In several of the career summaries published to coincide with Bob Dylan's recent 60th birthday, writers mused over why he is endlessly on the road. Is it because he is depressed, lonely, a legend with no particular place to go?
But the quality most apparent to 4,000 people gathered in a big top on the banks of the Mersey for Dylan's only English appearance this year was one of sheer glee, a man revelling in his high-flown reputation and mythology.
"Somebody in this town has been telling lies on me,'' he smirked on an opening acoustic number plucked from his seemingly bottomless bag of folk cover-versions. With his redoubtable compadres Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, he immediately transformed the hall into a Midwest ballroom or a mountainside road shack.
The three-part guitar interplay is one of several features that makes the show so vibrant. But mostly, of course, it's Dylan himself. Now unbounded after a near-fatal respiratory condition in 1998 he simply revels in songs such as "To Ramona", a dark faltering lovers' prayer gilded by Campbell's coiled mandolin. The line "I cannot explain it in rhyme'' was given clownish emphasis by a man who remains rock's greatest lyricist.
Proof follows in "Desolation Row". The words and delivery unfurl here like a corkscrew through the heart. He still has the careless abandon that relishes the song's ability to merge rock 'n' roll drive with a carnival of freaks and grotesques. Again, there is special emphasis for the ironically apposite line, "You wouldn't think to look at him that he was famous long ago''.
The show shifts from an acoustic opening into a world of electric funk and devastating blues on old songs like "Maggie's Farm" and "Wheels on Fire". But on an absolutely colossal interpretation of "Cold Irons Bound", a song from his most recent album Time Out Of Mind, he and his band draw a fault-line that criss-crosses America from Texan terror, Chicago blues and Memphis soul.
The only criticism of the show was that it took place in a seated venue. Dylan's live show creates dance music of the best kind, wild and non-predictable, as tight as his drainpipes and as wild and wiry as his hair. While "Just Like A Women" is guided by his bristling guitar lines, it is his breathless, yet monstrous, delivery that captivates.
For the cross-generational crowd it was a singular opportunity to see possibly the last, certainly greatest, living exponent of American popular song. Dylan's pre-eminence may be down to the fact that unlike Sinatra of Presley he is a songwriter and thus master of his fate.
It was the sort of night where one could only hope he lives to be 100 and stays on the road, because these songs simply keep improving each time he plays them.Reuse content