Last night was the sixth time I’ve seen Bob Dylan perform live. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that I revere the man. I don’t hide the fact that I believe him to be a poet and the premiere musical genius of the last 100 years. And probably longer than that. There, my predilection laid bare.
The last two times I saw Bob were at the Brixton Academy; that was a super venue in which to see a legend. This time it was at the O2, and much less than ideal (there’s another show tonight at the Roundhouse but I’m not able to make that one). There was no opening act. Despite the Jubilee tube line being down this weekend, I made it in plenty of time.
Bob’s performances have taken the same format for some time: the band strolls out and plays and not much else happens. A few songs get some background projection imagery – stars or lines or what have you – and there are a couple of floodlights. But that’s it. They don’t show video (so if you’re in the top tier of the stadium you probably see nothing but dots). There’s no smoke or flame or lasers. There’s no opening or between-song banter.
All you get are the greatest songs ever written, performed live by a genius, in new and exciting presentations.
Last night’s setlist:
1. Maggie’s Farm
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’
3. Things Have Changed
4. Chimes Of Freedom
5. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
6. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
7. ‘Til I Fell In Love With You
8. Workingman’s Blues #2
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Ballad Of Hollis Brown
11. Po’ Boy
12. Honest With Me
13. When The Deal Goes Down
14. Thunder On The Mountain
15. Like A Rolling Stone
16. All Along The Watchtower
17. Spirit On The Water
18. Blowin’ In The Wind
Commenting on that setlist is difficult. It’s obviously a brilliant set of songs. If you look at previous nights’ setlists you’ll see that – unsurprisingly – he changes it up a lot every night. Every night has something to be jealous of. There are a lot of recent songs, also understandable. I did overhear the couple next to me say that last night’s show was much better than the previous night’s in Sheffield.
Bob sounded good, though that is a relative term. I recognise that if this was the first time someone who didn’t know the songs by heart heard a live Dylan performance they’d be baffled at his vocals. C’mon: he was never velvet-throated, he’s lived quite a life, and he’s 67 now. Sure he’s rough and nasally and indecipherable in places, but you get used to it. And he still gives it passion and wicked humour. He’s an old blues showman, a country gentleman crooner, a winking Dixieland object of our worship. It’s okay for him to sound dusty and worn and wise.
All of the old songs are treated so differently live: they change tempo, get different rhythm sections, have compressed lyrical cadences. Songs are very often unidentifiable until you hear the words. I imagine this is as much a respite from tedium for Bob as it is to make them easier for him to sing. I like this: I rarely want record-duplicate performances.
I was glad to see Bob play quite a lot of harmonica (on “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “‘Til I Fell In Love With You”,”Highway 61 Revisited”, “Spirit On The Water”, and “Blowin’ In The Wind”).
“‘Til I Fell In Love With You” swung so much it almost fell over. “Highway 61…” had a big sexy finish. I was pleased to hear “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, an early song I’d not heard him do live before.
Some of the newer slower songs aren’t so impressive. I could have done without “Po’ Boy”,”When The Deal Goes Down”, and “Spirit On The Water”, which all felt sluggish rather than pretty.
As a few years earlier, “Honest With Me” and “Highway 61…” absolutely rock. “…Watchtower” was amazing; it was like the soundtrack to a western movie set in the Russian steppes, with a crazy, jangly, riding rhythm propelling it along. “Thunder On The Mountain” also had a great keyboard solo by Bob.
The closer, “Blowin’ In The Wind” was handled with a light touch. Too light, I initially thought. Its bouncy swing seemed to rob it of its power. But as the band played on it felt more like Bob once again denying any accountability as a prophet of protest. It felt like a purposeful deflation of his own self-importance, turning a song about warning into a singalong goodbye.
The wonderful, perverse old bugger.