No phones, no bar, no distractions from the icon
Cian Kinsella
11:34 24th October 2022

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When I told people I was going to see Bob Dylan, I received one of two reactions: ‘That’s incredible, what a legend!’ from the music heads, and ‘Isn’t he dead?’ from the casual listeners. Nope – Dylan’s alive and kicking, but doing more of the former than he is the latter. At 81 years old and affected by arthritis, he no longer plays guitar on stage. He sings with that rough but waxy voice and plays piano instead.

Bob Dylan has symbolised so much over the years: lone folk guitarist, electrified Judas, ballad singer, original artist of ‘Make You Feel My Love’. Some might say he is a litmus test of the zeitgeist, much like The Beatles in their time or David Bowie. But rather than ‘the’ times which are a-changin’ (sorry), it’s clear at the Palladium that he’s a-changin’ with his own times. He’s just being 81, instead of trying to be in 2022. With his rock n’ roll, folk hero, protest song era behind him, he’d rather play four nights in an intimate theatre than one at a stadium. 

Dylan has a reputation as a grumpy showman. My uncle went to see him several years ago and remarked that he had zero patter with the audience. He went on stage, played the songs, and left. I went on the second of his four-night run at the Palladium and was warned: ‘The show starts at 8pm sharp (last night they strolled onto the stage just before 8).’ And because kids these days literally can’t help themselves from SnapTokking every damn thing they do, everyone had to put their phones in special bags that were secured shut until an attendant opened them at the end (think vodka bottle security tag). No phones, no talking – just music fans vibing in the moment. Since I couldn’t take photos of the show, I settled for a selfie outside the Palladium with the splendour of my iPhone 7 front camera.

I think  the reputation is a bit overblown, though. The bar closed as the show was starting, and someone near me said, ‘That’s Bob’s wishes apparently.’ I don’t have any sources close to Bob, but I doubt he personally went full Oliver Cromwell and mandated the closure. If anything, in a fully seated theatre, watching entire rows of people stand up and sit down to let classic rock dads go to and from the bar – and inevitably, the toilet – every 30 seconds would just be irritating. On this one, Bob, I’m with you.

I also respect the lack of chat. Talking too much as an older artist can detract from your seriousness and relegate you to the ‘legacy’ box. We’ve all been there: you’ve paid out your ears to watch a big artist from the 60s to 90s; they crack jokes about no one wanting to hear songs from the new album; the audience spend 10 minutes begging for an encore at the end, and the artist strides triumphantly back on stage to scream, ‘Do you want more!?’ and play an oldie. It’s fun, but of a similar kind to Malaga, or Butlins but as an adult. Regrettably, I’m not mates with Bob Dylan, but consequently he neither needs nor wants to play into any mistaken nostalgic familiarity.

I think the same factors influenced both his decision to play a setlist largely drawn from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways and to forego an encore. There were a few older tracks, but no ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (etc.), as much as I would’ve killed to see them. Finishing with ‘Every Grain of Sand’, his version of playing an encore was a few bars of harmonica – to be polite. 

At his current stage, Bob Dylan is comfortably slouched into the wisdom and reflection afforded by age and experience. He and his band dressed in all black formalwear, and there was very little pomp and absolutely no glamour. What he performed was a sparse but far-reaching flavour of Americana. It felt like sitting in on a jam in Nashville (or maybe I’m just projecting my ideals, who knows). 

"Dylan the artist is always evolving. But he is always adapting, too..."

Watching Dylan play is sobering – worlds away from the latent high of seeing The Rolling Stones, with a 79 year old Mick Jagger doing gymnastics up and down the stage in skinny jeans. A man sat next to me remarked at the end how Dylan the artist is always evolving. But he is always adapting, too: his arthritis forced him to play guitar in a softer, more fluid way on the most recent album. The main shame of the evening was that even though he’d transferred his focus by necessity to more lyrical music, I could hardly hear what he was singing. I had to imagine the salient truths and poetic ramblings he was probably imparting.

Every few songs he would walk away from the piano so as to be in full view of the audience, and he’d do something a bit like a bow. Even in his gorgeous black southern-style suit, his stature and gait made me giggle and think of Mrs Brown (from Mrs Brown’s Boys, that is). This man is not grumpy – he likes being appreciated, and showing that he values your appreciation. He just won’t be a souvenir of what he once was.

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