November 21, 2011 2:12 pm

Bob Dylan, Hammersmith Apollo, London

Bob Dylan’s 87th show this year opened with him standing in shadows at his keyboards, pushing back his hair and placing a wide-brimmed black hat on his head. Dylanologists in the audience craned their necks. Was this some sort of cryptic sign? The lights went up and the band began playing “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. The Dylanologists exchanged knowing looks. Nothing is coincidental in the land of the “Bob-cat”.

The man himself likes both to tease and frustrate his fans’ interpretative zeal. His Apollo gig, the first of three, was full of customary evasions, as if he meant to slip back into the shadows. “I’m trying to get as far away from myself as I can,” he sang – or, more accurately, gargled – in “Things Have Changed”. Then, in the next song, “Mississippi”, he groaned of being “Trapped in the heart of it, tryin’ to get away”. He and his band were set deep in the stage, well back from the audience. Only at the end did he approach the front, and then it was to take his final bow.

Dylan has spent a lifetime holding his public at a distance. It is second nature to him, a declaration of artistic independence. But he is 70 now, and the engine takes a while to warm up. “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” was a mess, like a gnarled cowboy being dragged through the dirt by a runaway steer. However, as the evening progressed he and his band settled into a fugitive road-blues groove, and his sandpaper-rough rasp of a voice grew steadier.

Joining him on guitar for the first four songs was Mark Knopfler. Earlier the former Dire Straits frontman had opened the show with an elegantly played solo set that cast him as an understated British Bruce Springsteen. As Dylan’s sideman, he contributed to an intricately flowing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, although the dynamics grew simpler after his departure.

An atmospheric “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” ended with a plangent harmonica solo from Dylan. “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, also from 1964’s The Times They Are a-Changin’, was vintage Americana with banjo and double bass. The set, ranging over 50 years of songs, ended with a flourish, juxtaposing “Jolene”, a bluesy stomper from 2009’s Together Through Life, with a rollicking “Like a Rolling Stone”. There was no encore, and the house lights went up immediately. You half expected the announcement: “Bob Dylan has left the building.”

4 stars

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