by Richard Lewis


The Manchester Evening News Arena is a dump. A vast soulless space that just might be alright for watching basketball or an ice spectacular but is no place for a singer or a band. Still I knew that when I bought my tickets. Jenny and I were sat fairly low down in one of the side blocks but quite a way from the stage. By twisting my neck and using my binoculars I had a clear, unrestricted view even when everybody stood up, as we knew they would. Jenny could see and hear as well without being crushed or stood on.

I settled down to spot some familiar faces in the crowd at the foot of the stage while Jenny glanced at the expensive programme. Then we swapped over. At first glance the programme seemed fairly predictable. But there was more to find if you looked closely. I thought the cover was quite effective with Dylan not being in shot and just Tony Garnier’s double bass to show you that it was just possibly Dylan’s band on tour in Japan, judging by the enthusiastic crowd. I liked the idea of using nearly all recent photos from the last few years with just the one contrasting one from 40 years before. The text is entirely made up of recent interview extracts. They are well worth reading. I liked his reply about why he sings his old songs:

It’s because I am happy to have written that song.

In the space of just a few answers we inhabit the streets of Rome and come across William Blake, Shelley, Byron, Woody Guthrie, Charlie Parker and Hank Williams. He notes that “everything must come to an end” but “if I think about how I feel at home I’d have to say that I feel at home wherever I am. I never want anything that isn’t what I’ve got in front of me at any given moment”.

Back in Manchester, in front of us, we hear a fanfare of trumpets over the P.A, the lights go down, the band arrive and to the surprise of some (including my neighbour who has been bellowing “I Am The Man, Thomas” for the last two minutes) launch into an acoustic “Maggie’s Farm”. The band are all wearing shiny grey suits whilst Dylan is in black with a white stripe down the leg, a white Stetson and matching white silk tie. In the centre of the black curtained backdrop is a strange logo or symbol that looks a bit like an eye that has become a Catherine wheel with a crown on top. It reminds me of some of the Egyptian symbols I had seen on the walls of a Pharaoh’s tomb in a schools video that I had recently watched with a year 4 class. It is only later I notice it is also on the back cover of the programme. Does anyone know its significance or origin? Last year’s Oscar is also on its familiar amp.

Having got over the surprise of “Maggie’s Farm”, featuring some fine mandolin playing from Larry, next up is a magnificent acoustic version of “Senor” with Larry now on guittaron (?) and Dylan seeming to emphasise “Armageddon”. Despite being in this horrible hanger the sound is really good. The vocals and instruments are clear and the balance is good. Charlie Sexton, looking like a young Robbie Robertson, picks up a dobro and Dylan sings “Its Alright Ma” complete with lighting effects. To an almighty cheer Dylan starts a harp intro to a beautiful “One Too Many Mornings” with Larry on pedal steel.

After four acoustic numbers we now get four electric ones starting with a straightforward “Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” with Charlie playing a huge Gibson or Gretsch. Next comes my first taste of the live “Love and Theft” as Dylan sings (I can’t say croons) “Moonlight”, by the end of which he is almost down on bended knee. Another blast of harmonica introduces “I Don’t Believe You” during which he messes up the lyrics, quickly improvising as he realises he is repeating a verse. Then comes a hard rocking intro, which I think is going to be “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” but turns out to be a thunderous version of “ Lonesome Day Blues” with the emphasis here on ‘I want to tame the proud’. Throughout these songs Dylan’s left leg is shaking vigorously.

Back to the acoustic as the curtains close and the side lighting highlights the shadows for a powerful version of “Masters of War” as Dylan declares ‘I can see through your mask.’ And yes, I believe he can. The band start up a beautiful intro, with a lovely guitar figure, that at first I don’t recognise. It leads into a gentle, clear version of “Visions of Johanna”. Seeing and hearing Dylan live is always a joy. Yes I enjoyed the tent in Liverpool last year, and yes this is a dump, but already this concert is so much better than last year. A harp intro reveals “Don’t Think Twice” with Jim Keltner grinning at the wonderful time he is having.

Then, as the band reverts to electric, comes a real treat. A beautiful version of “Blind Willie McTell” featuring a superb guitar solo from Charlie Sexton. This is followed by a rocking version of “Summer Days” which confirms, in case you didn’t know, that there is ‘still something going on’. An even harder rocking “Drifter’s Escape” comes next with the stage in shadows and a nice bit of harp as well. A rousing “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, complete with band, intro closes the set.

The four encores start as the drapes open to a red-lit stage and a straightforward version of “Things Have Changed” quickly followed by “Like A Rolling Stone” with the drapes full of clouds and fierce spotlights on the audience during the chorus. Switching to acoustic as the drapes turn magenta Dylan sings “Forever Young” with Larry and Charlie harmonising on the chorus. Wonderful. Back to electric for another “Love and Theft” song, a fine rendition of “Honest with Me” with the line ‘if only you knew’ getting special attention.

The band are brought back for a marvellous version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” featuring the same type of harmonies from Larry and Charlie as they had done on “Forever Young”. They really brought this familiar song back to life. To my surprise the audience managed to bring them back for a final encore of “All Along The Watchtower”.

I only got to this one show so it’s hard to compare with others. However I know it was so much better than Liverpool last year or Sheffield the year before and, as you may recall, I enjoyed both of those. But this one was special. The sound was great, the band excellent and Dylan at the top of his game. At the end of the show the band stared straight at us as we applauded and then Dylan went down on one knee and raised his guitar in salute. Although in reality I was on my feet jumping up and down and clapping madly, in my heart I was down on both knees saluting Dylan.