Enter Good-Time Bob

As Bob Dylan's Never-Ending Tour ploughs on, his followers have given up second-guessing him. They know he can crush his legend or enhance it, from one night to the next. But this week in Bournemouth, surely, Dylan seemed poised for triumph. His new album, Time Out of Mind, shows his artistry at an unsettling peak. When he was last in Britain, too, only two years ago, he was a revelation, his once-fractured voice reborn. But as the ageing faithful filed in for another session, they knew Dylan's infamous contrariness could send all their hopes crashing down. In the event, his perversity was subtle. He disappointed in giving us what he thought we wanted.

There were no frills to his intentions. He walked on and blasted through "Absolutely Sweet Marie" without a pause. What was immediately clear was that his voice was at its strongest for years, and his band as drilled and flexible as he could have wished. After a decade of inaudible croaking, Dylan can sing anything he wants. His band can play anything he asks. But his mood was set tonight. He had decided to play country-blues. Never mind the depression revealed by Time Out of Mind. This was Good-Time Bob, here to entertain us. There were moments when you were grateful. "Memphis Blues Again" was exhilarating. But equally there were moments when good nature neutered songs which should have been fierce. Dylan, singing some of his finest work, seemed uninterested in its meaning. "Tangled Up in Blue" became one more party tune. His choice of a country tone was apt. He seemed in the same state of happy denial as he was in 1969, when Nashville Skyline abandoned Vietnam trauma for down-home picking. Perhaps, as then, he just didn't want to be Bob Dylan tonight. Fortunately, he couldn't remain wholly cloaked in good cheer. There were moments which turned your preconceptions to dust, moments which pulled old songs into his new work's orbit. "Mr Tambourine Man" once sounded like the musings of a wistful young man. Here, it sounded like he'd just written it. When he sang "I'm not sleepy, and there is no place I'm going to", he made the night sound unbearably long, a heartbreaking plea. When he sang of "evening's empire closing in", it sounded like approaching death.

"Like a Rolling Stone" started the other revelation. It's long been famous for its vitriolic assault on a spurned lover. But tonight, Dylan sang it with a smile. It seemed his ancient cause for complaint was over at last, that his venom had been drained. But that wasn't the whole story. At the end of the night, he relented and played one song from Time Out of Mind, "Love Sick". That was where the venom had gone. Dylan sang it with a spareness undimmed by the night's general mood. "I'm sick of love, I wish I'd never met you," he growled, his hurt no longer capable of wit, no longer believing in vengeance. In its closing line, he showed the extent of his change: "I'm lovesick. I'd do anything to be with you."

Such nakedness had to be caught in the night's few shadows. The frustration at Dylan's avoidance of his new work was only made worse by that lone, late glimpse of it. It's possible that its revelations are the last thing he wants to remind himself of, or that after years of abuse of his audience, he feels they deserve some old songs, well played. It's possible, too, that on some other night of this visit, some unsuspecting crowd will be subjected to solid, furious darkness, the new album without a chink of light to soften it. The minutes when Dylan's work reshaped into something brand-new weren't quite enough. What he thought we wanted and what we needed met too briefly to leave anyone sated.

Nick Hasted

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