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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Bob Dylan, The London Palladium

Troubadour Bob Dylan turns from guitar ace to piano man for a sublime bluesy night at the London Palladium as the Nobel prize winner's keyboard mastery is to the fore as he and a superb band showcase his 2020 album 'Rough and Rowdy Ways'.

It’s the second night of a four-night run at the London Palladium of Dylan's Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour – and it begins with a blast of symphonic violence from the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth.

The house lights fade to black, the symphony segues into a modal tune-up on stage, Dylan and his four-piece – second guitarist Bob Britt is not here tonight – barely visible in silhouette.

And then it begins in a flurry of piano keys and guitar, the stage becoming eerily lit from below, and Dylan leans in to a song from the early 1970s, “Watching the River Flow”, one of those lazy, waiting-around songs from that era’s period of retreat.

“When I Paint My Masterpiece”, fifth in tonight’s set, comes from a similar place. Aside from one Blonde on Blonde track, the other picks from his deep past are from the John Wesley Harding/Nashville Skyline era, slight songs made big in delivery, with Dylan blowing his first harp of the evening on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, and “To Be Alone With You”.

They’re slight songs in a mighty catalogue, well done and well applauded, but they’re not what the audience has come to hear. Uniquely among recording artists, or virtually any artist ever, the biggest applause of the night was for the new songs, the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs.

From “False Prophet” and “I Contain Multitudes” down to “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”.

It has been a busy year for Dylan, of course: the opening of the Dylan Centre in Tulsa in May, the impending publication of his new book, The Philosophy Of Modern Song, plus some art shows in France and Florida.

While he had a bit of a bark on him for the mid-tempo back catalogue songs, when it comes to Rough and Rowdy Ways, he was clear-voiced and word-perfect, enunciating beautifully on the likes of tonight’s highlight, “Mother of Muses”, as well as an epic, shimmering “Key West” and the journey to the Other Side that is “Crossing the Rubicon”.

The skeletal musical minimalism of “Black Rider”, “My Own Version of You” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” were retained on stage, in versions that easily match what is on record, Dylan elongating those long image-packed lines until they all but snap.

Guitar-player Doug Lancio stuck like a limpet to his boss for the duration, while Charlie Drayton, set on the far left of the stage facing the rest of the band, proved an adept conductor of percussive textures across those Rough and Rowdy songs, while hitting the skins with force on a righteous take of “Gotta Serve Somebody”.

Highlights? A Mariachi “Black Rider” and a mesmerising “Key West (Philosopher’s Song)”, filled with noirish dramatic ebbs and flows. It’s tempting to read plenty into the lyrics, but when confronted with lines like “I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were” or “The flowers are dyin’ like all things do” you can’t help but feel a certain reckoning, none more explicit on his tête-à-tête with Death on “Black Rider”, one of the most impactful songs on the album and shows.

And while there’s no encore to wait for, he and the band closed the night by delivering a meltingly beautiful version of "Every Grain of Sand”, a tender, quixotic harmonica solo bringing it all home.

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