WHEN expectations are exceedingly low, it could be argued that anything beyond the bare minimum is a positive.
But the return of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour to the Newcastle Entertainment Centre after 15 years on Wednesday night was much more. It was an actual success.
Sure, the 77-year-old singer-songwriter lacks the panache and showmanship of ’60s contemporaries like Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones, who are still actively touring the globe, but frankly he never possessed that.
Read more: Why Bob Dylan is the voice of a generation
Instead, Mr Zimmerman has always relied on the power of the song. This is a man after all who has rewriten various chapters of the Great American Songbook, as he straddled across folk, rock, country, gospel, blues and jazz in a career spanning almost 60 years.
Reviews of Dylan’s other Australian shows were fairly positive, so Novocastrian fans had cause to approach the show with cautious optimism.
Many fans have been alienated over the years by Dylan’s constant reworking of his material and the increasing vocal limitations of the septuagenarian.
It wasn’t a promising start. Things Have Changed, the Academy Award-winning song from the 2000 film Wonder Boys, was a jumbled mess and Dylan croaked like an old Datsun’s ignition.
Read more: One more time, Bob. One more time
Yet by the final chorus Dylan and band had found their groove. And by the second song It Ain’t Me, Babe, Dylan even afforded the crowd a slight wave as he stood at his piano.
As expected that was the only real crowd interaction. Not a word was spoken. Some might regard that as rudeness, but Dylan has never pandered to conventions of showmanship and stage manners.
Dylan has also always refused to celebrate nostalgia.
The 20-song, 100-minute set traversed his entire catalogue from ’60s classics like Blowin’ In The Wind and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right to Duquesne Whistle and Early Roman Kings off his 2012 album Tempest.
Some songs received greater reinventions than others. While many fans find it annoying, it does force the audience to actually listen intently, rather than use the show as a mere karaoke soundtrack.
Some might regard that as rudeness, but Dylan has never pandered to conventions of showmanship and stage manners.
Tangled Up In Blue was almost unrecognisable as a lounge jazz piece, that ended in a joyous stomp.
Highway 61 Revisited became roadhouse blues that allowed Dylan’s talented guitarists Stu Kimball (rhythm) and Charlie Sexton (lead) to break off the leash.
It seemed to only embolden Dylan as he stood at his piano. For a moment as he sneered, “Oh, Howard just pointed with his gun/And said, "That way, down Highway 61," you could almost see him again as that groundbreaking ’60s icon.
Desolation Row was bloated and boring, but Blowin’ In The Wind soared when given a country transformation complete with violin.
Overall, Dylan’s voice was stronger than the 2014 Australian tour and it lacked the gruffness that has plagued his vocal over the past decade.
Yet the slower Make You Feel My Love and Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright did expose its limitations. That didn’t stop the latter receiving the largest applause of the night.
Understandably Dylan sounds most comfortable in handling his more recent blues and jazz- inspired material.
Duquesne Whistle carried genuine swing and Thunder On The Mountain off the underrated 2006 album, Modern Times, was the highlight of the evening from a band perspective.
Almost as if offering an olive branch to complete the show, Dylan’s rendition of Ballad Of A Thin Man stuck close to the original. He then even offered an awkward and frail-looking bow with his band to end the performance.
Was Dylan flawless? Certainly not. But given his age and career-long refusal to conform to expectations, it was the best Dylan show anyone is going to experience these days.
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