Bob Dylan plays the first of three concerts in Berlin
By Sascha Krieger
One must assume that the pool has gone dry. The „Dylan Pool“ that is, a favorite pastime of Bob Dylan fans from all over the world, competing with each other on who can best predict his set list throughout a tour as well as for individual concerts. Playing it these days must be a rather boring affair: Bob Dylan, the master of the unpredictable, the moody troubadour with whom you never knew what you were going to get on any given night, seems to have joined the ranks of those well-oiled musical machines who play exactly the same songs in exactly the same order night after night, well-rehearsed but without any surprised. Currently touring Europe, Dylan has now extended his stretch of consecutive identical shows to six – and an end is not in sight. Has Dylan’s live act therefore been stifled in pure routine, become another mechanical touring act aimed at pleasing audiences with minimal effort and even less artistic ambition? Far from it, in fact, Dylan’s latest incarnation – or should one say re-invention? – as a live performer my well be producing his best and musically most exciting performances in a long time.
For the price of more predictability and less to no surprises has been paid to achieve something Dylan’s live shows have often lacked: musical intensity and consistency. Unlike the somewhat eclectic and often uneven efforts of the 1990s and 2000s, Bob Dylan’s music today has a clearly definable character: a strong symbiosis of country and blues rock, with elements of rockabilly, jazz and folk merging with it in an effortless and logical way. So when he takes the stage for the first of three straight shows in Berlin’s comparably intimate Tempodrom, it soon becomes clear, that the heartbeat of this music is set by drummer George Recile: his stomping drum work lays the foundation and defines the pulse of this dense, earthy, pounding music that has a strong blues core from the first to the very last note. Recile has been Dylan’s drummer since 2002, the entire band has spend a minimum of eight years on the road with Dylan – bassist Tony Garnier has been there since 1989 – in this precise lineup they have almost 300 concerts under their belts.
Now provided with a stable set list, this familiarity finally shows. The arrangement have become much more complex, there is more musical consistency and density, indeed more substance, in them, the sloppiness of earlier days is gone. Whereas in the past, Dylan seemed to have made them up as he went – and fairly often actually did so – his renditions are now well considered, almost definitive interpretations of his songs. This is quite obvious for the more familiar songs in his set list: She Belongs to Me is now a tight, soulful blues ballad, Tangled Up in Blue a hard-nosed folk rock ballad that rambles still but meanders no more, Simple Twist of Fate has a hard and edgy earthiness it has never possessed, Love Sick has been reduced to pre, bluesy staccato while his Oscar winning Things Have Changed is now a lively country rock number, as is the ever-changing All Along the Watchtower.
Another thing is characteristic of Dylan’s current performances: Whereas, in the past, he has mixed material from different periods of his career, the focus now is clearly on recent material: six songs are from his 2012 album Tempest, overall twelve of the 19 songs on the set list have been released since 2000, only a single song on the regular set list – plus the two encores – is from the famed 1960s. Bob Dylan is very much still a creating – and creative artist – a musician who lives and works here and now. So it is no surprised that the newer material is among the strongest: this goes especially for the rougher, rockier tunes such as the almost violent Pay in Blood or the pure blues rock of Early Roman Kings. Duquesne Whistle has an almost effortless drive, while the dreamily floating ballads Forgetful Heart and Soon after Midnight, but also the starkly balladesque Scarlet Town provide several highly poetic and at times even haunting moments.
And Dylan? He moves back and forth between singing center stage and performing behind the grand piano, his current – and surprisingly ably played – instrument of choice. No more is his playing on the edge of funny or even embarrassing, as an instrumentalist, he has become a key element of the band’s sound. His singing has improved again: his raspy voice is at its most expressive, he uses it to practically sculpt songs, his monotonous bark has given way to a surprisingly versatile voice full of nuances that show particularly on the newer material. Far from just shouting out the lyrics, he fills the words with meaning, has returned to being the story teller he used to be – although with a very different feel, he has almost turned into his own version of one of those old-time blues man he admires so much. He still doesn’t smile or show emotion in his face, but it’s all there: in the singing, the playing, the music. And who knows: during the next two shows, he might surprise us after all?