(Note: Strong language in the 13th paragraph)
By Angus MacSwan
LONDON (Reuters) - Bob Dylan played London’s Albert Hall this week for the first time since his fabled and tumultuous concerts there in 1966, his vitality and mystique intact five decades on since he revolutionized popular music.
This time round there were no boos and catcalls prompted by his use of electric instruments, just ovations as he led his crack band through a set that drew heavily from his latest album “Tempest” but also reached back into earlier stages of his career.
True to form, Dylan said not a word to the audience, letting the music speak for itself.
He kicked off on Wednesday night with the Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed” following it with “She Belongs to Me” - the only song which had also featured in the 1966 shows.
An early highlight was “What Good Am I” from 1989’s “Oh Mercy”. He also offered up gentle, almost jazzy versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate “ from “Blood on the Tracks.
But there was still plenty of fire and brimstone in the 72-year-old - “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own” he snarled in “Pay in Blood”, a track from “Tempest”.
Further evidence he was not going soft was a bitter “Love Sick” from “Time Out of Mind”, the 1997 album which ushered in a new creative era for Dylan which shows no sign of stopping.
Dressed in a gambler’s coat and mariachi pants, Dylan either sat at a grand piano center stage or sang at the microphone. His hands do not allow him to play much guitar these days.
But he treated the audience to plenty of his trademark wheezing harmonica. That his voice is a raspy croak is not news but it still sounded strong, and he looked spritely, his curly head of hair also a survivor from the 1960s.
His three shows at the Albert Hall this week are part of the so-called Never-Ending Tour which sees him playing about 100 shows around the globe every year, reshaping his classics in new versions which have both delighted and perplexed fans.
It was the first time Dylan had played the cavernous Victorian venue since the controversial shows 47 years ago which became the stuff of legend.
For those gigs he brought an electric group which later became known as The Band - but his then-new direction was greeted with anger by many fans who worshipped him as a politically engaged folk troubadour.
In a famous confrontation, for many years reputed to be at the Albert Hall, a fan shouted out “Judas” to which Dylan replied “I don’t believe you” and instructed the band to “play fucking loud”.
The concert, heckler included, was released in 1998 as “The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert” - though in fact it was from the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
It might have been fitting if for his return Dylan had played “Like a Rolling Stone”, a 1966 show-stopper, but the Minnesota-born singer didn’t get where he is by doing the obvious.
As an encore, he played a roaring “All Along the Watchtower” followed by a R’n’B version of the peace anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” before he disappeared into the night.
Editing by Michael Roddy and Jeremy Gaunt