Bob Dylan in Berlin: chamber music with mobile phone ban

Even a never-ending tour has to end at some point, even Bob Dylan’s. But not yet, not here. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature has been on the road again for almost a year, on his concert tour called Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour. Dylan is now 81 years old, but his workload still looks amazing.

He has so far completed 88 dates on two continents, not only in the metropolises of New York and Los Angeles, but also in cities such as Little Rock, Meridian and Flensburg. He avoids the stadiums and large arenas, in the autumn of his career the greatest living songwriter makes chamber music with little luggage.

The question “How many roads must a man walk down?” from his sixty-year-old folk hit “Blowin’ in the Wind” has long since become irrelevant. Dylan just keeps walking.

Bob Dylan managed to consistently evade all expectations. The first of three concerts in Berlin’s Verti Music Hall begins enigmatically on Wednesday evening. A rock’n’roll rhythm sets in on the dark stage, then the silhouettes of six musicians can be seen in front of a room-filling red velvet curtain.

In the center is a box-shaped piano clad in black plastic. Behind it you can see a dark colored curly head. The curly head is Dylan, grumbling as he sings the opening track “Watching the River Flow”, a gently and beautifully flowing, little-known blues from 1971.

Dylan’s concerts used to be grab bags with programs that changed from day to day. The setlist for the Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour hasn’t changed since it began last November in Milwaukee.

The focus is on Dylan’s album of the same name, which was released in summer 2020. Rough and Rowdy Ways is his best record since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. A big life review that sounds like a fresh start.

Dylan plays eight of the ten tracks from “Rough and Rowdy Ways” that evening. The bittersweet talking blues “I Contain Multitudes,” in which he calls out characters like William Blake, Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones’ “British bad boys,” is followed by the upbeat, swaying country track “False Prophet,” in which he insists on not being who people think he is: “You don’t know me, darlin'”.

Bob Dylan sings powerfully and sometimes a little naggingly. Some notes slip out of place for him, but as is well known, he was never a bel canto. The hit denial in this setlist is blatant. “Loke a Rolling Stone”, “The Times They Are a-Changin'” or “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”? puff cake.

Instead, however, at least two semi-hits, the wonderful love ballad “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, whispered by Dylan, and the gospel piece “Gotta Serve Somebody” from the awakening album “Slow Train Coming”, which unfolds in a wall of sound.

One of the highlights is the death-and-devil chasing track “Black Rider”, which gently emerges from piano banter and e-guitar chugging and comes from the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” record. Dylan calls out to the black doombird: “Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how / If there ever was a time, then let it be now.”

Carried by guitar chords, his voice sounds smooth and fearless. It is unclear whether it is black humor or the conjuration of the last things.

The seafaring anthem “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is similarly ambiguous, just as great, again from the “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album. To Caribbean bongo rhythms and glistening e-piano garlands, Dylan argues about happiness on sunny shores, about pirate radio stations, hibiscus blossoms and the magic of Florida. He cites Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They’re misfits like himself, born on the wrong side of the train tracks.

The piece ends gently, it ebbs like the surf of the sea. For a moment, Bob Dylan leaves his seat behind the black piano case, which is reminiscent of a coffin. He steps onto the stage, a small man dressed in a velvet green Country & Western shirt and rumpled black sweatpants. He looks fragile and frail, the sold-out hall cheers for him with 4000 visitors.

Photographers are not allowed, and all spectators had to switch off their cell phones at the entrance and put them in sealed cases. Nobody takes snapshots or selfies, nobody can hold up the dimly lit display of their mobile phone like a lighter when it’s contemplative.

Dylan wants maximum attention, he expects the audience to be willing to immerse themselves in the moment. This creates an almost intimate atmosphere in the medium-sized auditorium.

After almost two hours, as Dylan has sung the bouncer blues “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, he introduces his excellent backing band: guitarists Bob Britt and Doug Lancio, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer Charley Drayton and Donnie Herron on violin, pedal steel guitar and Lap steel guitar. Big cheers again.

Then they play “Every Grain of Sand” from the 1981 album “Shot of Love”. It is a well-known fact that Bob Dylan never gives an encore, but he smiles briefly. A phenomenal evening. Those who were there will rave about it for a long time.

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