The air in the venerable old Albert Hall was tempered, at least in the upper reaches, with dreamy stage haze as the lights went out and a guitar played a prelude of fragments of pregnant melody and repeated chords the nature of whose offspring was indeterminate. A few shadowy figures populated the stage, the lights went up and drums cannoned in, and there he was, the venerable old man himself, stood in front of the mic unencumbered by instruments, giving us a heart-stirring rendering of Things Have Changed. And straight after it, She Belongs To Me: "She's got everything she needs, she's an artist, she don't look back" – though less of a uncompromising statement now, as Dylan chose to raise the melodic note of the cadence of each line, rather like the Antipodean way with English that raises the end of every sentence to a question, but revealing a gentler, high voice that was, if only rarely, in evidence later on too. For an opening one couldn't have asked for better: it felt like a privilege to be there, a lifetime of memories flooding back and a new legendary event created before our eyes.
Wonderful it was, and I wished all my venerable old friends could have been there to experience it with me, but the choice of songs was no surprise as this is the set that, with minor modifications of content and order, Dylan has been touring throughout Europe, and a few days previous in Scotland and Blackpool. This in itself is rather extraordinary. How many times can a man sing this set and make it forever new? The answer my friend is – well, some of the recordings from the tour in Germany sound fresher and more biting, but that may be a result of the quality of sound up in the restricted-view seats of the Upper Circle at the Royal Albert Hall where the mid-range and bass dominated, and we got the rasp of the voice but a shortage of consonantal detail. You needed to have done your homework, revisited the lyrics, to allow any chance of the full impact. But needless to say, he's a true professional, he does his job well, and communication of something – though goodness knows what – was strong.
The ever-inscrutable artist sung a selection of songs apparently about love and hate and death, often as not with a near-monotone chant, the pause between lines inhabited by plangent melodic fragments from his, as always, excellent band. Beyond Here Lies Nothing is a number whose very jauntiness seems desperate to keep the nothing beyond at bay, and he sang it standing playing the piano, to be followed by What Good Am I? – it came over as a searching threnody. Things lightened up for an energetic Dusquene Whistle, and Waiting For You featured a moment where he chanted like doggerel, "You're – there – every night, among the good and the true". Standing again before the mic he acted the nasty man, and gave a really evil-sounding rendition of Pay In Blood, and even allowed himself the odd theatrical gesture, the left hand raised for a moment to point ahead, as though it might perhaps be us required to donate the sanguinary payment.
A much-rewritten and abbreviated version of Tangled Up In Blue, sung once more from the piano, was bereft of my favourite lines: "There was music in the cafés at night, and revolution in the air", and the always astounding song of the suffering of love, Love Sick, with its fatalistic slow repeated loud guitar chords, saw Dylan reach into his jacket pocket and bring out the harmonica for some long held mournful cries, and it brought the first half to a strong close.
My memory of the second half is that it wasn't quite so strongly characterised, though blessed with fine performances of Early Roman Kings and Forgetful Heart with a sentimental solo violin in the backing. Scarlet Town had an evocatively ominous and hypnotic repetitiveness, and Long and Wasted years was a song made for the ravaged voice that pronounced it. For an encore there was a rather thickly arranged version of All Along The Watchtower, and we rolled on smoothly to the final song, Roll On John. We clapped a bit more and very suddenly someone switched the house lights on: go home!
The Royal Albert had informed us, warned us indeed, that there would be no support act, no "Bob Dylan and guests" as the ticket had promised, and the concert began almost bang on time, which was a bit of a surprise. It wasn't too loud – always a worry for those of us whose hearing has been damaged enough already by late-Romantic symphonies, when we step out into the world of rock concerts. It didn't go on too long either, finishing at a civilised hour, just after 9.35, and no-one shouted 'Judas!' or any such stuff. In fact, the whole evening was very nice. Not even a whiff of revolution in the air... Things have changed.