Maximum Bob: accept no imitations

Bob Dylan | Wembley Arena, London
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The Independent Culture

Nearly 40 years ago, Bob Dylan inadvertently changed the course of popular music, not necessarily for the better. By introducing a measure of literary credibility to the form with his genuinely poetic lyrics, Dylan opened the door for every crazed analyst searching for the subtext behind every single musical offering. Yes, he invented rock criticism.

Nearly 40 years ago, Bob Dylan inadvertently changed the course of popular music, not necessarily for the better. By introducing a measure of literary credibility to the form with his genuinely poetic lyrics, Dylan opened the door for every crazed analyst searching for the subtext behind every single musical offering. Yes, he invented rock criticism.

But don't hold that against him. His best days some 30 years past (and even back then, none of Dylan's records sold in quantities that were commensurate with their influence), he now tours and tours and tours, endlessly reworking his own remarkable back catalogue.

For those who might be interested in seeing a genuine musical legend, Dylan's current foray is ideal. In the way of these things the rumour mill suggests that he's currently on form, and the chances of catching a good show are way above the traditional 2:1. Blow me, the rumour mill is absolutely correct.

His Band (that appears to be their name, though they're sometimes tagged "The Never-Ending Band" in tribute to the never-ending tour), four men looking dapper in crimson suits, are just superb, especially the rhythm section of stetson-sporting drummer David Kemper and Dylan's longest serving bassist, Tony Garnier. Crucially, all possess more experience in arenas this size than the National Basketball Association, while Bob is in good voice (these things are, and always have been, relative), even acknowledging the crowd with a curious ramble mentioning Churchill, the RAF and how Great Britain once stood alone (see, it's not just us).

Starting with the oft-recorded (but not by Dylan) standard "Duncan and Brady", the first part of the set is country-folk in feel, "To Ramona" and "It's Alright Ma" sounding remarkably contemporary with their tight acoustic band arrangements. "Tangled Up In Blue" could have gone on all night with no complaints. Dylan's own lead guitar lines are quite irresistible, wandering in a more appealing manner than his voice in this initial section. The electric half of the show, including a clattering, unexpected "Country Pie" and a frantic "Tombstone Blues", all three guitarists effortlessly switching lead lines, provides instant nostalgia for those of us in the crowd who weren't around in 1966.

But the long, relaxed encore, where he revivifies some of his best-known material as well as offering the jazzy, never previously played "If Dogs Run Free" from New Morning and the recent, deservedly acclaimed "Things Have Changed", is just too much fun. Who'd have thought that "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Highway 61 Revisited" could be something better than perfunctory after so many years? Harold Bloom would have a field day explaining how "All Along The Watchtower" - lead lines played by Larry Campbell on lap steel - now draws from every version that has succeeded Dylan's original. Certainly, it's quite possible that the guitarist Charlie Sexton, younger than the other band members and once unsuccessfully sold as a teenage blues heart-throb, learnt it from Jimi Hendrix first.

Forget analysis. Old warhorses such as "I Shall Be Released" and "Blowing In The Wind" now exist as a part of our cultural heritage, independent of their creator. But this evening they were great and astonishingly alive. Long live Mr Dylan, though many trees have died in his name.

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