original Ballad of a Thin Man, Dylan performed a pleasing sounding but ultimately perplexing version of Blowin' in the Wind which he delivered as a jaunty croon-along ditty.
Was he being ironic? Or is it just that things really have changed since he first wrote that song as a 21-year-old making an anguished plea to the world to stop killing and wars?
I suspect that 75-year-old Bob Dylan now knows that his words may have earned him millions but they’ve sadly done little to bring peace to our increasingly unstable world. Blowin' in the Wind is, at the end of the day, just another song.