LONDON — Bob Dylan tore through his set here last night (April 15) with a fire and spirit that matched anything from his iconic heyday — and gave the lie, once again, to the tired charge that he has abandoned songs of dissent against the evils of our time.
From the very first note, Dylan was in marvelous voice — full, strong, supple, projecting with more power than I’d heard from him on stage since the first time I saw him in concert almost 30 years ago. It was truly uncanny. For many years, going back to the late 1980s, one of the chief attractions of seeing Dylan live has been observing how artfully he used the "bare, ruin’d choir" of his voice, making the husk work to the advantage of the songs. The last time I saw him live, in 2005, his chief vocal weapons were a raspy whisper and a graveled bark. But whether he’s injected himself with sheep glands or sold his soul to the devil, something has brought his voice back to an astonishing degree.
His engagement with the material too was at new levels of intensity. Past Dylan concerts have often been a matter of rolling through a few valleys of somewhat perfunctorily rendered songs to gather strength for the stunning high points that invariably dotted each concert. And it often took a couple of songs for Dylan to really warm up. But last night, from the very beginning, Dylan was switched on, all guns blazing, leading his five-piece band first on guitar then on a rollicking skating-rink organ. The first dozen songs were a relentless display of excellence, with scarcely a breath between them. If there was a slight falling-off toward the end, it was only because Dylan seemed to have finally outrun his band, who were unable to reach the last bit of the mountaintop that Dylan crested with ease.
For more than 40 years, Dylan has been excoriated in some quarters for "abandoning protest," for "turning his back" on the world to write love songs and surreal rhapsodies. This is chiefly because he ceased long ago to write new "finger-pointing" songs torn from the day’s headlines (with the notable exception of "Hurricane" in the mid-70s). But besides the fact that Dylan has never completely stopped performing some of these topical songs — the searing 1964 ballad of racism and injustice, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," has been a mainstay of his 21st century concerts, for example — protest, dissent and social commentary are laced throughout his work, in every period, often with a depth that gives them lasting power and applicability beyond the circumstances of their creation.
And the songs Dylan chose to sing last night — from a vast repertoire drawn from five decades — provided a very telling, very specific commentary on these "modern times." Now, while it’s highly unlikely that the opening lines of the opening song of the concert —
"Cat’s in the well, the wolf is looking down; He’s got his big bushy tail dragging all over the ground —"
were an allusion to the recent woman troubles of war crime accomplice Paul Wolfowitz, there was no mistaking the contemporary resonance of the lines that followed soon after:
"Cat’s in the well, and grief is showing its face: The world’s being slaughtered, and it’s such a bloody disgrace."
In earlier concerts on this tour, Dylan has been playing "John Brown," a tale about a soldier coming back horribly disfigured from "a good, old-fashioned war," and "Masters of War," which he has called his "song about the military-industrial complex." Although he didn’t play these two songs in London last night, images of pointless war, murderous lies, repressive zealotry, rapacious corruption, the abandonment of the poor and downtrodden — in short, the whole panoply of the Bush Imperium — abounded throughout the night.
It was there in undisguised form in "It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)," the early, stark acoustic ballad that Dylan has now turned into a full-bore, hard-rock cannonade, as he snarled out from beneath his wide-brimmed white hat this prescient condemnation of the Religious Right that he had penned more than 40 years ago:
"Old lady judges watch people in pairs Limited in sex, they dare To push fake morals, insult and stare Money doesn’t talk, it swears Obscenity, who really cares Propaganda, all is phony."
Or in a high-octane version of "Highway 61 Revisited," even faster and more raw than the original 1965 version, which mirrors the mendacity and hucksterism that led to the feast of blood in Iraq:
"The roving gambler he was very bored Trying to create a next world war He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor Said I never did engage in this kind of thing before But yes I think it can be very easily done We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun And have it on Highway 61."
Of course, the song also mirrors the similar "Gulf of Tonkin" deceptions that led to America’s full-blown involvement in Viet Nam. Which is why Dylan’s departure from strict topicality in the mid-Sixties resulted not in a lessening but a deepening of his artistic dissent: it recognized the depressingly constant patterns of human behavior that lie beneath the specific machination of states, institutions and people seeking power. Leaders who lie, war profiteers on the make, cranks and con-men who gamble with other people’s lives — such things aren’t confined to a single era, a single party, or a single nation.
This is also made explicit in yet another powerful song that Dylan presented last night: "Blind Willie McTell," which addresses the role of slavery and racism in the creation of American culture — including Dylan’s own art, his "white minstrelry" that borrows — or steals (with "love and theft") — so heavily from forms originated by America’s slaves and their descendants. The song, delivered in a thunderous version, expands from evocations of the specific milieu that gave rise to bluesman McTell and his music to a broader vision of the underlying moral decay of a "world gone wrong":
"Well, God is in His heaven And we all want what’s His But power and greed and corruptible seed Seem to be all that there is."
But the heart of the concert was a luminous rendition of "Chimes of Freedom," Dylan’s visionary, near-hallucinatory expression of universal compassion. It’s a song that might have been written by Prince Myshkin in the midst of an epileptic euphoria, when an intense apprehension of cosmic harmony and balance fills the sufferer — just before he falls into a painful seizure. In this song, Dylan turns from the perpetrators of human failing and abuses of power to embrace their victims. Again, the lines, though written decades ago, call up pictures from the present-day, with its refugees fleeing Bush’s Terror War, the prisons overflowing, and the poor, the mad, the lost, the damaged being thrown aside and left behind in ever-growing numbers:
"Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight And for each and every underdog soldier in the night And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
"In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched With faces hidden while the walls were tightening As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain Dissolved into the bells of the lightning…
"Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing."
Dylan sang the song with a tender force and intensity, as if he had just written it and wanted to convey this fresh vision to his listeners. This remarkable performance was just one of a clutch of slower songs that also glowed with tenderness, wisdom and, at times, playful humor, including three from his 2006 "Modern Times" album: "Spirit on the Water," "When the Deal Goes Down," and "Nettie Moore." (There were also revved-up versions of MT’s "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" and "When the Levee Breaks" on offer.) Indeed, "Spirit on the Water" roused probably the biggest cheer of the night for Dylan’s self-mocking lines:
"You think I’m over the hill You think I’m past my prime Let me see what you got We could have a whoppin’ good time."
And so it was. Despite the seriousness of many of the songs, a whoppin’ good time was had by all in the filled-up Wembley Arena. One of the two encore songs, the new "Thunder on the Mountain," was perhaps a perfect encapsulation of the evening, as it seemed to gather up themes from across Dylan’s decades of work — mind-bending rhymes ("Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons-of-bitches/I’ll recruit my army from the orph-an-ages"), borrowed blues lines, surreal imagery, folksy images, love lyrics, self-mockery and, yes, dissent:
"Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes. I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams."
A better judgement on the modern times of the Bush Imperium is hard to imagine. Nor are we likely to see a more relevant, more powerful singer — of any age — for many moons to come.