Present tense: Bob Dylan’s latest promotional image.
FOR six decades, Bob Dylan has left us guessing.
At a press conference held in San Francisco in 1965, the 25-year-old sat before a media pack who spent almost an hour firing off questions – some interesting and others terribly dull.
At times visibly uncomfortable with the focus all on him, Dylan’s answers shifted from comical to laconic, but it is early on in the footage that he delivers one of his most remarkable responses.
“Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?,” one reporter asks.
With a pause for thought, Dylan answers: “Oh, I think of myself as a song-and-dance man, ya know”.
It’s delivered with a crooked smile, but it’s clear that he’s actually not joking.
When asked why, Dylan – who had been propelled to superstar status with the release of his third album Bringing It All Back Home– shuffled in his seat before responding: “I don’t think we have time to really answer that”.
Labels have never been his thing.
Over the course of his career, Dylan has constantly changed, shifting styles musically – and vocally – from folk to rock, country to blues, gospel and, more recently, a deep exploration into the Great American Songbook across series of albums, including 2017’s Triplicate.
There is a mystery to him that remains unsolved and makes him undeniably intriguing.
Like his musical output, Dylan’s set lists aren’t exactly predictable.
There is no shortage of material to choose from, hundreds of songs that have led the way for countless covers by everyone from Rage Against the Machine to Cher, but the chances of hearing Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Hurricane, Like A Rolling Stone, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Just Like A Woman, I Shall Be Released, All Along the Watchtower (and all the rest, of course) are not guaranteed.
Frustrating for some, perhaps, but that’s the way he operates.
1996: Bob Dylan playing at Hyde Park in London.
So what can we expect when Dylan, who turned 77 in May, returns to Australia next month?
A look at his recent shows tell us the 2000 hit Things Have Changed, which he recorded for the film Wonder Boys and picked up two awards for best original song at the Oscars and the Golden Globes, was the most-played track on his run of dates across Europe earlier this year.
Long and Wasted Years (released in 2012) and Ballad of a Thin Man (from his 1965 record Highway 61 Revisited) are also on high rotation, with Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right (1963) and Blowin’ In The Wind (1962) getting a run alongside his Frank Sinatra cover Melancholy Mood and jazz standard Autumn Leaves.
It is by no means a greatest hits set, but Dylan has never pandered to his audience.
Songs are often reworked live, sometimes barley resembling the original.
He is known to joyfully interact with his band, but engaging with the audience on a personal level is not part of his game.
And it’s exactly this that has opinions divided about a Bob Dylan concert – it’s a love-it-or-hate-it experience.
Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour – as his constant tour schedule has been nicknamed – kicks off in Perth before heading to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and Brisbane, then across to New Zealand.
He performs at Newcastle Entertainment Centre on August 22, returning for the first time since playing the venue in 2003.
I was at that show and left feeling satisfied.
He closed the set with Blowin’ In the Wind and All Along The Watchtower, so who could argue with that?
Sharing the room with a true music icon, one that has left such an indelible imprint on the canvas of modern music (as well as being a recipient of a Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), is nothing short of incredible – even if they don’t sound quite like they used to.
A reworked version of Mr Tambourine Man got a run, as did I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.
It was another box ticked for me, but I recall receiving an email or two from readers in reply to my positive review of the show that strongly questioned my experience.
Was I at the same show? one reader scoffed.
Fifteen years on and the divisiveness of Dylan is unchanged.
In a review of one of Dylan’s shows in the US last year, Washington Post reporter Joe Heim described Dylan in concert ‘’as challenging as ever”.
Heim said the show felt “both riveting and oddly removed”, with the band remaining un-introduced for the whole show and Dylan not uttering a single word, before adding: “It didn’t matter. The songs connected even when the singer didn’t.”
In comparison, a glowing review from his show at London Palladium last year declared: “If there were ever a time in the last 20 years to see Bob Dylan live, now is that time”.
Dylan’s upcoming tour of Australia follows his 2014 month-long run of shows that placed him in smaller, intimate venues including Sydney’s State Theatre and The Palais in Melbourne.
1966: Dylan at a press conference in Melbourne.
He first toured Australia in 1966 and regularly returns, with no hint at plans to retire, despite peers such as Paul Simon and Elton John recently announcing they will step back from life on the road.
Even though Dylan has gone on record to dismiss the theory of a “Never Ending Tour”, it is one label that has stuck whenever he’s on the road.
The tour began in June 1988.
It’s debatable whether or not Dylan actually coined the term himself, but the fact is that he has remained on the road almost constantly since that year, with a three-month break due to illness being the longest period he has spent away from touring life.
He is on the verge of clocking up 3000 shows on the 30-year tour which have been played in more than 800 cities around the world.
“A lot of people can’t stand touring but, to me, it’s like breathing,” Dylan once said.
“I do it because I’m driven to do it.”
* Bob Dylan and his band perform at Newcastle Entertainment Centre on August 22. Tickets available through Ticketek.