Last night I saw Bob Dylan. What was I expecting? That’s hard to answer. I hold Dylan in the highest esteem; he is among the great artists of our time, and even in this never-ending tour there have been many sublime moments. I am not a tour addict, though I am in double-figures for concerts attended; as it happens I met a genuine tour addict on the journey home, of which more later. I go now partly out of respect and partly in the hope of moments of transcendence – I might mention Mr Tambourine Man at Brixton Academy in 1995, or One Two Many Mornings at the Phoenix Festival later that year. The last concert I attended was Nottingham 2005. The problem with Dylan is first that his voice is wrecked, and second that his incessant touring includes times when he is going through the motions. In compensation he has not lost his touch and is capable of performances of intense passion and verbal magic.
The following is based on my notes from the evening; just for fun I’ve scored each song out of 10.
I arrive at New Street station and wander down towards the venue, a barn called the National Indoor Arena. I look into the Prince of Wales pub, where there is excellent beer but it is hard to get served because it is heaving with Dylan fans. Chatting with some of them, I discover mostly tour vetarans but some first-timers, friends or spouses finally persuaded that they should see Bob Dylan live. I ask a younger fan how he discovered Dylan, “It was the Byrds, actually” he says.
On to the arena; it’s not quite full but nevertheless a good turnout. Of course I’d prefer to see Dylan in a smaller venue; he was great at the Liverpool Empire in 1996, for example. Unfortunately he still commands a big following in the UK so we get these huge tents. I chat to my neighbours. Two young women have been given tickets by their mum as a birthday treat – what will they get from this tour-weary singer now of pensionable age? On my right, another couple who have not seen Bob since 1987; I wonder if they are prepared for the change in his voice since then?
Cat’s in the Well
Some classical music is played, then I see Dylan and his band climb the steps to the stage. The opening number is Cat’s in the Well, from an album I love (Under the Red Sky – 1990) but which sold poorly. Dylan plays guitar, accompanied by a five-piece band. It’s a strong beat to settle the audience, his voice is fair (already better than in Nottingham) but it’s still a curious opener; I wonder how many of the first-timers have heard it before? Score 5.
It Ain’t me Babe
They will know this one. It’s not too good though. Dylan is doing that rising lilt at the end of each line, which I’ve come to associate with performances where he is struggling to get the vocals out and not fully engaged. Maybe softer songs like this are harder than the more bluesy numbers. Even so, hearing this number is an emotional experience; what’s the cliche, the soundtrack of our lives etc. Score 4.
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
One of his greatest songs, taken at pace. The arrangement is too poppy and bouncy for me. Yet he is still re-interpreting his songs, his past, our past; I know of nobody else who does this to the same extent; it’s deeply impressive. In every song you hear the echoes of every other performance of that song you have heard – records, tapes, other concerts. On this occasion it is a bit of a throwaway, yet you know the song means as much and more to him as it does to you. How this sounds to someone who has never come across the song before, I have no idea.
“Everybody said they’d stand behind me when the game got rough,” sings Dylan. Like your voice, I think to myself. I’m enjoying the concert though, it’s not the disappointment I feared. Score 6.
It’s Alright Ma I’m only Bleeding
Again a fast pace, but he’s more into this one. It’s strange how the words resonate in this context, “He not busy being born is busy dying”, is this the explanation of Dylan’s constant drive to re-interpret his songs, to tour, to move on? I love the expressive power Dylan puts into some of these lines, the pauses … “one more personnnnnn …. crying.” There’s a small cheer for the line about the president standing naked, the words which seemed like breathtaking prophecy in the aftermath of Watergate. What about Bush, I wonder. Dylan stands stock still, hardly even turning his head; he never speaks to the audience except for the band intro later; he expresses himself solely through his singing. Score 7.
Workingman’s Blues #2
This is great. It’s a song from Modern Times, his album from last year, and draws a cheer from the hard core fans in the front stalls. His voice continues strong – so he can still do these softer numbers; this is so much better than the opening two songs. Perhaps he needs time to settle in. The power of the song is in the way he sings the refrain “Sing a little bit of these workingman’s … blues” Score 8.
‘Til I fell in love with You
Now a song from Time our of Mind, which is a decade old but still counts as a recent album in Dylan terms. It’s a more bluesy song. Dylan is standing at the keyboard now. There are no rising lilts; he is fully engaged. Highlight is when he pulls out his harmonica, playing faintly at first, and transporting us back to his earliest years when the harp was his trademark sound. Score 7.
Tangled Up in Blue
An old favourite from Blood on the Tracks in 1974, and draws a cheer from the crowd. He’s into this one too, still a great storyteller. The narrative doesn’t altogether make sense, of course, but it is rich and evocative, classic Dylan. He sings those lines, “I must admit I felt a little uneasy when she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,” and nails it, he really sounds uneasy, amused, bewildered, making you think: what is the significance of this shoelace action, maybe a biblical reference (John the Baptist); being cast as Christ would make anyone uneasy, yet some fans have done this to Dylan.
This is a difficult song to sustain though and flags a little towards the end. Some lovely melodic harp. Score 7.
When the Deal goes Down
The double bass comes out for this one, a song from Modern Times. Dylan remains in good voice but there is a worrying hint of cabaret. This is low intensity Bob and less interesting for me. It’s hard to make out the words of course – you have not heard gruff until you hear Dylan live today – which is ironic, since the words are core to what Dylan is. Score 6.
Highway 61 Revisited
Back to rock for Highway 61, one of those songs which is fantastic but which rarely takes off live, somehow. Dylan’s voice is now exceedingly gruff aside from the shouty bits. He has snapped out of focus somehow; it is not terrible, but he is no longer all there. I am going to score this 5; a bit harsh, but it is really no better than Cat’s in the Well.
Spirit on the Water
More cabaret, though this is a popular choice from Modern Times. The crowd love the final verse:
You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin’ good time
which raises a loud cheer. Looking at the average age of the audience, I wonder if we are trying to persuade ourselves of the truth of these words. Score 7.
This is powerful. In the days after the Virginia Tech tragedy Dylan sings of a South Dakota farmer who in abject poverty kills his wife, his children and then himself with a shotgun. I find myself puzzling over the closing words:
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born
In typical Dylan style, the thought is ambiguous. Is this a sign of hope, that there is death but also new life? Or a sign of despair, that the cycle of tragedy continues? It is not sung tonight as a sign of hope. Score: 8
Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
After that Dylan needs to lighten the atmosphere, which he does with this hilarious narrative from the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Like Highway 61 this is a great song but dodgy live; it’s a little better than the earlier number though. Still a throwaway; his voice seems inadequate now for the shouty sections; one could accuse him of gabbling. Towards the end of the song I find myself thinking: why is Dylan singing this song? Why am I here to hear it? It all seems a bit pointless. Yet I realise that for many in the audience this is what they have come for. Score: 5.
A rumbling opening for this song from Modern Times. This is apocalyptic Bob:
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Through the world mysterious and vague
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
Walkin’ through the cities of the plague.
Fortunately I like apocalyptic Bob. He is all there again for this one. When he sings “Heart burnin’, still yearnin’,” he really means it. Score: 7.
Back to cabaret, oh dear. We seem to be oscillating now, each strong performance followed by something lightweight. Summer Days is from Love and Theft and not one of his best. Why does Dylan choose this so often (it is sung frequently), a plastic bauble from a catalog of diamonds? Perhaps he needs it to unwind, to give himself space. Score: 3
Like a Rolling Stone
The harp plays and I hope for something better. It takes me a while to figure out the song; it turns out to be Rolling Stone, which at times I’d argue is his greatest song. It always moves me though this is not a great performance. It is not angry or intense enough. Still, there is quite a punch to “… made a deal…”; the song begins to build nicely, but then Bob gets a bit lost again. Score: 6.
Fans puzzle over why some performances are transcendent and others thrown away. It occurs to me that Dylan probably does not know the answer any more than we do; like us, he waits to see how each performance will turn out, how much he will be able to engage.
That’s the end; Dylan leaves the stage. He has played for around 90 minutes.
Thunder on the Mountain
Until the encore. A rousing number from Modern Times – what’s that, 5 songs from this album? Great for the veterans, not so good for first-timers. His voice is gruff as ever; how can I describe it? Sand and gravel, occasionally sludge, yet there is still power behind it. Score 7.
All along the Watchtower
Dylan introduces his band; I can’t make out all the names, but for the record I believe it is as follows (from wikipedia):
- Stu Kimball – guitar
- Donnie Herron – pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, electric mandolin, banjo, fiddle
- Denny Freeman – guitar, slide guitar
- Tony Garnier – bass guitar, standup bass
- George Receli – drums
Then it’s Watchtower. He plays this too often I suppose; I don’t mind though, because he always means this one. In 1995 he regularly played it as the third song and we called it Evening Prayer. It is apocalyptic Bob. He sings it staccato, which is not good; I guess this is “How to disguise a failing voice” trick 101. Still, there is a great crescendo up to, on and after “…the wind began to howl.” For effort, I give this Score: 7.
After the concert
The lights go up; it’s over. I get a quick review from my neighbours; the woman next me to me was disappointed, “he did a lot of new ones”; the two young women said, “it was wicked.” I race back to New Street to catch my train, risking life and limb but just grabbing my train. Few Dylan fans made it there in time, but there is a couple with Dylan shirts who, it turns out, left before the encore because they knew what it would be. The guy told me it was his 98th Dylan concert; they have been to the entire UK tour except for the two London concerts. They told me Newcastle had been the best, and Nettie Moore the best song on the tour; sadly he did not play that tonight. From this evening they singled out Tangled up in Blue, Workingman’s Blues and Ain’t Talkin’ as highlights; they hated Summer Days and Cat’s in the Well. They are bored of Watchtower which of course they missed anyway.
This is fascinating to me; Dylan I agree is a genius but to go to so many concerts seems obsessive; still, it is harmless fun and they are pleasant to chat to. Why did they not go to the London dates and make this one the century? The reason is that Birmingham is an inadequate venue for such an important milestone. They plan a trip to the USA for this special occasion. I get some insights into the world of every-concert fans; they get tickets from a fan club which is allocated a block of seats; the allocation of front-row seats is carefully rotated because “Dylan’s people” objected to seeing the same faces every time.
Such is life on the never-ending tour. I enjoyed the evening; it was better than Nottingham 2 years ago, though I have to think back to, perhaps, Liverpool 96 for a Dylan concert that truly scaled the heights.
Copyright Tim Anderson © 2007. If you want to reproduce this review, please contact me.
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