The Palais Theatre is nestled between Port Phillip Bay near the end of the number 96 tramline to St Kilda, six kilometres southeast of Melbourne’s CBD. Tonight the Palais was hosting rock & roll royalty, Dylan — Bob Dylan. The flickering lights of distant yachts lit up the overcast Monday night sky. The early start of 8pm meant the queue to get in the 2900 seat theatre had extended to the edge of Luna Park. I was sardined between two Dutch retirees who had been following Dylan on his 2014 Never Ending Tour for the last five months. From Tokyo to Greece to Romania to Denmark, they live and breathe Dylan.
I felt all tangled up in blue before the first chord was even strummed. Dylan has written 450 plus songs in his lifetime. This is not including when he punched out two albums with Harrison, Orbison, Petty and Lynn, The Traveling Wilburys.
The stage was shrouded in darkness as an acoustic guitar rang out, signalling the appearance of Dylan and his band. Dressed in his signature white Cordobés hat and black suit, Dylan entered the stage to a rapturous applause. Beginning the show with his Academy award winning song, Things Have Changed from the film Wonder Boys, Dylan eases into the set like a seasoned golfer.
He is not known for his upbeat enthusiasm like a Mick Jagger or a Patti Smith, but he has always been cool, calm and collected, the quintessential tough guy. He stares into the sea of adoring fans, pauses, looks at the band and signals them to start playing again; they do.
Charlie Sexton on lead guitar is best known for his 1985 hit Beats So Lonely. He was a teenage sensation of the MTV generation of the ’80s but now looks at home in the background of the enigmatic Dylan. The rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball is well-known for his work with Carly Simon and Peter Wolf. The drummer George Recile and bassist Tony Garnier lock in perfectly, with a jazz groove akin to a Sunday walk in the park. Garnier is widely known as Dylan’s right hand man, directing the songs with his harmonic bass runs, recognisable from films including Down By Law. Donnie Herron is constantly swapping instruments as he moves in between banjo and pedal steel to violin and the occasional mandolin. His brilliant multi-instrumental work does not go unnoticed throughout the evening.
Dylan no longer plays live guitar, perhaps the hands don’t glide the way they used to. He tinkers on the baby grand piano, albeit sporadically. His signature mouth organ lights up the stage as he to takes us back to 1965, with She Belongs to Me, from the album Bringing It All Back Home.
The older folk begin to bop up and down, reliving their youth listening to Dylan, maybe on a portable transistor radio. Waiting For You is filled with sadness and hope as Dylan paces across the stage deep in thought. It’s nearly 30 minutes into the show and he is yet to acknowledge the audience. No thank you, no hello, nothing.
But then you remember it’s Dylan, Bob Dylan, Robert Zimmerman, a demi-god and he doesn’t need to say or do anything. His songs and lyrics say it all. A sandy haired man screams “We love you Bob!”. Dylan doesn’t flinch.
From his 35th studio album, Tempest, comes Duquesne Whistle and Dylan is warming into the show. The song was co-written with Robert C. Hunter, a long time friend and collaborator of Dylan’s. Hunter is well known for his songs with pioneering psychedelic band the Grateful Dead.
The crowd rises to their feet as the opening chords of Tangled Up In Blue are softly plucked. This is an instant hit and the standout song of the evening. I think of my Dutch retirees, the mothers and grandmothers, and all the generations in the crowd who join in singing: “She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe/’I thought you’d never say hello’ she said/’You look like the silent type’/Then she opened up a book of poems/And handed it to me /Written by an Italian poet”.
Lovesick, a song popularised by The White Stripes, comes and goes. Dylan is looking like he needs a scotch on the rocks and a cigarette. He finally says: “Why thank you, we are going to take a short break”.
The crowd scurry out to the foyer for the 20 minute interval. The smokers look thankful for the break. The line to the official merchandise stand is overwhelming. The crowd line up like St Kilda foreshore seagulls, waiting to snap up Dylan memorabilia. Suddenly half the audience is wearing Dylan shirts, caps and hoodies. A bootlegger sets up beneath the laughing clown of Luna Park, “Dylan tour shirts $10!” he yells. A small crowd forms around him, with women and men sizing up the “unofficial” merchandise. “Geez,” an elderly gent says, “I just paid $50 for the same shirt.”
Opening the second half of the show with High Water (For Charley Patton) Dylan looks refreshed and ready for the second round. Simple Twist of Fate, from his 1975 Blood on the Tracks is the highlight of the second set. It almost feels like Dylan is speaking a poetic monologue like a stage actor during the song; “They walked alone by the old canal/A little confused I remember well/And stopped into a strange hotel with a neon burning bright/ He felt the heat of the night hit him like a freight train/ Moving with a simple twist of fate”.
The band has finally loosened up, there are periodic smiles from one to another; they are in the homestretch once Scarlet Town starts up. This is one of five songs from Tempest, an obvious premeditated move by the band, perhaps Dylan’s most acclaimed album this century. There is no Maggie’s Farm or Subterranean Homesick Blues or Like a Rolling Stone, the real hits, and the crowd knows it, but it’s Dylan, and it’s like walking into a candy shop.
And when you’re 73 years old, maybe you chose the songs that are easy on the throat, on those well-travelled vocal chords. The two-hours quickly comes and goes. The audience chants “More, more, more! with whistles and ongoing applause as the band and Dylan return for the encore.
They are absorbed in All Along the Watchtower, a song made famous by Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland, and in the ’80s by U2 on their breakthrough album, Rattle and Hum. Dylan seems to go through the motions here — he’s been on stage for nearly two-hours and 55 years. Even though he seems disconnected during it, the song is a constant in the Dylan live repertoire. Perhaps his most famous song, a song that spoke to an entire generation, Blowin’ In the Wind begins.
“How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man/Yes, and how many seas must a white dove sail/Before she sleeps in the sand/Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned/The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
The song instantly connects with the audience. They fall quiet; a pin drop kind of quiet. Dylan is sitting slouched over the piano, a wry smile creases his face, he brings the band together like a football coach, they bow and disappear into the night.
Things Have Changed, She Belongs To Me, Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, Workingman Blues #2, Waiting For You, Duquesne Whistle, Pay in Blood, Tangled Up In Blue, Love Sick. Interval: High Water (For Charley Patton), Simple Twist Of Fate, Early Roman Kings, Forgetful Heart, Spirit On The Water, Scarlet Town, Soon After Midnight, Long And Wasted Years. Encore: All Along The Watchtower, Blowin’ In The Wind.