This is the third time I have seen Bob Dylan live. I’d previously seen him on these kinds of arena tours in Manchester and Sheffield and, to be honest, he wasn’t very good. My justification for shelling out almost 70 quid a ticket was pretty simple, the man could die at literally any moment – go and see him before it’s too late.
So, with my past experience in mind, I hadn’t really geared myself up for a raucous night. Support act Mark Knopfler confirmed my suspicions with an hour long set that, whilst being perfectly adequate, never really seemed to get going. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t excellent. Certainly not bad enough to prompt the ludicrous cry of “pull your finger out Mark!” from one incredulous punter, but definitely not good enough to warrant a standing ovation and an encore. Which, bizarrely, he graciously received.
Twenty-five minutes later, following the quickest sound check ever and a fantastically overblown introduction from an anonymous announcer, Dylan takes the stage.
After the initial feeling of ‘Oh my god! That’s actually Bob Dylan!’ dies down I prepare myself in for a night of largely unrecognisable versions of obscure album tracks from the mid-80s. (Dylan has insisted on playing Tweedle-Dum And Tweedle-Dee on both previous occasions I have seen him. Despite it being possibly the worst song he’s ever written). I was wrong, so delightfully wrong.
As Dylan launches into a barn-storming rendition of Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, the first thing to notice is his voice. On previous occasions Dylan’s voice has sounded like someone shaking gravel in a sandpaper bag, but not tonight. It’s as though Dylan has been surviving exclusively on lozenges for the last 5 years. Whilst still not particularly crisp, (to be fair, it never was) it seems to suit him now and he even ventures out far enough to hit a few higher notes…after a fashion.
For the first couple of tracks Dylan hides behind an organ – taking staccato-ish stabs at it as if trying to create fairground version of Dont Think Twice. Soon, however, he comes out into the middle of the stage for an oddly reworked country version of Tangled Up In Blue – accompanied by some unbelievably loud harmonica playing.
It’s at this point, when Dylan was at the front of the stage, that I realised something. He looks like he’s enjoying himself. A lot. He grabs the mic out of the stand and carries it around with him, moves back for a harmonica solo, dances a bit. Yes, dances. Dances like a young Bruce Springsteen. Well…ok, maybe not that much, the guy is 70 years old. But it’s a lot for Dylan.
Things soon calmed down a bit with quiet versions of Simple Twist of Fate and Forgetful Heart before a hauntingly powerful Ballad Of A Thin Man ends the regular set. It’s during this last number that all the lights on the stage go out, leaving only a spotlight in which only Dylan can be seen. Well, that was the plan, except Bob staunchly refuses to stand in the light, huddling at the back of the stage with his band.
Dylan says absolutely nothing throughout the performance and it’s not until during the encore, made up of classics Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower that he introduces his band, but even this is largely inaudible over Dylan’s seemingly random organ mashing. To be fair, you’re only really there to see Dylan, but that said; his band were fantastic. On a number of occasions Dylan gave a hand signal or a nod no more than half a beat before he wanted some sort of cataclysmic change in the song and they reacted seamlessly. Backing a man of Dylan’s flippant tendencies can’t be easy.
Of course, there is an element of ‘Name That Tune’ when watching Bob Dylan live. And there are a couple of songs that are completely unrecognisable save for one or two lines. But that’s part of the reason he is so good live; he’ll drop a verse, add a chorus, make up a verse or change the rhythm and force the words to fit. Basically, he’ll do what he wants. He’s Bob Dylan. And in this form, you can justify the ticket price without having to bank on his untimely demise sometime in the not to distant future.