Rock review: Bob Dylan was alive and well and playing at Wembley

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It must be great to be a proper Bob Dylan fan. It has been an established fact since the 1960s that it's more intelligent to like Bob Dylan than it is to like normal pop music. So think of the self-esteem that arises from having made that choice. Think also of the sense of superiority one gets from being equipped to interpret a record like Under a Red Sky not as the aimless ramblings of a disorientated person, but as a record not necessarily made with everyone in mind. Dylan fans, like Frank Zappa fans, know better.

Whether it's great to be Bob Dylan is questionable, however. His last two records have been startling, unravelled works short on contention, rhetoric, epic narrative or the detached voice of moral authority, long on angst. World Gone Wrong was a darkly reductive exploration of other folk's grim tales, laid down, by the sound of it, in Bob's cupboard under the stairs, with the light off. The new album, Time Out of Mind, is a torrid confession of love's failure; that is, Bob's love's failure. It's a record above all about the pain of loneliness and its linkage with feelings of purposelessness. Its author could probably do with a shot of his fans' indefatigable self-esteem.

Time Out of Mind is, to my mind at least, the least Dylanesque record he's ever made. Almost every song describes, not what Dylan thinks, or what he believes in, but how he feels. It's a very bleak record indeed. The music comes at you slowly and brokenly, the voice a croak - there's nothing there but the stain of emotion. Indeed, the feeling you get from sniffing like this at the bilges of another man's life would be foul, had those waters not been poured out with so much weary discipline, and if the absence of rhetoric were not such a thrill. It's probably the first psychologically three-dimensional record Dylan has made. In places, Time Out of Mind is quite beautiful.

The "Never Ending Tour" reached Wembley Arena last Sunday, still warm from the Pope's audience with its star. A small number of questions arose. Would the new album form the substance of the show? Would Bob further expose his new-found vulnerability by addressing his congregation between songs? Would Bob's heart trouble - both literal and figurative - connect him for all time with the spirit of Tommy Cooper?

Well, he didn't drop dead, and he said nothing audible all evening except perfunctorily to introduce the band. Time Out of Mind didn't count for much either, although he did sing "Love Sick" in the encore. What we got was a tight, rather terse set of basic R&B/country arrangements, played on guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel and mandolin, plus Dylan's own odd strumming, the sound amplified to the point of distortion, and projected as you might project your hand to a new acquaintance, as a token of well- meaning social duty - nothing shambling or gerontian there, just a hint of keenness. Recognisable in the kerfuffle of songs were "Absolutely Sweet Marie", "Tangled Up in Blue", a rapid "Memphis Blues Again", "Highway 61 Revisited" done as a Texan boogie, "Like a Rolling Stone", "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "Rainy Day Woman" - a decent fistful of golden moments with which to ward off accusations of obscurantism, not so big a fistful as to warrant accusations of lazy canonicalism.

So what is it that Dylan fans are looking for when they lug themselves out to Wembley to watch him get old? Church is one option. But Dylan isn't up to fire and brimstone any more, and communion is out of the question. Sport is another option. But physical enjoyment isn't a Dylan thing. If there was a governing atmosphere at Wembley - and I'm not sure that there was - it was that of a seance: several thousand needy folk joining together in the hope of making some sort of contact with a lost loved one - "Bob, are you there?" - and to hell with those cynics who cry "mumbo jumbo".

What they got was a tired-looking man with a rook's voice, picking up his feet as if out of mud, bending at the waist to hold his guitar down at an angle, like a shovel.

Someone should take a shovel to the twerp who booked Carmen Lundy into Conran's Mezzo in Soho and then expected her to sing rather than eat onion soup.

Ms Lundy is a full-on jazz diva with masses of teeth and a notably luscious way with a standard. She has been the toast of our nation's be-hatted jazz-soul tendency for several years and, though not remarkable for her originality, is, as they say in hatland, top quality.

She performed with a neatly swinging double-keyboard quartet, propelled by the ever-sensitive Winston Clifford, and wowed the front five tables. The remaining hundred or so tables got on with their onion soup and chatted about the things advertising folk chat about, evidently glad that there was some background entertainment laid on for the evening. In response, Lundy merely peered at them with puzzlement in her eyes and got on with the job. Her phrasing was immaculate, and her dignity was as unassailable as her PVC flares were stiff.

The only uncompromised joy this week came at Camden's Jazz Cafe, where London funk operation D- Influence came to party and influence people. The group's leader and keyboard player Kwame is a forthright soul. He has Pollyanna bunches on the top of his head and a compelling way with an pre-song announcement.

He is certainly the only person I have ever seen mobilise an entire audience, including this critic, into a highly disciplined synchronised lateral shuffle in the second number. Admittedly the number, "No Illusion", is a corker - one of those slow-to-medium sphincteral pulses that didn't ought to be allowed - and, admittedly, Kwame was supported in his injunction by singer Sarah-Ann Webb, whom one would not disobey even were one armed with a bazooka. But my, the rhythm section backed him up with the goods, and then sustained the feeling.

To be fair, the feeling also got plenty of support from Sarah-Ann. Her voice is a buttered operatic whisper, her smile titanic, and when she nods her head with soul feeling, as she does frequently, there is a rushing of wind. There is no precedent for such a mythological creature in Brit- funk, but it's high time we set one.

Nicholas Barber returns to writing about rock next week.

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