On his last visit to Dublin’s O2 in 2011, Bob Dylan was accompanied by Dire Straits guitar wrangler Mark Knopfler in a double header that screamed heritage gig from the get-go. While Knopfler’s was a more staid set on that occasion, Dylan was on crackling form, and to be fair to the man his relentless work ethic (he since released Tempest, his thirty-fifth studio effort) puts paid to any notions of ‘heritage’ that may arise. Tonight, it speaks volumes that his set is culled mainly from the last fifteen years of his recorded output, run through with a stellar quintet of ensemble players behind him.
A large, ornate eye dominates the backdrop while a halo of spotlights of varying heights form the ambient stage décor, illuminating the equipment and eliciting a smattering of expectant applause as the venue steadily fills. Dylan, decked out in black with a white fedora-style hat, immediately spans the decades with his opening trio, with ‘She Belongs To Me’ from ’65 sandwiched between the lively opener of ‘Things Have Changed’ and ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’. What is initially striking is the almost impossibly deep growl that now typifies Dylan’s vocal, roughly hewn at times but richly and subtly moving through various inflections throughout the night.
It seems he’s in fine fettle during this country-tinged intro, whipping out the harmonica and standing with legs apart to shake a hip as the band take up the reins. The waltz of ‘Waiting For You’ seems out of place at first in contrast to the more overtly rock’n’roll ‘Duquesne Whistle’ with Dylan seated at the keys leading an extended jam, but in hindsight everything has its place in this eclectic selection.
It isn’t until Blood On The Tracks’ ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, though, that the crowd shake themselves up, whooping mid-song as his coarse, deep timbre hits the high notes. Just as the momentum seems to be picking up pace, just as his voice seems to be stretching out, he speaks for the first time – to tell us it’s time to leave the stage.
The intermission rejuvenates all it seems, with a theatricality to the vocal on ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ and the band taking a harder-edged approach to the bluesier numbers. It is this lock-tight band that rescue ‘Spirit On The Water’, a somewhat slight inclusion bolstered by the players involved, and admittedly there are more than a few plodding sections during tonight’s selection; not that the crowd seem to mind, indulging the more laboured moments with all attention focused on Dylan’s movements around the stage.
He leads the crowd down the garden path as he begins the encore on a piano line, with recognition only dawning as the guitar chords of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ make themselves known; that piano interjects once more, belying an ending, before the full-steam-ahead coda. He continues to toy with convention on a barely recognisable, almost-spoken word ‘Blowing In The Wind’. The reinterpretation is more William Shatner-esque than anything else if the truth be told, but it’s still oddly in keeping with the country rock leanings of the rest of the set. Dylan tonight, whether seated at the keys or ambling with his blues harp, seems like a man enjoying himself and while it never exactly threatens to set the place alight it’s as enjoyable a set and performance as we’ve seen him deliver.