His Bobness kicks up a storm among the seven hills and proves he's still armed to the teeth

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The Thunder Rolls On

Bob Dylan

PALALOTTOMATICA (PALA EUR), ROME

Saturday November 1, 2003

When the lights go down and the taped fanfare dies away, the MC reads out the following citation: “The Poet Laureate of rock’n’roll, declared washed up in the ’80s, back stronger than ever at the decade’s end…” And so it goes on, a prizefighter’s testimony. And when it’s finished, boppin’Bob emerges from the shadows, an impossibly feisty 63-year-old freak of nature. He takes up his position behind the electric piano pitched at the far left of the stage and slams into “To Be Alone With You”, the band falling in behind as best they can.

The chaotic blend of sleazy Texan boogie and raw innuendo suits Dylan fine as he gives the line “you’re the only one I’m thinking of”all the suggestiveness he can muster. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”is stretched out on the rack of Larry Campbell’s slide guitar, the tender vocal turning it into an astonishing hymn to newness. And then “Cry A While”goes under the knife, a mercilessly filleted, agonised blues.

To think that a few years ago this man was being touted as a Nobel Peace Prize front-runner. Peace? What does Dylan know about peace? Artistically savage rancour, unsettling discord, confusion and searing rebukes remain his favoured weapons. Dylan swapped his guitar for electric piano several months back on The Never Ending Tour; a move some say was prompted by back pain or arthritis. Whatever the reason, he uses the keyboard not for rink dink embellishments but as a percussive sounding board, a butcher’s slab where he hacks into the meat of his songs and the heart of his myth.

Tonight, Dylan is a mix of Jester Imp and Jack The Ripper, slippery as an eel and deadly as a shark. He still has the knack of jumping back astonished, puzzled and excited by the sheer majesty and insight of his younger self. Tonight’s version of the venerable “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”, for instance, seethes with indignation as he brings big gothic strokes to the story of outrageous racism. “It’s Alright Ma”, meanwhile, is nasty and gruesome?like he’s sick to the core of the song’s all too bitter truths.

A curtain falls over the preposterous backdrop logo as he begins “Mr Tambourine Man”, and the 8,000 crowd cheers every line?but the song is rendered as gaudy ham drama, Dylan playing to the gallery like a shameless old tart. “Man In The Long Black Coat”, by comparison, is laced with unexpected tremors, subterfuge and deceit; dark clouds of Telecaster and peals of drum thunder. Magnificent.

Dylan enjoys himself immensely, jiggling about and tapping his feet on the pedals as he leads the band into “Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum”. This is the post-apocalyptic Chess band of his dreams made real, racing off into the hinterland, pulling up short on the hairpin bends, almost crashing and falling over the edge.

“Love Minus Zero”gets run down, battered and left by the roadside?but “Highway 61”, so often a lame throwaway, courses with toxic power and sheer violence. The band spill blood and boiling oil as Bob recreates the timeless/timely theatre of war and sacrifice.

The torture rack is back out for “Every Grain Of Sand”?lyrics mangled horribly, Bob the hunter taking a pot shot at a prized quarry and delivering a requiem over its corpse. Outrageous. He gnaws away at “Honest With Me”, rushes through “Don’t Think Twice”, swaggers around “Summer Days”and returns for a suitably perverse encore of “Cat’s In The Well”.

Then it’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, Dylan as Wired Midget Emperor, hammering out chords and glorying in demented wonder. And finally there’s a bizarre staccato breakdown version of “All Along The Watchtower”, the sequences of collapse and recovery a microcosm for the entire set or even, gulp, his career.

At the end, Dylan stands alone on the stage, shuffling his feet, covering his tracks. None of the crowd wants to leave. Whatever else they see, they know they’ll never see a show like this again. Whatever else he does, Bob will make sure they don’t.