Bob Dylan: Vector Arena

By Graham Reid

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The Afghani taxi driver who took me home after the concert had heard of Bob Dylan but asked, "What kind of music does he do?"

Good question.

Before an enthusiastic, capacity crowd - mostly boomers but a conspicuous scattering of twenty/thirtysomethings too - the dapper Dylan (who stayed mostly splay-legged behind keyboards) and his five-piece band cut a wide swathe through the recent history of American popular music.

There was 50s rock'n'roll; wiry rock-blues which recalled his Blonde on Blonde period four decades ago; urgent r'n'b; some swinging country-rock with pedal steel guitar; echoes of 40s jump-jive; romantic ballads...

And for all these styles he reconfigured songs from that vast catalogue (reaching right back to Don't Think Twice It's Alright) in a manner we have come to expect.

For years some bemoaned Dylan overhauling his classic songs, but increasingly it has been clear he doesn't insult his audience by playing what they heard on records all those years, and decades, ago.

Typically he remained emotionally distant and free of forced familiarity (no "Good evening Auckland" from Bob) but what he delivered was rock'n'roll entertainment.

After 100 minutes he came back for an encore and the crowd were up and dancing to Thunder on the Mountain.

Dylan may have lyrics to catch your attention ("you think I'm over hill, you think I'm past my prime"), but he can also offer partytime music ("but we could have an awful good time" he sang, completing the rhyme to rousing cheers).

Dylan's vocal mannerisms today are as easy to parody as his nasal whine of the 60s: he starts a lyric behind the beat then crams staccato words in at the end. It creates a sense of urgency in some songs, but isn't always successful.

Tangled Up In Blue sacrificed narrative emphasis and nuance for this mannered delivery, and Most Likely You Go Your Way possessed neither venom nor compassion as the lyrics allow. Dylan felt as removed from those, and a few others, as he did from the audience.

But at his best he still makes music which is compelling.

Standouts were numerous: a menacing Things Have Changed ("I used to care, but..."); a sensitive When the Deal Goes Down; the bruising blues of Rollin' And Tumblin'; an aching Nettie Moore; a very different Highway 61; a clearly articulated Masters of War; All Along the Watchtower which owed little to the Hendrix version which he has often faithfully acknowledged... All thrilling.

At 66, the rapier-thin Bob Dylan looked faltering in his movements, but the music he and the band made, that gravely voice and those singular lyrics are timeless.

Now it's on to the Civic Theatre on August 26 and 27 - and doubtless different setlists again.

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