Bob Dylan: Together Through Life

The new Dylan album, Together Through Life, was released yesterday in the UK. I had my copy delivered, but didn’t get a chance to listen to it this morning.

My initial reaction after a single listen through: good, but not great. There are only a couple of songs that grabbed me right from the start: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” and “My Wife’s Home Town”. The latter is listenable from my song Box (just to the right of this, in the sidebar of my blog, if you’re looking at my blog page and not reading this via RSS). It reminds me of John Lee Hooker.

Interestingly, I’d call this Bob’s zydeco album. Most of the songs have a southern-fried feel, and many of them have an accordian and a washboard.

I obviously need to listen to it a few more times to get a proper assessment.

Bob Dylan live at the O2

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

(encore)
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.

Photo from Tristan Legros under Creative Commons license

Photo from Tristan Legros under Creative Commons license

Stuff to do in London

It was a nice day and I was determined to spend it downtown seeing something new. So I queried TimeOut for its suggestions, plotted out an efficient tube journey, and carried out my plan.

  1. I went to Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre to catch the Doctor Who exhibit. It was really great for fans of the last few series. It’s not in the huge main hall; it’s in an underground (but still large) set of rooms at the back entrance, near Brompton Road tube. After a quick photo list of pre-millenial Doctors they jumped into all things Ecclestone and Tennant (except for the series just finished, but these will reportedly be added during the summer). They had lots of full models: the Face of Boe, the Slitheen, K9, a monstrous Empress of Racnoss, and more. There were costumes, plot reviews, and examples of how they create special effects (you can see video of yourself in the Tardis) and makeup (the Ood!). The animated Cybermen and Daleks near the end were fun. It’s £9 for adults and runs until the autumn sometime.
  2. I tubed over to Mayfair to see an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s Art at the Halycon Gallery. The Drawn Blank Series contains many studies by Bob of the same image but coloured differently, to explore how that changes the perception of the painting. There are prints for sale if you have £1500 to £2500 to spare. Well worth seeing, though, and free.
  3. I caught the tube over to Liverpool Street and walked to Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery art space to see Free Range. This is an ongoing showcase of art from new graduates. They’re rotating through different work; it was mostly photography today. It was a mixed bunch. I really liked James Dare’s series “The Great British Gun Owner” (a connection we UK city dwellers rarely make) and Emma Mari Trinder’s set of photos of single fathers and their daughters (touching, I thought). It’s also free.
  4. I then tubed up to Camden and fought my way through the market crowd to the Proud Bar and Gallery where they had a series of photographs of Sid Vicious. I liked them. Free as well, though I sat outside in a deck chair and had a beer since it was so nice out (not very punk, I know).

Also entertaining: on Brick Lane I saw a guy with a T-shirt that said, I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet.

Also also entertaining: whilst drinking my beer at Proud they played Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked”. That’s a good song.

Theme Time Radio Show

Wow, these Bob Dylan radio shows are incredible. The music is mostly old blues, jazz, and country, but there’s some rock stuff and world music, too. Much of it is very funny. Bob himself is stunning: he’s so cool and sardonic. I’ve listened to the Christmas show (2 hours) and am in the middle of the “Drinking” show now.

Best of all, it looks like BBC radio is picking it up again in March and continuing through the spring.

EDIT: even more shows on Radio 6!

What Would Dylan Play?

I blogged a few weeks ago about how BBC Radio 2 was going to be broadcasting several of the Bob Dylan XM Radio shows over the holiday period.

Because Radio 2 is one of the radio stations we get via Freeview digital TV broadcast, I was able to record them all on our PVR. I’m listening to the first of them now. It’s awesome. Not only are the songs great, but Dylan’s funny, cryptic, clever, and raspy. It’s like listening to a radio show from that wise guru hermit at the top of the mountain: no need to climb.

The show’s called “Theme Time Radio”, and he certainly sticks to a theme. This one is radio:

Turn Your Radio On – Grandpa Jones
Roadrunner – The Modern Lovers
Cool Disc Jockey – Lloyd Bennett and His Rockets
Border Radio – The Blasters
On Your Radio – Richard Lanham
Radio Commercials – Lord Melody
This is Radio Clash – The Clash
Those DJ Shows – Patrice Holloway
Caravan – Van Morrison
Disc Jockey Blues – Luke Jones and His Orchestra
My Hi-Fi to Cry By – Bonnie Owens
Canned Music – Dan Hicks and His Hotlicks
Radio Boogie – LC Smith and His Southern Playboys
Radio Radio – Elvis Costello

All his playlists can be found here.