Bob Dylan at Zitadelle Spandau, Berlin
By Sascha Krieger
Bob Dylan concerts are a little like Forrest Gump’s famous box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. On a bad day, he burns his timeless songs at the stake, on a good one, he turns them into something new, fresh, exciting. Recently, during the latest phases of what has been dubbed the Never-Ending Tour, his almost constant being on the road since 1988, the really good days have become rarer. His efforts have tended to be more and more of a routine kind, the singing little more than a bad-tempered bark, the setlists less and less varying and surprising. In short, Bob Dylan has become something he has never been: predictable. Now the best antidote to boredom and routine is change. Ten years ago, he invigorated his live shows by introducing a keyboard and largely abandoning the guitar. Now a new instrument has appeared on stage, a new toy. a grand piano. And would you believe it: it has done the job again! Dylan’s show in Berlin has opened yet another chapter in the only thing constant about the man: permanent change.
There is no opening music anymore, no ironic introduction, no mock-heroic entry. Just a few grey-clad figures walking on stage. Among them Dylan, hat-less and wearing large sunglasses, a throwback into the 1990s. Later, the glasses go and the hat comes back on and we return to the present. The old chameleon is alive and well. The evening does not start very exciting: a lacklustre Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat and a passing trifle that is It Ain’t Me, Babe indicate what priority the old songs have for Dylan these days. They are part of an older self, an afterthought, strangers he himself hardly recognizes.
But then the first transformation happens: Dylan moves center stage, a harp in one, the microphone in the other hand. Enter Dylan the storyteller, the MC of his own strange tales of love and loss. Suddenly, the voice becomes expressive, the rasping bark versatile and full of nuances, the way of singing dramatic. He tells his tales with the voice , his hands, and even a little move here and there in his hip and legs. Things Have Changed is a dry farewell to love, Tangled Up in Blue a colorful fairytale, Cry A While a severe dressing down. Only the older She Belongs to Me drifts off again into the routine and meaningless.
Enter Dylan, the piano player. For Love Sick, that bitter trial and sentencing of the illusion hat love has always been in his songs, he sits down at the piano and hardly leaves it again. And where his keyboard playing was hardly existing, his harp just a little flourish, his guitar play as erratic at ever, he suddenly discovers rhythm and melody. His piano structures the songs and comments them, it accentuates and contradicts where his solid but largely uninspriring band play their usual mixture of rockabilly, country and blues. Gone are the days when George Recile’s drums could pierce the night or when Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell formed an almost diabolically great guitar duo. Recile is still there and Sexton is back but both are on very short leashes these days.
But there is still Dylan’s piano. It is the newer, more up tempo songs like The Levee’s Gonna Break or Thunder on the Mountain that see Dylan at his best. His piano drives them along, with a strong rhythmic force and distinctive, memorable lines. He is the band leader, he sets the tone. These songs are perfect country rock while High Water crosses the line into the blues. Dylan is at home there, too, his voice having long surpassed the old blues men he admires so much. With the added piano, he even finds something in the old gems, whether it is the relaxed rock and roll of Highway 61, the staccato, almost rap-like vocals in Desolation Row or the dark ghostliness of Ballad of a Thin Man. The songs may be hardly recognizable and they may not be better than the originals but they are certainly not stale.
Dylan closes the show with three old favourites and in them exhibits a relaxed attitudes toward his „hits“ that serves them well. The old anger is gone, the need to signify something, too, now it is all about playing a song and telling a story. So Like a Rolling Stone floats along pleasantly, All Along the Watchtower is good-humored rockabilly and Blowin‘ in the Wind swinging country without a hint of its old sting. The man who never wanted to be a prophet has found his peace with his songs of prophecy but he has not lost his urge to go on changing. The chameleon is still here and these days, he is what he once, 50 years ago, claimed to be: a song and dance man.