Billed in all but name as a rock dinosaur double-header, Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler’s opening show of their joint European tour is no doubt one for blues fans with deep pockets. Blues music- American roots music, in general- flows deep for both Dylan and Knopfler, the latter exploring American roots music more ardently since he left Dire Straits in 1995. Indeed, Knopfler produced and collaborated with Dylan on the latter’s 1979 and 1983 records, Slow Train Coming and Infidels, respectively, at a time when Dylan’s career had hit its nadir and Knopfler was about to break the big time with Dire Straits.
Ahead of the night’s main attraction and performing separately, Knopfler takes to the stage with a band not too dissimilar in sound and feel as Dylan’s. Currently taking time out from recording his next record, Knopfler draws heavily from the solo career he first pursued with 1996’s Golden Heart in a live set that gels well with the sound, songs and feel of Bob Dylan’s records and live shows of the last 10 years. Although those expecting ‘Walk of Life’ or ‘Sultans of Swing’ might have been disappointed by the distinct lack of hits, Knopfler’s folk-leaning roots music shuffles along, opening with ‘What Aye Man’ from 2002’s The Ragpacker’s Dream. Debuted from, presumably, the current sessions for his next record, ‘Corned Beef City’ and ‘Privateering’ both feel fully realised and suggest that his preoccupation with folk / blues / Americana is a long way from being over.
Sauntering on stage to the theatrical and now routine stage announcement, which condenses Dylan’s 50 year music career in to a matter of sentences, Dylan and his band of session players kick off the night with an excellent rendition of ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’, followed swiftly by a restless, shuffling and countrified ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, which shows Dylan’s voice to be more full, warm and defined than shows of recent years.
Dylan then moves away from the organ, which he has been stood at like Jerry Lee Lewis, and takes centre stage for ‘Things Have Changed’, the song which landed him an Oscar almost ten years ago, to a warm applause. The phrasing, as has been the case with Dylan’s performances for some time, is rapid fire. At times, his delivery is awkward and betrays the studio recordings to the point where it may take time to figure out which song it is he is performing. ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ falls victim to Dylan’s re-phrasing, though, tonight, the chorus retains the melodic punch of the studio recording yet has the Chess Records feel that Dylan has sought on almost all of his records since 1997’s career changing Time Out of Mind.
The junk yard-blues of ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’ is reminiscent of ‘Swordfishtrombones’-era Tom Waits and Dylan gives the set a lift in the right place, only for it to dip again with a pedestrian performance of ‘Spirit On The Water’ from 2006’s Modern Times. However, Dylan and his cowboy band soon gain momentum again with ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ and ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ forming a groove in the set that finds Dylan and his band peaking just before the night’s encore.
With Mark Knopfler on the bill, there’s an expectation that he might join Dylan for an encore of Infidels lead single ‘Jokerman’ or perhaps ‘Blind Willie McTell’, a lost Dylan outtake from the Infidels sessions, which Knopfler co- wrote with Dylan. Disappointingly, it doesn’t happen, though Dylan and his merry men take to the stage for an encore of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘All Along The Watchtower’, the former which raises the roof off the house, the latter trailing off into mid bursts of blues playing from Dylan’s band.
Dylan’s refusal to engage with his audience means that he doesn’t attract the same adulation, live, which Leonard Cohen, for example, has courted on stage during his touring of recent years. The distance that he keeps from his audience is so that one could sympathise with the steady stream of fans leaving the venue before the night’s end (no doubt insulted by Dylan’s perceived contempt for his audience and frustrated at how foreign the sound and arrangements of some of the songs sound in comparison to studio recordings). What they don’t realise, however, is that though Dylan has appeared to us in many guises, he is still the same uncompromising rebel he always was. Dylan has managed to integrate his vast catalogue of songs to the point where they are all, consistently, in dialogue with one another. Although Dylan’s next move, in terms of recording or completing his long-overdue second installment Chronicles is vague, he will surely continue to play live in the same style and feel as he has for, at least, the last 10–15 years. His success at achieving his singular vision for his songs that he feels he needs to keep the material fresh, coupled with the appetite that he still has to play live, suggests that his so-called Never Ending Tour won’t be winding down anytime soon.