Another legend ticked off the bucket list, but little did I know it would be Hamilton which would provide the opportunity. Claudeland’s Arena turned out to be a suitable replacement for Vector in Auckland (which was booked with Disney on Ice), with a great sound mix and the right atmosphere for an evening with Dylan and his band.
The strumming of a guitar introduced Dylan as he and his band took the stage right on 8pm. Soft lighting replaced the black of the stage and revealed a tasteful setup, with a curtain backdrop and large lights hovering above. From our position at the back of the arena the band was still very visible, although Dylan the most darkly lit of all the members. Still, his hat and long coat distinguished him as he took to the old style mic setup at the front of the stage, and launched into first song Things Have Changed from the Wonder Boys soundtrack. His voice is in great form, still choosing odd rhythms to sing as is his modern style, but the melody is still there below the husk. The sound mix was particularly good, putting his vocals right in front of the mix where they should be, but the drums, multiple guitars, bass clearly audible. From there Dylan would run through a large portion of most recent album Tempest, other favorites from Time Out Of Mind onwards, and he even found time to play some of the old classics that perhaps much of the Hamilton crowd came out to hear, albeit with new arrangements.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect, this being my first Dylan show and his reputation of doing what he wants in spite of the desires of his audiences is much documented. But the arrangements were not nearly as wild and jammed as I had expected, and though the band played with new styles on classics such as She Belongs To Me and Tangled Up In Blue, but still retaining the essence of the original songs. Regardless of that, it shows just how unique an artist Dylan is, that he is prepared to continually reshape his songs decades after writing them. She Belongs To Me came early in the show, and would probably have to be my favourite of that first set. But the band was also able to let rip on Dulquesne Whistle, with musical director and longest-serving Dylan band-member Tony Garnier on the double bass, and this track from Tempest was another early highlight. Charlie Sexton was frequently allowed solo breaks, and his licks were consistently entertaining. This is a very well rehearsed band, all able to play off each other and Bob, the rest of the band being rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball, Donnie Herron on the pedal steel, mandolin, violin and banjo and all held together by a stompingly tight drummer, George Recile. What Good Am I? from Oh Mercy provided another early highlight – as did Time Out Of Mind‘s Love Sick and the bluesy revenge drama of Paid In Blood from Tempest. But Dylan’s captivating performance of all-time classic Tangled Up In Blue proved to be the biggest crowd pleasure judging by the cheers.
Dylan left the stage for a brief interval and returned for another hour-long set, beginning with High Water off Love and Theft. The highlights from the second set were for me the ballads; Soon After Midnight from the new album and the pretty Spirit On The Water from Modern Times. Between singing Dylan took to his harmonica to deliver some terrific solos and also played a grand piano in several songs, most notable Spirit On The Water. His piano style seemed simple, keeping mostly to chords, but especially in Water the plonking jovial piano style was the highlight of the song (besides his vocals). It may be a shame he doesn’t pick up a guitar anymore, but he’s found ways to work his performance into something different, perhaps to suit his new even rougher vocals. Maybe it’s also just plain easier to play piano live every night rather than stand up bashing a guitar, and seeing as the man is in 73rd year and still going strong, it is a credit that he’s found ways to innovate and keep his performance fresh. Spirit On The Water was played authentically to the album version with the band delivering some of the best melodies of the night. The other highlight of the 2nd set was another Blood On The Tracks classic, Simple Twist Of Fate, proving Dylan’s more of a crowd pleasure and more prepared to give the people the classics they want than many people give him credit for.
Talking with several of the event staff after the show, they stated that there was several walkouts from unhappy punters, expected the old stuff and not happy with the majority new material. But credit to these people for helping to fill the seats and thus getting Dylan to play two shows in Hamilton, because the rest of us, familiar with his newer material or just more open-minded were greeted with a really great show, from a legend whose decade long touring career shows no signs of slowing down. Those who left early also missed the most crowd pleasingly unexpected encore, of All Along The Watchtower and Blowing In The Wind. Perhaps not totally unexpected with those familiar with setlist.fm but in the middle of a concert of unexpected twists and turns, it still felt out of left field. All Along The Watchtower was played with unexpected aggression and I could no longer contain myself in my seat, pulling another ‘concert sneaky’ and running to the front and the side of the stage, where a group of people dressed in matching 1965 style Dylan concerts (black suits, harmonica, curly wig) and a few drunk old punters had gathered to dance in the aisles. At this point I caught my first close up gaze at the man himself, verifying that it was indeed Dylan on stage and not a look/soundalike. Blowing In The Wind again felt totally unexpected, his most enduring anthem, and yet it seemed so surprising for an artist that consistently turns from his past, to launch as far into his myth as he possibly could and pull out his biggest anthem for this grateful Hamilton audience. The arrangement was totally different (and better perhaps) and Dylan delivered one last ripping harmonica solo before leading the band to the songs climax. The house lights then came on, the band walked to the front of stage arms around one another and quickly bowed, before Dylan and his comrades walked off for the final time.
It was over all too soon, and I hope to have another experience with Dylan; if so I would fork out a bit more and try to get close enough to see the man’s face for the duration of the show. I won’t hold my breath for that as who knows what the man will do next. Yet this performance was I’m sure something more than Hamilton has seen in some time, and those that were prepared to re-evaluate what the myth of Dylan meant to them surely got their moneys worth.