WHAT has happened to Bob Dylan? Just when we thought we knew where we were with his complicated ways, he has spun around and pulled the rug from beneath our feet – sending us hurtling into an uplifting realm of soulful beauty.

Even the biggest Dylan fan would have to concede that his shows have not always been smooth sailing. We expect his poetic lyrical gems to be mangled by that flat, drawled delivery and odd phrasing. That’s part of the charm - eagerly listening out for key words to help identify an old favourite; a familiar phrase a minute into a song eliciting a sage nod of recognition.

Read again: Bob Dylan sells out Oxford venue in a record 11 minutes

The almost 1,800 souls packing out the New Theatre last night (Friday, November 4) were probably expecting the same thing. I certainly was. And I would have been more than happy with that.

What we got though was a quite different Dylan – smooth, mellow, engaging, apparently happy – and, at the age of 81, better than he has been for years.

This may be his Rough and Rowdy Ways tour but it was anything but. Instead it was smooth, bluesy, soulful and chilled.

That ‘His Bobness’ was here at all was strange enough. It is surprising that an artist as successful as Dylan feels the need to tour at all, especially at an age you might expect him to be kicking back at his Malibu mansion.

That he added this modest-sized art deco theatre to his tour is even more extraordinary and a major coup for the dynamic team now at the helm of the venue which once largely survived on a meagre diet of tribute acts – a few, no doubt, to Bob.

The Oxford gig was a late addition to a sold-out tour, announced just two months ago and selling out in 11 minutes – a record for the venue.

We were warned in advance that phones were forbidden and those who hadn’t left them at home were asked to drop them into lockable pouches. A touch draconian, perhaps, but it did make for a better gig and the process was quick and smooth with minimum fuss.

Oxford Mail:

Bob Dylan on stage - and on screen - in Hyde Park, London at the BST festival. Picture Tim Hughes

Press photography was also out of the question, hence the lack of new images of the spry singer-songwriting star anywhere on this tour.

The love in the room was palpable as the stage lights picked out the figure of Dylan almost hidden behind his stand-up piano, a luxuriant head of curls just poking above the oddly unshowy woodwork of the back of the piano case – the bit designed to be shoved against a school wall not facing a packed auditorium. It was all very unpretentious.

The set was elegantly minimal with old fashioned club vibes – the band playing on an illuminated floor against a plain, if expensive looking, drape.

Diminutive in stature the great man may be, but his presence filled the room. And as the first keyboard flourishes and expressively rhythmic vocals of blues-rocker Watching The River Flow washed over us, we knew we were in the hands of a genius.

It was followed by another early 70s banger, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine.

And so we were off, carried along on a wave of smooth, uplifting sun-dappled country-flavoured rhythm & blues which hung together like a symphony – elegant new tunes from the album which gives its name to the tour interspersed with classics.

Sure, treasures like When I Paint My Masterpiece, I’ll be Your Baby Tonight, To Be Alone With You and Gotta Serve Somebody, didn’t sound quite like the versions we first fell in love with, but were gorgeous nonetheless, reinvented at the piano stool, given rich new texture by Dylan’s dynamic fingerwork and elevated by a virtuoso backing band which included steel and acoustic guitars and a sonorously bowed bass.

The effect was dreamy. Dylan’s lyrics drive the whole thing forward, still flat, yes, but subtly veering from earnest to conspiratorial, plaintiff to joyful – while his textured keystrokes slide from soulful blues to country and freewheeling rock & roll.

The polished backing strings and percussion make it shimmer and sparkle, especially on the new stuff. And when he blasted into his mouth organ, much of the crowd jumped to their feet in an involuntary reflex.

It is electrifying and pure Dylan. And that is what we wanted.

As he took to his feet to emerge from behind the old piano there was a full standing ovation – delight mixed with relief at catching Bob at his best.

There is thunderous applause for his departure, stage left, which continues in hope of an encore. And, as he walked back on it looked like we were getting one. But no, it was just a curtain call. He looked pleased. He liked us. What an honour.

After 100-odd minutes of magic, he must’ve been knackered. He gave everything he had and had taken us completely by surprise with a new era of Dylan. He may be embarking on his ninth decade but this Nobel Prize-winning musical legend is powering ahead and still showing us why he is one of the most important artists on the planet with plenty still up his sleeve.

As he told us in 1967’s bluesy Dear Landlord: “If you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you!”