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In for the long haul

With a whisky-and-gravel growl, the old sage is his usual self – only more so

It is difficult to think of a less appropriate venue in which to see Bob Dylan than the one formerly known as the Millennium Dome, that hulking monument to the hubris of New Labour, now converted into the O2 arena. The queue to get in snaked through an airport-style strip-lit shopping mall, past Starbucks and Nando’s. One fan, a man who looked like he had been embalmed in 1968, was wheezing away tunelessly on a harmonica, but that was the solitary nod to 1960s counterculture.

Inside the O2, scowling security guards patrolled the aisles like Rottweilers, barking at anyone who tried to leave their seat in order to get a glimpse of Dylan and his five-piece band, who were not visible at all from where I was, in the stalls. Torches were flashed and tickets demanded from anyone who ventured into the aisles to dance. Events like this confirm the feeling that the music industry has entirely forgotten what people actually like about music.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be thankful that Dylan hasn’t lost his appetite for playing to stadium crowds, because we need him and his very real commitment to music more than ever. Slipping on to the stage without a word of greeting or introduction, he coped with the inhospitable surroundings by paying no attention whatsoever to the arena or the 20,000 people in it. He was dressed, country-style, in a white Stetson and white thigh-length jacket, and did not acknowledge his adoring audience until during the encore, when, after a curt “Thank you, my friends”, he briefly introduced the band. Most stadium acts whip up the crowd with lights, projections, choreography; Dylan stood back and let the music do the work. Throughout the performance he looked like he might just as well have been playing in a smoky bar in 1950s New Orleans, or strumming a guitar in the shade of a tree.

A rollicking version of “Maggie’s Farm” opened the show, followed by “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, rendered virtually unrecognisable by an almost comically terse, staccato vocal, familiar to listeners of Dylan’s radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour. His voice sounds so ravaged now that some critics have accused him of slipping into self-parody. On the contrary, I’d say the years have simply made him more himself; he sounds like a wise old soothsayer – a role he was born for. The whisky-and-gravel growl endows the old songs with a poignant sense of passing time, and gives the new ones a world-weary kind of soul.

Yet no one could accuse Dylan of ignoring his crowd-pleasing obligations; although he has a new album, Together Through Life, out this month, the set was packed full of classics. The show really got under way with “Chimes of Freedom”, which rang out like church bells, achieving the remarkable feat of making the arena seem almost – for a few brief moments – like a vast cathedral. “Highway 61 Revisited” thundered along like a runaway train. “Like a Rolling Stone”, a song that has gone through as many incarnations as Dylan himself, got even the less well-preserved audience members back on their feet. “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the last song in the encore, was so dirge-like that the audience didn’t seem to realise what he was playing until halfway through.

The new songs “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Working Man’s Blues #2” – from his last album, Modern Times – were more instantly recognisable, as they already fit comfortably into the bluesman sound Dylan has been carving out ever since the release of Love and Theft in the late 1990s.

While other veteran performers tire of their old repertoire, Dylan treats it like raw material, endlessly reworking it into a form that fascinates him here and now. This is the richness of the folk tradition, in which songs are evolving, living things, rather than fixed recordings. In a recent interview he contrasted himself with pop artists such as McCartney and the Beach Boys, who, he said, “made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly . . . exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them.” It is this curiosity, this need to explore and reinvent, that has kept him artistically fresh enough to continue what has become known as the “never-ending tour”. It will end before too long, of course, which makes it all the more imperative that his fans take advantage of this extraordinary late burst of creativity.

Andrew Billen’s column will return next week.

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know