- 08 Nov 22
The Last Of The Best
On The Road. On The Road Again. The Road Goes On Forever, but we’re all headed for the same place.
Once Dylan gets his hooks into you, you’re his for life. So much so that’ll you’ll excuse every Self Portrait or Down In The Groove or Under The Red Sky because there’s probably a New Morning or an Oh Mercy or a Time Out Of Mind just over the horizon. He’s just there, he’s Bob Dylan. You also willingly sit for a hand with the roving gambler when he comes to your town and lay your money down. We’ve all been disappointed with the dealt cards on occasion, those nights when Dylan seemed intent on butchering his own songs for reasons known only to himself, nights when the faithful make excuses. ‘That’s Bob!” Ours is not to reason why. It is hard to get over the fact that you’re in a room with Bob Dylan, but that’s not enough, surely?
There's been a purple patch recently. Rough And Rowdy Ways is his best album since Love And Theft, his new book, while offering about as much insight as one might reasonably expect, is entertaining, and he’s received some of the best live reviews of his life, although I haven’t been allowed to read them. I can’t remember people being this excited about an Irish Dylan gig since… well, not since I first saw him, in this very building, back in 1991. I met Brian Lally in the hallway last week. He described the English concerts he’d been at with the light in his eyes of the saved.
There’s a real electricity in the air. Seats are taken early once people have escaped the wild wind and rain and put their phones in the magnetic bags. “What time is it?” Nobody knows. Devices are inaccessible. Do this at every gig. More excitement. My seat number doesn’t exist! Fuck! I check with the staff. They call a supervisor. The seats have been numbered incorrectly. Jesus. Don’t do that to me.
The lights go down around eight to a ghost of electricity howl. There’s a fanfare of tangled guitars before the band fall into the loose-legged groove of ‘Watching The River Flow’, a stand-alone single recorded with Leon Russell – a man who’ll be mentioned again – back in 1971 when Bob was looking for a new sound. There’s some razor-wire guitar as the crowd strain to see Dylan, seated as he is behind his upright piano. The voice is ragged and rough, it's been lived in, it’s been kicked around some, but he knows what he’s doing with it. “If I had wings and I could fly, I know where I would go, but right now I’ll just sit here contentedly and watch the river flow.” It takes that familiar descending chord sequence of the chorus to recognise ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’ with Dylan’s hipster – when that word still carried some cachet – whisper declaring “I just can’t do what I’ve done before” and leaving a hanging pause between “you go your way” and “I’ll go mine”. Charley Drayton’s drums drop back as we hear about the judge who holds a grudge and Dylan plays with the melody around “you”. The band pile back in before it shuffles to a halt.
I’ve already said that Rough And Rowdy Ways is a great record. How Dylan must have laughed when the near seventeen minutes of ‘Murder Most Foul’ became his first song to top a Billboard charts. When the gentle opening of ‘I Contain Multitudes’ whispers out around the arena with Tony Garnier bowing his double bass, a theory about the setlist begins to pull at you sleeve. It’s still forming. We’ll come back to it. “The flowers are dying, like all things do.” “Tell me what’s next, what shall we do?” “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” Dylan, standing behind the upright now, essays a rickety, rundown saloon piano solo at the song’s end. The band might know the running order – for a change – but all eyes are still on the boss for the turns, alert to his unique approach to metre and such like.
The ghost of Jimmy Reed, who we’ll say goodbye to later, is there in ‘False Prophet’, as guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio dance around each other, straining at their leashes. “I’m the first among equals,” Dylan claims. “Second to none, the last of the best.” This is no idle boast but “I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life” is the better line. People are out of their seats when Dylan steps from behind his piano to stare us down, resplendent in his western suit. That’s Bob Dylan. We’re in the room with him.
Donnie Herron’s violin and an acoustic guitar bring us into ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ which bounces on Garnier’s bass and several seventh chords. “I ain’t gonna talk to NOBODY until I paint that masterpiece.” Another piano solo, it sounds like it's falling down a stairs after a few too many. The song collapses to a halt.
Who is the Black Rider? Is it death that stalks us? Remember, we’re all headed for the same place. Is it the same Black Rider that offers Wilhelm the magic bullets in Tom Waits and William Burroughs’ collaboration, based on the old German folktale Der Freischutz? How about Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ or Elvis’s? “When a man see’s his black star, he knows his time has come.” Or is it Dylan himself? “Black Rider, you’ve been living too hard… You’ve seen it all… I’m walking away, you try to make me look back. My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way” It’s a powerful performance – Drayton plays his cymbals with what look like small chains, Herron abuses his electric mandolin, and Dylan’s voice is the perfect tormented moan of a man being chased down by life, a life that’s been going on “too lo-on-ong.”
Brushed drums, a descending bass line, and Dylan goes grave robbing to get the parts to create his Pacino Brando Robot commando, as tough a son of bitch as those in the army he promised to raise back in ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ in 2006. This great band do bluesy stops and starts as Dylan promises his creation will be able to play piano like Liberace and Leon Russell. If he delivers, he should offer his creation a job because his own piano arpeggios at the song’s end sound like a nervous teenager trying to get through a recital, but there's an undeniable charm to it.
That same piano gropes around the start of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, looking for the beat until the band put him straight before they go one better and shift into some sort of fifties/voodoo/From Dusk Til Dawn groove which sounds fantastic but the chief’s tinkling trills are still there so eventually the band, possibly remembering who signs the cheques, give in, change the tempo back down, and the train pulls into the station, nearly on time.
More Jimmy Reedisms for a great ‘Crossing The Rubicon’ with brief snatches of cacophony as the guitars stab and dance. “How much longer can it last? How long can it go on?” “The killing frost is on the ground. And The Autumn leaves are gone. I lit the torch, I looked to the east, And I crossed the Rubicon.” Another staggering, almost unsure intro – of which there are many – is rescued by a sure-footed acoustic guitar for ‘To Be Alone With You’. The violin deftly solos, following Dylan’s piano as it goes where it will.
It's whispering in my ear. I can’t ignore it anymore. Is this setlist, the same one he played up and down Britain before he got here and the first time in a long time - if ever - that he’s stuck to some sort of script, Dylan finally bowing out? They’re selling t-shirts in the foyer, just to the left of the postcards of the hanging. They list the tour as extending to 2024. This seems optimistic or at least it seems unlikely he'll be back this way again. Dylan looks good but Dylan is eighty-one. There’s no way around that. We’re all headed for the same place. No one's more aware of this than him. He's put his affairs in order, sold his catalogue so the family will be looked after, and the bootleg series continues apace, presenting his complete work the way he wants it. The time is coming to just watch the river flow, for him to go his way while we go ours, the flowers are dying like all things do and it'll come for the last of the best of us too, the Black Rider eventually calls on us all and we'll have to cross that bridge over the Rubicon, the point of no return.
Too much? Key West is in Florida, the retirement capital of America, God's waiting room. "Going down slow." "Key West is on the horizon line, the place to be if you're looking for immortality." It's a great song, as is 'I've Made Up My mind To Give Myself To You", the best he's written in years. "Been thinking it all over and I've thought it all through, I've made up my mind." "I've travelled a long road of despair, lots of people gone, lot of people I knew, I've made up my mind." "I've traveled from the mountains to the sea, I hope the gods go easy with me, I've made up my mind." Even if this isn't a goodbye, these songs are deeply moving, with pedal steel swells and tender chords played by one of the best bands he's ever had. The voice is perfect.
'Gotta Serve Somebody' asks questions of mortality too - remember when we thought Time Out Of Mind was Dylan's last stand? Again, it has a shambolic start where you're urging them to let Drayton loose, which they finally do. The guitars duel, albeit too briefly, but it's still thrilling. Johnny Mercer's 'That Old Black Magic' starts like Elvis doing 'Don't Be Cruel' before Dylan goes a bit Uncle-At-A-Wedding but the band around him carry it, floating through complicated chord changes with an enviable ease.
'Mother Of Muses' adds more weight to our theory. There's a deep soul to it as Dylan's lists the heroes and calls on the muses to take him to the river and let him lay down in their arms because he's "already outlived his life by far". Even 'Goodbye Jimmy Reed' which rocks pleasingly along like a three-wheeled cart is wistful. "Never Pandered, never acted proud." He could be singing about Jimmy and he could be singing about Bobby. Again this great band are all gathered around the boss man, both curious and concerned to see where that piano will go next. In the context of this bluesy shuffle, it works.
"Well, thank you!" says Bob, addressing the crowd for the only time tonight. "We want to say hello to Shane MacGowan, one of our favourite artists, we hope he makes another record soon. 'Fairy Tale Of New York' is close to all of our hearts and we listen to it every Christmas." Fair play to him, we didn't see that coming and I'll bet MacGowan is surprised too.
'Every Grain Of Sand' is a good choice to finish with. "Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake" "I'm hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan, like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand." It's a song of acceptance, of finding peace in the notion that we all matter, we're all part of something bigger, part of that perfect finished plan. It's beautiful and Dylan's singing balances just on the right side of fragile. And then he takes a harmonica solo to close it out. You can feel a wave of emotion in the crowd, who've been hanging on his every word, hushed - for the most part - lest they break the spell. If this is our last chance to "see the master's hand", if this is the last live note we hear from Bob Dylan - and it surely will be for most of us in this room - then it's a fitting and touching goodbye, containing within it the memory of all those world changing moments of song that he has given us.
It's not enough just to be in a room with Dylan but tonight it didn't have to be. It was a performance from a master, perhaps the master, surrounded by wonderful musicians who had his back at every turn, playing a series of seemingly carefully selected songs, chosen to wave us on as we go our way and he, the first among equals, second to none, the last of the best, heads off on his.
Dylan and his band line out across the stage to take the wild applause. They walk off. The roar increases. They come back and stand again. The lights fade. We see his silhouette descend down the stairs. There won't be an encore.