Bob Dylan in New Zealand

The Groove Guide

In 1978, the news that Bob Dylan would be playing in New Zealand was like being told they were selling tickets to the second coming. At that time, Dylan seemed more myth than man. Hiding from public view for half of the past decade had only deepened his mystique. The idea of him performing in Auckland seemed positively surreal.

Reality was bent even further out of shape when, the day before the concert, I walked out of a bar in Vulcan Lane (having been stood up by the girl I was hoping to take to the show) only to see Dylan himself strolling by, just a couple of metres away. Finding myself in the unexpected position of being next to Bob Dylan on a street corner, I blurted out the one thing I could think of: “I’m looking forward to your concert tomorrow.” His answer was a brief but congenial “Okay, I’ll see you there”, as he headed across High Street and up the hill towards the Intercontinental Hotel.

That human-scale encounter didn’t make him seem any less mythic the next night on the Western Springs stage. His band was a sonic circus – backup singers, horns, violins, an army of guitarists – with Bob as ringmaster, in dazzling white jacket and top hat. It was a long show, a parade of hits in busy big-band arrangements. He gave a shout-out to the ‘Highway 61 Motorcycle Club.’ The 78 tour was damned by some critics as ‘Dylan’s Vegas show’, and is ill-served by the Live At Budokan album (recorded in Japan a couple of weeks earlier) but that night under the stars at Western Springs was magic.

There was measurably less magic when Bob played his next New Zealand shows, in February 1986. This was the start of his first tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Opening night at Wellington’s Athletic Park had the distinct air of a rehearsal. They began with an amorphous instrumental, Dylan noodling on organ, and followed with a curious selection of lesser Dylan tunes, other people’s songs, and a smattering of favourites. Unbelievably, Petty’s group managed to fluff the changes in ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. Friends who caught the Auckland set reported a similar sense of work-in-progress.

If that was strange, Dylan’s next appearance, in April 1992, was grotesque. The venue was the Mt. Smart Supertop. The sound in the giant tent was dull and murky. The only thing louder than the drums was Dylan’s checkered jacket, which made him look a bit like a vaudeville comic, except he wasn’t being funny. His hurried tempos, skipped verses and slurred words all suggested he would rather be anywhere – or anyone - else.

I remember wondering as we left whether I’d ever see him again, or want to. Yet 1997’s epochal Time Out Of Mind was evidence enough of artistic rebirth to get me along to the Queens Wharf Events Centre in 1998, where Patti Smith opened and Dylan played with a band that shone in spite of the room’s punishing acoustics. ‘Friend Of The Devil’ – an unspoken tribute to the late Jerry Garcia – was especially moving. He returned to the Events Centre in February 2003, where the sound was miraculously improved, to offer an engaged and intensely musical set. ‘Don’t Think Twice’, with Dylan on guitar, was playful and passionate; ‘It’s Alright Ma’, on piano, brooding and bruised.

Four years later he was back yet again and I caught him twice in Auckland: at the soulless Vector Arena and glorious Civic Theatre. If the grizzly-voiced Dylan noticed any difference between the two venues he didn’t show it; playing mostly piano, both shows found him focused entirely on the music, which zig-zagged through Chicago blues, western swing and early rock’n’roll.

And in April 2011 he was back at the Vector yet again, with much the same stylistic mix as 2007, though with a harder, at times punkish edge. A version of ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’ – a song from his gospel phase, largely rewritten – was seared into my skull.

These days Dylan’s visits are almost routine; less holy visitation, more like an old time minstrel on an eternal tent-show circuit. In some ways it suits him better. The songs are treated not as anthems or sacred texts, but as pliable forms that give Bob and his band a chance to find out what they can do. And on a good night that can still be magic. See you next time Bob, whenever that may be.

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