Friday, May 8, 2009

Magic In The Night

On Wednesday night, in Dublin's O2 Arena, Bob Dylan finished the latest leg of his 'neverending' tour with a performance ridiculous in its sublimity. Too lavish a buttering of praise? Well, not to these eyes and ears. Not to this heart.
I have learned over the years that the things you see from ten feet away really make all the difference. You catch it all from here, the nuances in phrasing, the lowdown smirks, the wandering one-legged dance steps. Everything. Others understand this too, others who bother to get in line six hours before the kick off just so that they can snag the best position, right on the rail, front and centre (or preferably, a few feet to the right of centre). It is like perching on the edge of a tornado, static intensity comes at you in waves, and all you can do is hold on for dear life.
Ten feet away on Wednesday night, and there was Bob, cringing and smirking his way through a stomping set, decked out in dapper black and yellow and looking like some outlaw stray from a flea bitten cowboy flick. Doing it his way. And the converted lapped it up.
He hit the ground at a fast canter, a Wicked Messenger indeed, and sustained the intensity through eighteen songs and two and a quarter hours, all the way through to the spun-gold
harmonica solo to close out a savagely mutated Blowin' In The Wind that was inspired in its reinvention. All the way through, his singing was right there, on the money, and he toyed with the phrasing as if every utterance was a game of Blind Man's Bluff. Highlights? How about a gentle guitar-performed Girl From The North Country, or a brooding Man In The Long Black Coat? How about a word-perfect and meticulously enunciated Desolation Row, Bob's facial expressions pantomiming every line, or a banjo-laden Blind Willie McTell, or the nastiest, angriest Ballad Of A Thin Man that you are ever likely to hear? And if that is not enough, how about a song from the new album, the Midnight Special-esque 'If You Ever Go To Houston', perfromed for the second night in a row and for the second time ever?
The hand grenade for me, though, was a mammoth rendition of that often-creaking old warhorse, Highway 61 Revisited. Based around a stomping blues riff that churned the band to a frenzy, Bob pushed for more and more and always always more, until finally you could feel the music in your bones, churning your marrow to mud. On and on it came, until Bob was no longer just a tornado now but a black hole. He had cast his spell, struck up a wild vortex, and was sucking in everything in sight and beyond. And then, just as the song neared its crescendo, a bar or two from the end, he stepped away from his keyboard, turned his back on the dumbstruck band and raised his chin in a high profile pose. The moment froze solid, for me and perhaps for everyone, and I believe in magic now.
So much happened that night, so much to savour, but my overwhelming and enduring memory will be the way he held that pose, while the band stormed along behind, proud face raised, the famous Oscar glinting before him from the stinging footlight sheen. The noise closed in from everywhere, the band a runaway train now, the audience applause tumultuous, and then, with comical absurdity, Bob reaches up and pats the back of his hair.
If Dylan still throws down gauntlets these days, then this could have been just such a moment. Let them all come, he might have been saying. And let them even dare to try rocking half as hard as that. Tonight, Highway 61 Revisited was nuclear blues. Everything was tight, everything impossibly right. It doesn't get any better than that. And throughout the entire show, not a word was wasted, not a single word even uttered, in fact. No pandering here, no 'Hello Dublin', no between song thank yous, not even a band introduction. If there was any concession to, or even acknowledgement of, the audience, then it was to be found in that one peculiar moment of posing, and then, at the very end, a quick line-up with the band, before they traipsed off to go their separate ways, another leg of the tour ended, another job done, and done well. Tonight, the songs were left to do the talking, and really, isn't that just as it should be?

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