MELBOURNE, Australia -- It was a relaxed and confident-looking Bob Dylan,
dressed in a steel-gray suit and black string-tie, who strolled onstage at the
Mercury Lounge on Wednesday night.
And his demeanor never faltered as he powered into a rousing version of
"Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," from his classic 1966 album, Blonde on
Laden with explosive guitar-play from the band and replete with a solo by Dylan
himself, the song was an appropriate kickoff to this rare club show by the
legendary singer/songwriter, an event that served as the perfect warm-up for his
Australian tour that started the next day.
The adulation that greeted Dylan when he took the stage actually increased by
the time he reluctantly left -- more than two hours and three encores later.
The first part of the show included "Pretty Peggy-O," "Shelter from the Storm,"
"Tough Mama," "You're A Big Girl Now" and two selections from his recent,
acclaimed Time Out Of Mind album -- "Can't Wait" and "Cold Irons Bound"
(which emerged from a long howl of feedback). The musicians framed the songs
with some exceptionally tight playing, while still allowing Dylan room to move
with his guitar as he delivered the lyrics with new-found passion.
It was definitely not the throwaway delivery that seemed to mark some of his
past shows. It was almost as if Dylan had re-discovered his own songs.
Picking up an acoustic guitar for the next half-hour and seven songs, he proved
that his skills as a troubadour remain undiminished. As he began to sing
"Cocaine Blues," it was clear that his voice has assumed the timbre and
expressiveness that might be compared with some of the great blues singers. With
longtime bassist Tony Garnier on the upright bass and pedal-steel player Bucky
Baxter also using mandolin, the musical setting was varied and rich.
Once again proving his legendary status, Dylan re-fanned the ardor of his
following. "The greatest musical experience of my life," said Warwick Brown,
owner of Greville Records and a longtime Dylan fanatic. "It puts every other
great gig into insignificance. I had two 45-year-olds next to me screaming. It
was like we were all 15 and at a Spice Girls concert!"
After his last tour here five years ago, it might have seemed that only die-hard
fans were keeping the flame alive. At one of those shows, the performance was
lackluster, and the band was hard-pressed to keep up with its leader.
There had been reports over the past year about the high quality of Dylan's most
recent performances, and the crowd at the Mercury Lounge was expectant and
enthusiastic. In fact, this was the hottest ticket in town since Mick Jagger's
legendary set at the Corner Hotel a decade ago.
With Garnier and Baxter joined by guitarist Larry Campbell and drummer David
Kemper, Dylan's band seemed one of his strongest to date, as the folk-rock icon
presided over a set of songs that straddled his career, past to present.
His classic "Mr. Tambourine Man" was given new life with a slightly uptempo
rendering. "Masters of War" was delivered with seriousness, emphasizing that its
message is as relevant as when it was first written. The traditional "Roving
Gambler" (delivered in jaunty style with some superb harmony vocals from
Campbell) and the foreboding "Dark As A Dungeon" recalled Dylan's early folk
"Forever Young," with its ringing pedal-steel guitar, was memorable for its
impassioned delivery, but it also incited the crowd to sing along loudly, much
to Dylan's delight.
"Highway 61 Revisited" jolted the crowd out of its acoustic reverie as Dylan and
Campbell traded guitar lines. This all-too-brief rendition ended the set and
left the crowd screaming for more. Had the gig ended then and there, no one
would have felt short-changed.
However, Dylan and band returned without much persuasion and launched into a
stunning version of
(RealAudio excerpt), followed by a rollicking rendition of "Rainy Day Women #12
& 35" with just one verse and one chorus. The latter became an instrumental
showcase for the band and for Dylan's own guitar-playing solo.
A beautiful, acoustic "Blowin' In The Wind" preceded a gravelly, bluesy
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Dylan,_Bob/Til_I_Fell_In_Love_With_You.ram">" 'Til I Fell In Love With You"
'Til I Fell In Love With You"(RealAudio excerpt), from Time Out Of
Mind. Finally, as if to show how pleased he was with the reception he had
been given, Dylan returned once more to thunderous applause.
A version of "Silvio" featured Dylan on some more long guitar solos. There was
even a hint of several smiles and the suspicion that Dylan was as pleased with
his performance as he was with the reception from his fans.
Shall Be Released" (RealAudio excerpt) closed the show. It was
inspirational in its delivery and also in the way it galvanized the crowd, who
felt compelled to join the chorus.
It is astonishing to think that, nearly 40 years after his career began, Dylan
not only sounds as good as ever, but he is as relevant as ever.
Gerald McNamara, a fortysomething fan, had nothing but praise for Dylan's
performance. "It was fantastic. The only other person who might come close is