Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Brief Encounter - Bob Dylan in Milan

For this month long jaunt through Europe Dylan has changed his modus operandi. He's eschewing the big barns in favour of a series of mini residencies in more intimate venues. This is the final night of a three night stand in Milans 2,340 capacity Teatro degli Arcimboldi in the University district.

Milan Duomo
I can appreciate that Dylan anoraks like me love it when he plays wildly varying sets each night, but this time around the advance web chatter is all about static set lists. In truth however, despite the well-earned reputation for winging it, the set lists have been more fixed for a few years now. Some miss the frisson of "anything could happen" extemporisation, but in compensation Dylan has been turning in solidly professional shows like this one for some time now.

The difference this time around that he's largely ditched the greatest hits. For me this is good news, for the casual fan it might be irksome. Anyone hoping for Like A Rolling Stone or Knocking on Heaven's Door will be sorely disappointed. Not content to coast on the 1960's legacy the bias is very firmly on more recent material. There's even a most unDylanesque plug for his latest album Tempest with no less than five of the nineteen songs drawn from that album alone.

The proceedings began abruptly almost bang on time. Suddenly the lights were out, no ceremony no intro. A few chords from rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball and out moseyed the maestro behind his band to a thunderous almost ecstatic welcome. A mixture of young and old, this might be the most enthusiastic crowd I've witnessed at a Dylan gig for many moons. Dylan stood for a few seconds at the central mic scratching his head and the band launched into a country-rockabilly Things Have Changed. He opened with this the last time I saw him two years ago in Firenze. The difference this time: he didn't mangle it. Vocally he was on focused and on form with not a single lyric flub and clear enunciation. The seal barking of the openers of the last ten years nowhere in evidence.

She Belongs To Me was up next. Set to the beat of a martial drum and with some melifluous guitar from Charlie Sexton this was gorgeous. Dylans vocal floated atop a cloud of rhythm and he played an understated and melodic harmonica solo that brought rapturous applause. Unencumbered by any other instrument Dylan really can concentrate on wringing musicality out of his delightfully eccentric harmonica style. I'm sorry if you miss his guitar. I prefer it this way.

Moving to the grand piano for a calypso inflected Beyond Here Lies Nothing, Bob wriggled and wiggled as he stood to play - it was that funky. The arrangement elevated a fairly pedestrian string of cliches into something worth listening to. I shuffled a bit in appreciation. Remaining at the piano for What Good Am I? (a worthy song that's been gathering dust twenty years until brought out for this tour) it suddenly struck me that this was the quietest Dylan gig I've ever witnessed... on stage I mean. The melody was carried by the band on this one with Dylan playing a counterpoint on piano: most accomplished.

Inside the plush Teatro degli Arcimboldi
I could've lived without Duquesne Whistle. The weakest song on Tempest, it's monotonous riff is interminable. Quite why he exhumed the minor country waltz Waiting For You (written for a film soundtrack) remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. With their 1940's feel, maybe these songs were channelling radio programmes of his boyhood? Maybe it's the legendary perversity? I admire the chutzpah, but there was a definite drop in energy levels. This wasn't remedied by Pay In Blood an excellent song in it's lilting Tempest arrangement which was delivered here as a quieter number with a crescendo at the end of each verse that abruptly drops off the cliff. It just didn't work. It's an angry song, "Another politician pumping out the piss", but Dylan demurred from, "You bastards! I'm supposed to respect you?", with a lyric change "My conscience is clear, what about yours?". It's horses for courses. Tangled Up In Blue was notable for a new set of lyrics and for Dylan's piano playing which was the dominant instrument on this one. A very strong Lovesick with flawless harmonica work redeemed the the first set. Dylan spoke for the only time of the evening to tell us there would be a break.

He returned with High Water (for Charlie Patton) which began with some banjo plucking and got progressively heavier. A simply stunning piano driven Simple Twist of Fate followed. Musically this was the business. And then a clutch of recent songs sealed this as one of the best Dylan concerts I've seen in years. The rueful Forgetful Heart underscored by a bowed double bass and with some plaintive harmonica work was spare and intense. He reproduced the Tempest version of Scarlet Town perfectly. This sinister little number was enhanced by a great baritone and a vocal dexterity he hasn't mustered in years. Ditto Soon After Midnight where I swear he banged out Blueberry Hill on the piano during the middle eight! Finally the closer Long and Wasted Years is without exaggeration the best and most dramatic single performance in my 35 years of Dylan watching. Exhilarating! The encores All Along The Watchtower (complete with jazz piano interlude) and Blowing In The Wind were crowd pleasers that should be dispensed with and I thought of leaving then but I hung back....

Because earlier I had a close encounter with genius. Bob and I made the same mistake in trying to see Leonardo's The Last Supper during closing hours. There he was ouside the church of Santa Maria della Gracia.

"Bob, do you think you could play It's All Over Now Baby Blue on Monday night?"
"Mmm. I'll see what I can do."

What he actually did was a mighty fine Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall in the middle of the second set. Most unexpected. Okay Bob, I'll settle for that.


  1. Thanks Jonathon, greatly enjoyed your review. I Know it was an evening to remember.

  2. Would have especially enjoyed the 'Blood On The Tracks' songs. Something else about meeting the legend....I once met Harry Gration....

  3. I would have loved the Blood On The Tracks songs. Something else in meeting the legend when out and about....I once bumped into Harry Gration.....

  4. Great Blog! I bought a small place in Abruzzo..we must complare notes sometime?ps We go see Dylan in Blackpool at the end of the month.No doubt the story will be recorded on my own blog.Regards,Tony