In Manchester, you’re never far away from music history. The scene where we find ourselves, the Manchester Apollo, is less than two miles away from the Free Trade Hall, the sight of the infamous 1966 “Judas” accusation squared at Bob Dylan that shook the very core of rock n’ roll discourses. 56 years on, fans again congregate in this city to see the same individual, yet nearly everything about the show has changed. This is the genius of Bob Dylan at work.
Dylan, now 81, has taken the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour to the UK, his first shows here in 5 years. As the Manchester date coincides with the first anniversary of the first date of the tour, it’s staggering to process Dylan’s relentless desire to showcase his latest direction. Like any generational talent in any discipline, not only are you in awe of who you’re witnessing, you’re in awe of the atmosphere of control that one person possesses. Bob Dylan makes a one-off tour show feel like a residency.
Every element of the stage show worked towards timelessness. A prerequisite was for every audience member to put their phones in a locked bag, catapulting the Apollo back to pre-smartphone times. Aged yellow curtains framed the stage, blending with the gold detail of the Apollo roof. We concurrently existed in the present moment, and wherever Dylan wanted to situate us. Strangers talked to each other, with seasoned fans trading stories of where and when they saw him last and what it meant to them. There was palpable excitement but also reverence, and a real sense of occasion.
With the time being but a rumour given the absence of phones, Bob Dylan arrived on stage in a world unconcerned by the clock. The lights came down, and the curtains were lit to echo an old blues club or wine bar. The black-clad band assumed their positions across the stage. Two thirds along sat an upright piano, behind which an obscured Dylan, in a grey blazer, struck up the first notes of his masterclass.
Opening with a loose, piano-led rendition of ‘Watching the River Flow’, Dylan took the restlessness of the original recorded vocal and improvised upon it. The trademark rising intonation was immediately recognisable, prompting nostalgia-fuelled rapture from the audience. I’m not ashamed to say that I was visibly moved by the experience; Dylan’s aged and wise voice still carried his past and permitted you to connect your own memories and periods in your life to his illustrious career. Landmark events cause you to evaluate and reflect, and it became immediately apparent that this was one of those moments.
His band members surrounded the piano like satellites, watching Dylan for subtleties in his key playing and adjusting accordingly. Instrumentally, the show was incredibly accomplished; the band had some of the most technically astonishing musicians going. Yet, naturally, all the members of the band very clearly worked for Dylan and followed his lead with serious attentiveness.
‘I Contain Multitudes’, the opener of 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, receives intermittent bursts of joy from the audience among hearing references; particularly in hearing Dylan namedrop “them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.” Dylan played nine out of the ten songs from Rough and Rowdy Ways and played the other eight of the set in a thematically in-keeping style. Blonde on Blonde’s classic ‘Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’ and the 1979 funk song ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ were reworked to fall effortlessly into the musing blues.
The beauty of Dylan’s show was how he analysed you, and the meaning that audience members attributed to each chord, and each line’s delivery. Dylan’s show is a post-modern masterpiece; the meaning that it holds for you feels as important as what the intended meaning was. His music is affirmative; Dylan denies himself authorial identity and invites you to listen and take what you want from it. It’s an open book; ‘I Contain Multitudes’ is perhaps a doctrine.
Penultimately playing 2020’s ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, the band sounded as crisp as the recorded version and prompted scattered cheers from audience members in the space between vocal delivery. Ending with the 1981 ballad ‘Every Grain of Sand’, the final notes out of Dylan’s mouth were through a harmonica, again causing emotionally charged jubilation from the crowd. A flash of the past, and one final surprise of variation, Dylan and the band received their standing ovation. After returning to the stage to receive the ovation once more, they were gone.
Next time you looked at the stage, there was barely a trace of what had preceded. The curtains were taken up, and the staging deconstructed. The conversations had when exiting the theatre were peppered with routine, stressing about traffic and work tomorrow. Yet, for the duration of the show, the Apollo was transported to a place of comfort and profound emotion. Dylan causes you to impose the music onto different chapters of your life, and his astonishing talent for vision pushes you to have a different outlook. The beauty is in the ordinary; Dylan’s ordinary forces one to see their life as extraordinary.