Mark Palmer

Maximum Bob

But despite the voice, his Royal Albert Hall concert was still pretty wonderful

Maximum Bob
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Bob Dylan

Royal Albert Hall

We were like four hapless contestants on University Challenge. None of us knew the answer. But just like they do on the telly, I leaned learnedly across towards my 28-year-old son, who in turn looked despairingly towards one of my stepsons, before my other stepson made his contribution with a shrug of the shoulders. So, it was up to me as captain of the team to take a guess as the first few bars wafted through the Royal Albert Hall.

‘“Tangled Up in Blue”?’ I proffered with as much enthusiasm as Jeremy Corbyn at a white-tie dinner.

But, fingers on the buzzer, there were far bigger questions to be answered. Such as, what on earth were we doing turning up yet again for a Bob Dylan concert when not only did we fail to hear most of the words last time but didn’t even recognise many of the tunes?

Ah, but to paraphrase one of my favourite Dylan lines, we were so much older then, we’re younger than that now. Never again, I had told myself two years ago, when Bob was last in town rasping like a rusting Vespa. And I felt so good about that decision. Hold on to the memories, walk away now, nothing lasts for ever. But, then, a buy-tickets-to-anything-you-want email landed in my inbox in early June, a time of year when the promise of better things to come is in full bloom, and before you could say ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, my credit card was being debited for just short of £400.

So, there we were, an assorted bunch ranging in age from 14 to 84, packing the famous hall to the rafters, all part of the same tribe. And despite the voice, and the refusal of the star man to utter a ‘thank you’ or even to introduce members of his band, we had a wonderful evening, brimming with hope and forgiveness — and I was back home in bed before the start of Newsnight.

The first time I saw Dylan live was in 1974 at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and I still have the stub. He was 33; I was 20. He could sing then and he can sing now — it’s just different from how it was. He’ll be 75 next May and I’d like to say he looks good on it but when you’re sitting in the gods and he’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat and the lighting is so subdued that we could be in a blacked-out New Orleans speakeasy, it’s impossible to say.

His movement around the stage was interesting. He seemed to be having trouble bending his legs, as if walking on stilts. Seated at the piano there was the occasional wiggle, a gentle stomping of his cowboy boots.

‘“All Along the Watchtower”!’ shouted a man from the upper tier. No chance. ‘“Desolation Row”!,’ called a woman clearly in some pain. Forget it. Bob’s not even angry any more. He’s just bemused and resigned to whatever might be blowing in the wind as he gets closer to knocking on heaven’s door. And we go along with it, indulging his current fad for Frank Sinatra covers (‘Why Try To Change Me Now’ was superb) just like we did during his pious Christian evangelical phase in the late 1970s.

Many in the audience would have been in this very auditorium in May 1966 when Dylan ‘went electric’, when the ‘spokesman for a generation’ abandoned his Woody Guthrie roots, when the ‘protest singer’ plugged in and sold out. Now there is not much in the way of judgment, not from the audience and certainly not from Bob.

With his excellent five-piece band picking up the pieces, Dylan put together a gentle, free-flowing set. He doesn’t play guitar any more (arthritis, but we don’t know for sure) and the evening included a 20-minute interval during which there seemed to be more of a run on vanilla sundaes than Jack Daniel’s.

The songs washed over us, warmly. Veterans like me could look back and reflect, sprinkling some sweetener on bitter times. Then, almost abruptly, Bob sloped off, before returning for a two-song encore. One more would have been nice, an acoustic version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, perhaps, or, even better, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, from the Blonde on Blonde album, which lasts 11 glorious minutes.

Of course not. The lights came up and out we shuffled. Never again? Every time, actually.