Bob Dylan: Never Mind.

10 February 2003 | 1:00 am | Mike Gee
Originally Appeared In

That’s All Folk.

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Bob Dylan plays the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on February 11.

A few years ago, on his 1998 studio album, Time Out Of Mind, Bob Dylan began contemplating death. Staring it in the eye, asking the big question: what next? Love and lovers passed before his steady gaze, so did a world, the churning and turning of which he's flagged for more than 40 years. Bob wasn't exactly making peace with his past but he was giving it a good going over. The Oscar-winning Things Have Changed from The Wonder Boys soundtrack said it all. People are crazy and times are strange / I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range / I used to care, but things have changed.

Yet care, Dylan still does. He cares enough to continue the never-ending tour - in its 15th year it shows no signs of winding down, even if Bob - 63 on May 24 - isn't the healthiest man on the planet. But you get the sense it doesn't matter. Dylan is, it seems, playing out his life where he is now most comfortable - on stage. And his legend continues to grow.

That wasn't always necessarily going to be so. For more than 20 years, the legend of Robert Zimmerman took an increasingly severe thrashing. The scoffers and scorners - there have always been plenty - could hardly contain their glee. For a while it had looked like Bob had burned out in '75 with Blood On The Tracks and Desire. The former a masterpiece, the latter a mere classic. It was 23 years before Time Out Of Mind found Dylan back at his peak - and it won a Grammy as Album Of The Year. It most assuredly was. The follow-up, Love Theft (2000), was an equally enervating romp in which Dylan revisited his folk roots and drew upon the blues. It was obvious the greatest singer/songwriter of the modern era - no apologies for that statement - had reconnected with that indefinable something that made him a genuine icon and spokesman for two generations.

His last two concerts in Australia underscored how things had changed. When he visited in the late 80s, he performed some of the worst concerts by a major overseas artist on Australian soil. So poor was his singing and tinny-yet-dense the sound that even hard core Dylanophiles had trouble picking each song. When he returned in 1998 with Patti Smith he was a different man. The band and Bob smoked but if that night at the Entertainment Centre was great then it was just a warm up for his March 2001 show in Sydney’s Centennial Park. On a windy, stormy, thunderous night, he painted his masterpiece. So staggeringly good was Bob the bandit that he prompted a 63-year-old American woman who first saw Bob in 1962 to pronounce it one of the best six Dylan shows she'd seen. That was her 108th.

Of course, what Bob's been doing is reinventing himself and his entire songbook. Songs have changed radically, grown longer and shorter, slowed down, sped up, been plugged and unplugged. Most recently, Dylan's taken to spending more time on electric piano than guitar. Into the smorgasbord of his own brilliant catalogue has come an endless flow of covers. The Stones' Brown Sugar had the audience in the aisles most often before the never-ending tour wound up for its Christmas break. When George Harrison passed away, Bob saluted him by tackling a couple of his greatest songs. It is the most organic of entities this tour, this band, this Bob; a chameleon that changes its colour and look from night to night. It rides the modern train lines and plays at each stop. The spirit of Woody Guthrie isn't so far behind.

At this point, it should be said that this is being written to the accompaniment of the latest archival Dylan release - The Bootleg Series Vol.5 - Bob Dylan Live 1975. Live 1975 is a bloody brilliant record - period pieces such as Hurricane, Isis and Romance Of Durango nestle up against wonderful versions of It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, Just Like A Woman, Tangled Up In Blue, Simple Twist Of Fate, Mr Tambourine Man, The Lonesome Death Of Hatie Carroll and the stark and challenging Knockin' On Heaven's Door.

For the Dylan freak, live concerts are a staple. Fortunately, the Net has been a rich source of classic nights from the never-ending tour: I've heard dozens of shows from the past few years and, remarkably, they are all different. Just as remarkably, there never seems to be a bum night. Web sites all over the world chronicle the set lists of every show and compare them. - the mother of all Dylan sites - runs a daily Dylan (and related artists and issues) links service; there's rarely less than 10 or 12 a day. You'd be surprised how much Dylan discussion and news there is in the media.

I've also been listing to a series of 'bootlegs' recorded in 1962 - excellent quality considering the primitive recording equipment at the time, and revelling in the early Dylan's interpretation of folk and blues standards as well as his original takes on some of his own standards. It seems impossible they were taped more than 40 years ago. He was just a travellin' man then, and he still he is.