Bob Dylan, International Arena, Cardiff <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar -->

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The Independent Culture

There were probably a few in tonight's audience hoping Dylan might premiere songs from his forthcoming album, Modern Times, but his wariness about bootleggers has put paid to such fancies: these days, he doesn't play a song live until it's stocked on the shelves.

Still, tonight's show offered just about all a Dylan fan might want, even if we had to wait for the customary encores of "Like A Rolling Stone" and "All Along The Watchtower".

OK, there may not have been a "Blowing in the Wind", but there was compensation in a "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" fitted out with a closing guitar duet in fluid Les Paul style, and a "Girl from the North Country" rendered in a stately descending chord structure. There was even a rare outing for "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again", featuring one of Bob's best vocal deliveries, in sly and conspiratorial style.

The set-up was familiar to recent years' shows: Dylan in black at his organ, side on to the audience, while his grey-suited band are spread across the stage, with the new pedal steel guitarist behind Bob on a dais.They settle into the show with an easy-rolling version of "Maggie's Farm".

Dylan's organ technique is just as fitful and quixotic as his lead guitar stylings used to be, and never more so than on "Positively 4th Street", where it verges on the random. As a result, the song morphs out of shape, tugged one way by his organ, and another way by his equally bizarre vocal. By contrast, his delivery of "Ballad of a Thin Man" is superb, hanging the hapless "Mis-tah... Jones" off the end of the chorus, running it into the next verse like a schoolmaster tugging a wayward pupil by the ear.

The newer material is, as a rule, less subject to Dylan's alterations than his old standards. Both "Love Sick" and "Summer Days" are crisp and slick, and "Cold Irons Bound" is stunning, with a hypnotic, stealthy tread that, in the show's most expertly wielded dynamic, becomes predatory and, finally, darkly majestic.

Something similar happens with the set-closing "All Along The Watch-tower", which bulges with power as Dylan bites off the staccato syllables two by two -"ALLa-LONGthe-WATCHtow'r... PRINces-KEPTthe-VIEW..." - like a sculptor chipping away, trying to find exact form. It's awe-inspiring to witness, one of the few surviving wonders of the Great American Experiment. Catch him while you can.

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