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Unlike every other babyboomer, Bob Dylan is determined to appear as ancient as possible. His voice spluttered into life at Monday night’s show like a cobwebby Model-T Ford.
He stood playing guitar, one leg twitching like a marionette, head bowed beneath a white hat, as his band chugged out vintage rock and roll and gnarly blues grooves. During one song he slowly bent his knee and held his guitar forward as if about to perform a decrepit version of Chuck Berry’s duck walk, before thinking better of it.
An undertone of exhaustion ran through his new songs. “I’m flat out spent,” he croaked in “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ”. “The suffering is unending,” he groaned in “Ain’t Talkin’ ”. “You think I’m over the hill,” he rasped in “Spirit on the Water”. That line, uttered with as much irony as the singer’s ruined vocal chords allowed, raised a cheer.
Having been written off in the 1980s, Dylan has engineered an intoxicating late-career renaissance. His latest album Modern Times was his first since Desire 30 years ago to top the US charts: not so over the hill after all. The wracked, broken American troubadour he likes to portray himself as is an act.
True to form, he grew more animated as the show progressed, switching from guitar, which he rarely plays nowadays, to keyboards after four numbers. His voice also grew more vigorous. It is not a pretty instrument – a grating rendition of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” put one in mind of Freddy Krueger slicing up folk music – but he deployed it shrewdly, and his sandpaper vocals were perfectly suited to the primal blues-rock he shows increasing fondness for these days.
His recent songs fall into two types: hypnotic rockers built on reiterated riffs over which Dylan barks his still-electrifying lyrics, and languid numbers that drift off into pop music’s distant past. Highlights from Modern Times included a freewheeling jaunt through “Thunder on the Mountain” and a subtly apocalyptic reading of “Ain’t Talkin’ ”.
Old warhorses such as “Highway 61 Revisited” were given a pared-down revamp. The backing band, with whom Dylan recorded Modern Times, were unshowy and efficient, the clockwork machinery ticking beneath Dylan’s current guise as a great American antique.
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