Brighton and Bournemouth, 2002

by Paula Radice


Well, probably no surprise that this is a "live" review rather than a book one this month. I've just arrived back from Bournemouth, on Bank Holiday Monday, and have now got to be patient and calm for five days while Bob tours the parts of England I can't reach (and get back to school each following morning) until he gets to London next weekend. I've never been more tempted to chuck my job in. I wish I'd played the Lottery on Saturday.

It was an amazing weekend, one of those times when everything seems to conspire to go well and each part of the experience is enjoyable. The first concert of a new tour is always exciting, and I have very good memories of seeing Bob (literally, outside his hotel) in Brighton last time he played there, so the whole of last week was focused ahead on Brighton. Ignoring the difficulties of finding a car parking space on a sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the start of the street events of Brighton Arts Fair, the day was great. Monica and I disgraced ourselves by buying up most of the contents of the merchandise stall (we had to be given a box to carry off our purchases. My excuse is that, as I've been losing a lot of weight, none of my Dylan t-shirts fit me anymore, so I had to restock a bit).


I thought the show itself was wonderful. I found myself going through a series of emotional states. This is how it went:

1. (Before the show): I'm prepared for possible disappointment. The last shows I saw (1990) were superb. Bob's voice might have deteriorated markedly since then. The band may not be as fresh and tight as they were then. Bob might have an off day today. I try not to expect too much.

2. (Bob comes on stage): He looks good! Well, the shirt collar is ten sizes too big (as always), but the white (stetson?) hat's great, and he's not wearing the turned-up-toes white cowboy boots from 2000 that made him look like a little dancing pixie. That's got to be a major bonus. In 2000, Monica and I kept missing the first 3 or 4 songs each night, because we couldn't stop laughing at the boots.

3. (I am the Man, Thomas): The band sound great! Bob sounds great! He looks happy and relaxed, and there's a high ILK Index (Independent Left Knee, that is. I have a theory that Bob's left knee is actually controlled remotely by someone backstage. It seems the only explanation).

It's intriguing to watch the band through binoculars and try to figure out how they manage to play together so tightly without apparently making more than the most minimal amount of eye contact. Have they been mind-melded? The sound they have achieved is phenomenal, not a wasted note and full of power. They even manage to make Bob's guitar solos seem good. It's just so exciting to hear, and the friends from Hastings who've not been to a Dylan show for ten years are in what can only be described as shock. Maurice, a Grateful Dead fan (very unfortunately) keeps muttering, "absolutely wonderful" over and over again under his breath in an awed tone. It reminded me of the last time I persuaded someone to come to a Dylan show with me ­in 1991. They didn't speak to me all the way home from Birmingham to Durham. At least I know that isn't going to happen tonight.

4. (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum): My first live "Love and Theft" song, and it sounds fantastic. Dylan's voice is just so right for this song - it menaces and growls through the surface lightness of the words. I can't believe how crisp and clear his voice is sounding. It seems as if he's determined to get the words out strongly and with meaning. There's such a feeling of purpose, dynamism. I am going into a detached state of what is called in teaching "Awe and Wonder" (it's what we're supposed to help children achieve in R.E. lessons. Perhaps we should take them to Dylan concerts. It certainly works for me).

Anyone watching me from this point on at Brighton might have been unsure as to whether I was enjoying myself at all. I was getting quieter and quieter, sitting back in my chair, just entranced, and too awed at times even to smile. I kept thinking: this man is nearly 61 years old. He's been working for over 4 decades. Ten years ago, when I saw him in concert, it was impossible to believe that his career, if not his life, wasn't in imminent danger of total collapse. He couldn't, or wouldn't, remember the words to songs he'd played 500 times in concert. There was no purpose or pleasure in his guitar playing, in fact he seemed hellbent on destroying any coherence in the instrumental parts of the songs. He seemed to have forgotten anything he ever knew about playing the harmonica. We feared, rightly I think, that he had simply given up caring. Even the "better" shows still felt like The End Times.

How did he get this good again? How does one man have the genius and will to pull himself back to these very highest peaks of creative power? It's just mind-blowing. He got one thing wrong: you can come back all the way...and further. He's proved it over the past four years, with Time out of Mind, and "Love and Theft", and Things Have Changed, and the most incredibly consistent and impressive live shows. No wonder he wants to sing Not Fade Away. No wonder he looks happy. No wonder he's dancing.

High points of the two shows? I loved Cold Irons Bound at Brighton - it gave me a completely new understanding of the desperation and grief in the lyrics. The flickering shadow effect during the song was terrifying, like watching the ghosts of the chain gangs the song evokes reveal themselves as monstrous presences (clouds of blood?) ­now you see them, now you don't. You found yourselves always trying to identify, among the giant shadows, which one was Bob, but there was just too little time before the light source changed each time, creating the impression of an inchoate, primeval identity crisis. I'm waist deep, waist deep, in the mist. It's almost like, almost like, I don't exist, with the last word of the phrase drawn out in a downward groan.

Man of Constant Sorrow was just hilarious. A friendly nod to the Grammy-snatching O, Brother Where Art Thou, or just a wry "Anything you can do, I can do better, and by the way, I was singing this song forty years ago"? The Soggy Bottom Boys beaten into a cocked hat by Harmonizing Bob and the Boys. A great laugh.

I really enjoyed All Along the Watchtower at Brighton, too, especially the way the first verse was repeated after the last so that the song ended on a drawn-out howl of wo-oo-orth ("None of them along the line know what any of it is worth"). It sounded deliberate, as if to stress that the relative values we place on things around us can distort our whole perspective if we're not careful (as in Lonesome Day Blues -"Funny, how the things you have the hardest time parting with, Are the things you need the least". That line, for some funny reason, always makes me think about my collection of Dylan books and magazines. Can't imagine why.) And Watchtower is all about seeing: seeing riders approaching; peering, from a great height, into the distance to see if danger is on its way; an unseen but audible wildcat. Was it Bob who said once that the song was obviously written the wrong way round, anyway, or one of his commentators? I can't remember off the top of my head. Of course, it may not have been "deliberate" at all, just Bob getting carried away or confused. Who can tell? But it worked - it was genius at work, consciously or unconsciously.

Not Dark Yet at Bournemouth had me in serious danger of dissolving into a teary puddle. The song means so much to me, coinciding as Time Out of Mind's release did with a very bad bout of illness that put me in hospital for nearly six months. At the time I thought I might never be able to listen to it again, but four years on things look very different. Bob sums it up in the recent words of his that are reprinted in the tour programme: That which ties everyone together and which makes everyone equal is our mortality. Everything must come to an end. (He's talking, of course, about The NeverEnding Tour). The trick is not to "pussyfoot" (as Bob says) around it -facing it is the only way of transcending.

Amazingly (because it still amazes me when British tabloid newspapers don't take an opportunity to poke fun at Dylan), this same point was put before the weekend in The Daily Mirror. Gavin Martin wrote:

So much of the music [Dylan] plays, and the music he loves, is a bright light that shines against the forces of darkness and complacency. Like the man he borrowed his stage name from, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Dylan rages against the dying light. His songs study horrors that are both ancient and modern, but his shows are filled with glimpses of beauty. No other writer has spanned the 20th and 21st centuries so majestically, but he still discovers fresh meaning in his songs.

You could feel, at both shows this weekend, the huge groundswell of goodwill and love there is for Dylan in his current audience. We are revelling in his renaissance, and rejoicing for him. We know he deserves it, without having much of an inkling of how he has done it. How has he written new songs like Sugar Baby and Cold Irons Bound that stand up in concert with every bit as much integrity and power as his so-called "Greatest Hits"? We love it when he wears peculiar clothes, or  does those silly little dance steps (my personal favourite is The Dying Gunfighter, the wobbly-kneed stagger back to the microphone after guitar or harmonica solos), because of the touching incongruity between the very humanness of those little foibles against the staggering achievements of the performed words and music. When his mike failed at the end of Hard Rain at Bournemouth, and we sang the end of the song for him, did anyone not have a lump in their throat?

And that, of course, made me think - as I always end up doing at shows these days - of how it will feel when there are no more shows, when we finally realise just how lucky we've been to have the opportunity of sharing these times with Dylan. I left Brighton and Bournemouth with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, showering silent benedictions on Bob's head: stay happy, stay well, see you in London.

Bob Dylan