Bob Dylan was bathed in burnished orange back-lighting as he and his band took to the stage for a long-awaited return to Dublin. It was the colour of the sun going down, which was likewise the feeling evoked as the 81-year-old delivered a set full of melancholy and – was this truly Bob Dylan? – wistfulness.
His choice of material reflected that autumnal mood. The hits which upended popular culture in the 1960s and which have united the generations in awe and wonder were largely absent. This was instead an introspective and plaintive performance, full of mid-tempo numbers that begin with the ennui-soaked splash of Watching The River Flow.
“Right now I'll just sit here so contentedly / And watch the river flow,” he sang. His voice was a thoughtful rasp. Conspicuously absent was the barbed sting which, in the latter half of his career, has made Dylan the ultimate marmite troubadour, provoking veneration and bafflement in equal measure.
Many of the songs had a diaristic quality. I Contain Multitudes, from 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways album, was a sparse unpacking of Dylan’s interior life. “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones,” he half sang, half intoned – a lyric that could have been pulled off only by Bob Dylan.
That measured stride occasionally threatened to become glacial. Another Rough and Rowdy Ways pick, Key West (Philosopher Pilot) was stretched out to nearly 10 minutes – and felt like it. But if the pace never changed, the intensity was cranked up to heartbreaking levels with I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, from 1967’s John Wesley Harding, and a cover of Johnny Mercer’s That Old Black Magic, which Dylan negotiated as if wryly exorcising demons.
As a strictly phone-free gig, attendees had to put their device in a Yondr pouch on the way in. You keep the pouch through the gig, and it gets unlocked on the way out.
Dylan spent most of the near two-hours behind a battered upright piano, so that only his scarecrow hair, twinkling eyes and downcast mouth were visible (this must have been one of the first Dylan concerts in Ireland where he went on without a hat).
Occasionally Dylan would step out and acknowledge the crowd. Towards the end, there were even some words to go with the smiles as he revealed that Shane MacGowan was in the house and that Fairytale of New York was a favourite of his (“I listen to it every Christmas”).
Also late in the evening came a heartbreaking harmonica solo. As Dylan parped, there was a sense of a sea parting as the audience sprung to their feet, clapping and hooting. If this was goodbye, then Dylan and the crowd were united in ensuring it was a grand farewell to remember.