Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall. Now there’s a phrase with a history. His acoustic concert there in 1965 formed the centrepiece of the film Don’t Look Back. His gig there in 1966, with The Beatles in the audience, introduced the electric Dylan to London. A wrongly titled, very famous bootleg even claimed to have recorded that show, though the infamous cry of Judas betrayed that it was in fact the gig at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.
The 72-year-old’s past comes with him on this visit via a concurrent release of an eye-watering box set of all 41 studio albums since 1962. But if connections with the past are inevitably an integral part of a performance by this artist at this venue, he must be judged on the present. And certainly for the near hour long first half the present showed a stunning return to form.
Where he has gone through the motions in some recent tours, tonight he stood without guitar in front of his band at the front of the stage, not just reinterpreting his songs, but doing so with care and feeling. The voice that can be a relic of past triumphs was marvellously and unexpectedly once more an instrument, elongating syllables in vintage style in the staccato delivery on the great opener "Things Have Changed".
On "Pay In Blood" from his most recent album Tempest he stood legs wide apart and rigid, the voice snarling menace. Throughout there was only a half-light around him, which made his face barely discernible. Perhaps that enabled one to project any decade on to proceedings as he revisited the sixties with "She Belongs To Me", the seventies with a raw and pained "Tangled Up in Blue", and the nineties to equally shattering effect with one his most intense and hauntingly emotional later songs "Love Sick".
At the interval this gig had five stars written all over it. But strangely the second half fell a little flat. Dylan, of all people, an artist who in the past has given his record company apoplexy by totally ignoring a current release in concert, decided to use most of the 45 minutes or so to showcase Tempest, with his John Lennon tribute "Roll on John" the last song of the night.
Apart from "A Simple Twist of Fate" and an undercooked rendition of "All Along the Watchtower" in the encore, this felt like an overdose of too recent material. One certainly cannot and does not expect every one of "Like A Rolling Stone", "Blowing in the Wind", "Mr Tambourine Man" and "The Times They Are a Changing". But one of them would have been nice. Ignoring both a phenomenal back catalogue and audience desire for a genuine climax is perverse.
And then at just after half past nine he was gone. So ended performance 2,500-plus on the never-ending tour that began in 1988. It was in turns stunning, revelatory and downright perplexing. Like the man himself.