The legendary Bob Dylan, and his band, return to the O2 Apollo in Manchester for an evening in-support of his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. Jack Cinnamond reports.
It’s been several years since the legendary Nobel Prize winning icon Bob Dylan toured the UK, and it was a time-and-place much different than today.
Dylan is currently supporting his 39th record Rough and Rowdy Ways, a magnificent record that has found Dylan in a very idealistic place.
During his last jolt over the pond in 2017, Dylan frequented some Arenas, an odd setting for the poet, but for this evening, he returns to the 2000-capacity O2 Apollo, a perfect space.
The air in the room beforehand is quite infectious, in the row ahead of mine, there is an older woman chatting aloud about how she has been to each and every UK show on this tour, coming from the States for it.
Behind it’s a similar story, a gentleman who stopped by the O2 Apollo on his way from the States to Qatar, simply because he wished to see Bob Dylan in such a city. Around the venue, there’s people of all-ages, and likewise, so many hats.
The house lights are bright beforehand, no music or any signs of life on-stage, no support act, it’s building the atmosphere that something special may happen shortly, and then at some point after 8pm, the house lights finally drop, pitting the stage in darkness.
The band enters, followed by Dylan who finds his place just behind the piano center stage, playing a short warm-up jam, before sliding into “Watching the River Flow“.
For the longest time now, Dylan has found himself in a strange place musically, often drifting off his own work and even releasing cover albums of artists he likes. It’s been more than twenty years since he released an original album that was worth something, and even Dylan seems to agree.
However, Rough and Rowdy Ways feels different, it feels as-if the man himself is proud of the work, the nature of it all, he’s often thrown away almost any hints of his “hits” for his live shows, but for the first time in a long time, it feels more than fine.
“Watching the River Flow” feels like the perfect opening song, sparking thought to the original meaning over 50 years later, originally intended by Dylan to show his desire for something new, a perfect connection for this tour housing works that feels rewarding to play.
He quickly follows with the Blonde on Blonde cut “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine“, stretching back into his catalogue.
The stage is simple, surrounded by a gold dropped curtain, and floor lights illuminating the band, it’s just about right, there’s nothing extraordinary about his showmanship this evening, but the simplistic “stage-to-black after each song” setting feels classic.
Shortly after giving the adoring crowd some backlog, finally, he follows into scenes from Rough and Rowdy Ways, with “I Contain Multitudes“, the album’s opening track.
“I Contain Multitudes” is nothing short of remarkable, and in live form, it’s almost ethereal in parts. It’s a classic Dylan track, sprawling with references and personal questions, in the Apollo, it feels like a personal moment.
He follows it up with “False Prophet“, and “When I Paint My Masterpiece“, the former of which feels like a personal account, with Dylan warbling behind his piano, noting his touring as “searching for the Holy Grail”, as he often has done before, all tied together by his band’s tightly rendering Billy “The Kid” Emerson‘s “If Lovin’ is Believing” with such punching effort.
Meanwhile, the latter, a fabulous song that Dylan wrote for The Band, echoes the same time and essence of his stance on reinvention as the night’s opener “Watching the River Flow” did, as they should, both being Leon Russell-produced tracks from the same sessions.
“Black Rider” slowly flees in next, with the band patienly and softly strumming behind Dylan‘s hauntingly aching tale of chasing death, with his utterence ending that harks back to “Duncan & Brady” before the lights go out once again.
Dylan‘s next foray is an excursion back to his acclaimed 1967 album John Wesley Harding, the only one of the evening, as his band blatters into “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight“, which once registered by the Apollo audience, is followed by several exclaiming cheers.
“My Own Version of You“, and “Crossing the Rubicon“, both of Rowdy Ways follow shortly, and are joined by his rumbling “To Be Alone with You“, a Nashville Skyline track that lovingly returned to Dylan‘s live outings on this tour after several years on the shelf.
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” makes an appearance next, and drifts the audience into the space in-which the song lives, brimming with the unique referential storytelling that Bob Dylan does better than anyone.
The narrator of the song lives through Dylan, with the uncanny feeling as if the story is being told live to you, a special moment of the evening, with the storyteller talking of this divine space, Key West, a sequel of sorts to Dylan‘s 1997-song “Highlands“, his to-this-day, second longest song as an artist, only triumphed by Rough and Rowdy Ways ender “Murder Most Foul“, the only album track that doesn’t appear this evening, nor has it actually ever been performed by Dylan, and likely won’t.
“Gotta Serve Somebody” comes waltzing in next, as Dylan‘s band continues to glide through with effortless brilliance.
“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You“, and Johnny Mercer‘s “That Old Black Magic” take their places next, followed by the final showings of Rowdy Ways for the evening, with his meditative folk effort “Mother of Muses“, and his shuffling finale “Goodbye Jimmy Reed“, a rowdy tribute to the late blues guitarist of-name.
After the dust is settled, the band strikes into a waltzing rendition of 1981’s Shot of Love‘s standout, “Every Grain of Sand“, which finds Dylan‘s voice echoing around the Apollo for the final time.
If you’re aware of the number, you would be anxiously enraptured for the final verse, as Dylan signs off with the lyrics, “like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand” before, for the only time tonight, Dylan picks-up his euphoric harmonica to deliver the final blow in what has been a tremendous evening.
The crowd stands and applauses, never-ending as it seems, as Dylan bows with his band and walks off, only to return a few moments later, a smile on his face, to take it all in one more time. It’s been sixty-odd years since the infamous “Judas” concert at the Free Trade Hall, and times have changed, instead Dylan is treated to nothing but admiration.
There’s a lot of chatter around Bob Dylan‘s live performances in the modern day, and his lack of playing the hits, although there is an argument to say that he never really has, and furthermore, after 60 years and over 600 songs tracked through his catalogue, Dylan has the right to be bored and selective.
So hopefully, if you’re understanding that hearing “The Times They Are A-Changin‘”, “All Along the Watchtower“, or “Mr. Tambourine Man” is an extreme long shot, you’re in for a terrific, rich show.
Bob Dylan is a mythical figure in the annals of music history, and continues to do what others seemingly don’t, craft a staggeringly magnificent performance while divulging primarily his most recent work, and for a man who is 81-years-old, he hasn’t lost a goddamn step.
Words by Jack Cinnamond.