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Review: Bob Dylan live at Cardiff International Arena

‘Things aren’t what they were,’ states the tagline to Bob Dylan’s latest Rough and Rowdy Ways tour – and to be frank, Bob, that’s putting it mildly after the challenges and madness of the past gruelling three years.

Things will never again be what they were – except it did seem like they could be for this 1 hr 40 minutes set, which provided very welcome and pure, unadulterated relaxation.

Cardiff International Arena, Cardiff, Wales. Credit: Seth Whales

This was a phone-free gig – which is a new one on me – and was more of a delight because of it (even if it meant delays checking in – an hour-long queue right around the CIA from gone 6.30pm and a bit of a Cardiff kerfuffle for everyone to get to their seats for the 8pm sharp start.)

Phones are hidden in poppered pouches and handed back to you – think anti-theft retail tag locking in terms of the seal – so you keep your phone on you, but can’t access it and then the poppers are released for us on the way out.

This and the high-octane panic stations of everyone in the queue desperate to get in before curtain-up (some didn’t!) and then bustling to try and navigate to the correct seats in the dark (no phones, see), were the biggest adrenaline spike of the evening – as soon as we managed to get seated, it was relax and melt away.

Nobel Prize winner Dylan needs no support act and is a diminutive figure hidden behind an upright piano for much of the show – it resembles a wooden DJ box or pulpit even, if you will.

Still gravelly-voiced and a compelling storyteller, the culture pin-up oozed charisma and cool. Still. He’s 81, for goodness’ sake.

Vampy blues merged into country, allowing the best kind of storytelling. Seated gigs aren’t my favourite and this is highlighted by the talented band’s jazz riffs, which feel like they truly warrant more than a sat-down sway.

Nine out of ten of the 17-strong set were from his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, released two years ago. If by rough, he means raw and gritty, then I agreed wholeheartedly, but the ‘rowdy’ was thankfully missing throughout.

This sell-out Cardiff stint was a real mixed bag of ages and sorts, all entirely immersed in the music for intervals of total hush peppered with occasional wholf-whistling, united, audience-wide clapping along and then back to silence and mesmerised.

‘Key West’ and a sample of ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ were expertly delivered by Dylan and his band – three guitarists alternating between electric, acoustic, bass, mandolin and everything in between.

With low lighting and no frills, they seemed like they have played together forever with Charley Drayton animated and creative on drums played with brushes and bonhos on the left wing.

There were interludes between songs / stories of Dylan shuffling to centre stage to demonstrate, almost that he’s not so steady on his feet – but hand on jutted hip to appreciate his applause.

A beautiful deconstruction of I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight with a Latin-like riff was a personal highlight and unsurprisingly wipes the floor with Robert Palmer’s reggae cover – though there have been lots of other covers more akin to the night’s slow and sultry version.

It was a slight shame that more of Dylan’s older classics didn’t feature, but then we were in the company of the calibre of legend who needn’t rely on a predictable back catalogue of favourites. Being 81 surely means you have nothing to prove and provides the privilege of doing what the hell you want. I certainly hope to be able to anyway.

‘Every Grain’ was tremendous with Dylan blasting on the harmonica while simultaneously managing the piano. There was no encore, despite protestations from his audience who, even so, left with the after-glow of having enjoyed a truly classy and timeless performance.

Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways tour continues in Hull, England on Thursday. For more information and to see the tour’s next dates, click here.