20lbs of Headlines


Another European tour brings the usual deluge of press reaction. Having scrutinized these (almost annual) reviews since 1988, it really does seem as though there is very little left for the average critic (and many of them are very average) to say. Since - what? - 1994 or thereabouts the shows have been excellent at best and workmanlike at worst. Without the stunning highs of, for instance, February 1990 or the grotesque lows of 1991 (a year that always seems to spring to mind when­ever the word "grotesque" is used, though huge chunks of 1992 and 1993 would also nicely fit the bill) all we have left are fewer and fewer interesting ways of saying that Bob came onstage, did what he was being paid to do and then left. 

Anyway, enough foaming at the mouth from me, let’s trawl through this latest lot, mainly from Germany. 

Prior to the German tour, the German Journalist Association was told that there would be a complete ban on photographers at all shows and so they suggested that all newspapers should boycott the gigs in protest. Of course, it didn't happen but can you really imagine Dylan giving a shiney shite whether the press turned up or not? Aide; “Bob! Bob! The German media have refused to come and review your shows!” Dylan; “What?!! Well, there’s no point going ahead, then. Cancel the tour!!” 

Hamburg first, where Karl Bruckmaier of the Suddeutsche Zeitung reckoned that It’s Alright Ma was an early highlight but that Dylan nowadays, though not a caricature like the Rolling Stones, is little more than an old man,obviously not in the best of health. 

Die Welt sent two critics along to the show - Stefan Krulle and Stefan Grund - both of whom praised Man In The Long Black Coat as the definate highlight. Elmar Bendull of the Neue Osnabrucker Zeitung again singled out It’s Alright Ma  as a “12-bar hymn”, he is also impressed with Freddie Koella, who allows  Dylan to remain more in the background. 

Beate Nelson’s brief review in Hamburger Morljenpost still managed a wild stab in the dark at humour whilst referring to the photographer ban; “...anybody who’s not really collecting pictures of tousled bird’s nest hairstyles hasn’t missed anything. Journalists – can’t laugh with ‘em, can laugh at ‘em. 

Basil Wegener of the Buxtenader Tageblatt gets things off to a good start by calling Dylan’s voice “phenomenal” before concluding; “...Germany 2003: music industry in crisis, pop written off - and Dylan proves to be the authority who can still celebrate a musical mass with decency.” 

A brief sulky review in Bild complained that Dylan didn’t talk  to his audience (yawn) and that there was a five minute wait before the encores, by which time many people had already left. Possibly not the most rivetting review I’ve ever read. Andreas Montag of the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung reckons that Dylan gives the audience what they want, even if they hadn’t realised that they wanted it, while a very brief review in Neue Presse claimed that the hardcore Dylan fans were happy with Dylan's “Thankyou” – “two words in a whole concert count for close contact with his audience.” An ecstatic Michael Werner of the Stuttgarter Zeitung insists that Dylan’s phrasing on “the rarely played jewell”  Man In The Long Black Coat was so ghostly that it turned it into a horror movie; “...It’s hardly imaginable that Dylan can get any better in this life.” 

Onto Berlin, where Tagesspeigel’s Rudiger Schaper nominates Don't Think Twice as the highlight; “...The last verse he sang with the voice of a younger Dylan – powerful, confident, cheerful...” 

Gerd Dehnel of the Markische Allgemeine was impressed that the only constant thing about the Neverending Tour is the fact that it keeps changing, while Die Welt was similarly impressed to see To Be Alone With You transformed from a “yearning love song” into a rough rock ‘n’ roll number. Frankfurter Rundschau's Renee Zucker was not disapointed that Dylan didn't smile (“a man at work - why should he smile?”) and Berliner Morgenpost's Peter E. Muller says the most special things about Dylan are the things that he can’t do – “He can't sing “beautifully”. He can’t toady to anybody. He can't play the same song the same way twice in a row.” 

A curt review in Berliner Kurier complained that Dylan played too many “experimental” numbers from Love And Theft, “which didn't have anything to do with the good old Blowin’ In The Wind”, and his singing sounded as though he had a bad cold (why are critics always at their funniest when they’re trying not to be?). 

Berliner Zeitung celebrated the art of change; “...It’s unbelievable what Dylan did with All Along The Watchtower within one single year. Last time it was rolling rock, this time he drove his musicians into a metallic interpretation of brutal beauty. “Their only complaint was that, Every Grain Of Sand excepted, the setlist was unspectacular. 

Uncut’s Gavin Martin caught the Rome show, where he was suitably amazed by the band (“This is the post-apocalyptic Chess band of his dreams made real”) and - once again - old Bob himself;  “...At the end, Dylan stands alone, shuffling his feet, covering his tracks. None of the crowd wants to leave. Whatever else they see, they know they’ll never see a show like this again. Whatever else he does, Bob will make sure they don’t.” 

Onto the UK, where probably the strangest preview of the tour appeared in The War Cry by Philip Halcrow. It’s obviously written by someone who knows his Dylan and is factually more correct than any number of more pretentious column inches in the dailies. Obviously the dominant theme is Bob’s Christianity but that’s hardly unexpected. Halcrow concludes by expressing a hope that his audiences might be challenged into reviewing their own religious leanings (or lack thereof). Well, he can hope... 

London, Wembley Arena. The Independents Andy Gill awarded it three stars out of five and again nominated It’s Alright Ma as a standout number; “...a rockabilly rave-up last time we heard it, now reborn as a blues slouch loosely draped around the riff of Smokestack Lightnin. The Times’ David Sinclair was even more impressed:

“... Whereas in the past he has been guilty of throwing together groups and setlists as if putting on a performance for a paying audience was the last thing on his mind, this was a skilfully paced show which built from an arena-strength, Southern boogie version of Highway 61 Revisited to a resounding climax of All Along The Watchtower during which the guitarists were finally and famously turned loose. It’s a little late now, but Dylan seems to have decided that the time has come when even a living legend has to make an effort to put on a show. 

The Guardian’s Betty Clarke was somewhat less bowled over, claiming that only Dylan’s poetry saved the evening;  “... Watching a living legend inspires duplicity. You’re torn between wanting to hear something seminal and admitting that you want to witness possibly the last,  faltering steps of a star. When the legend is Bob Dylan, the event turns into a freak show. His voice hovers between that of a shrill housewife and Yoda, and he teeters around the stage with the elegance of the Elephant Man.”  A good time was had by all, then. 

In contrast, the Financial Times’ Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was happy enough with what he saw; “...It was a treat to watch him work the stage without his customary guitar..... At the end of each number, as the lights went down, you could see his silhouette jogging around, clenched fists bobbing like some old boxer. A fragment of a line he sang from Like A Rolling Stone rang out with particular gusto:  “You said you'd never compromise”. Dylan’s rejuvenation continues.” 

Mojo, unusually, didn't actually review a show but did devote a page to the final couple of intimate London shows, commenting on the unusual song selections and Bob’s happy demeanour. Actually, the text is really quite limited but this is compensated by a lovely photo of Dylan onstage at Brixton - quite possibly the only photo you’ll see of Bob during the European tour outside of the fanzines. 

Finally, I’ve been sent a review of the four London shows, though I have no idea where it appeared or who wrote it. Normally, I’d not bother mentioning something without a source or author’s name, but this is a nicely written and highly enthusiastic piece and is a good way to wind up this month’s column. With praise awarded equally for Dylan’s voice and his keyboard playing (not something you’re likely to see very often. In both cases) as well as this year’s gorgeous treatment of The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, this is evidently written by a fan first and a critic second. You even sense that the author was thrilled by Dylan’s very reception by his audience, no more so than at Brixton; “...In a lifetime of concert-going, in smokey jazz club and grand opera house, rock stadium and pop arena, you’d be lucky to see a more tumultuous reception than that accorded Dylan on Tuesday night.” 

By the end, the mysterious author is nailing his colours very firmly to the mast and claiming that “The London shows underlined Dylan’s claim to be regarded as one of the great creative forces of the age...Comparisons with poprock comtemporaries - the Beatles, say, or the Stones, or the army of superannuated hoofers still peddling heritage entertainment to eager nostalgics - do Dylan a disservice...Bob Dylan’s writing and performance art bridge the gap between popular entertainment and high culture. His is quintessential music for grown-ups.” 

And that, I think, is a good a place to leave it for this month as any. I happen to think that Dylan’s recent keyboard playing is only perfunctory when it isn’t being downright awful, but I’d rather read a review by someone who thinks it’s wonderful than someone who doesn’t. Does that make sense?