Looking Back

by Trev Gibb


On the 13th of July 2001 I saw my second ever Bob Dylan show at Stirling Castle. It was an amazing day, a day with an aura of magic, a day of hype and expectation. There was a real excitement in the air, one that extended beyond the long and winding queues outside the venue, way up into the hills and beyond. As Dad and I stood in the queue waiting and waiting,  I decided to go look for food and drink, something I could at least to bring back to the queue to keep us ticking over until we would finally allowed be allowed into the car park, which served as the standing floor for the concert. 

While wandering up towards the front of the queue I froze, as if the hype, the expectation and excitement needed more fuel, there I beheld Bob Dylan standing in the middle of a dispersed and wandering crowd, his bodyguard Baron on one side of me Bob Dylan on the other. My jaw hit the floor, my arms turned to lead and my feet turned to rubber. It was clear that I was unable to move, I certainly wasn’t going to go over and say “hi Bob, how ya doing? Can I have an autograph” Time was suspended, yet in that instant a rush of screams shattered the Scottish air and ripped apart my eardrums, as my shock began to wear off and my eyesight and hearing started to return to normal I saw this tanned, skinny little guy with a long leather jacket, Stetson hat and leather pants amble up the stairs and to the back of main stage. I kept thinking, “That guy has an amazing face”; he had such a stark, yet intense face, such a presence, such charisma, and all he had to do to cause that effect was to walk past me. 

The rubber feet and lead arms wore off as he began to disappear up the stairway, I then proceeded with both hands to pick my jaw up from the floor and speed-walk back to the queue with a look of enlightenment on my face. 

As I explained the epiphany to my Dad, a guy behind us showed us an autograph he received just before I saw Bob and the screaming of the crowd began, it was a straggly little squiggle; the barely understandable formation of “best wishes Bob Dylan”. Use your left hand again did you Bob? The air was of course electrified now; Bob had made a little appearance and stirred up the crowd for what had already been hyped up as the concert of the summer. The romanticism was in the air, the sound check had already been promising with the familiar guitar lines of ‘Born In Time’ ringing out so wonderfully earlier in the day. 

The reason I felt the need to write about this particular show is because with all other concert experiences I've had concerning Bob Dylan, there has yet to be a one like Stirling Castle. I have never gone through such an intense, yet ever-changing feeling about a particular show. I can usually judge a bad show from a good show, or the high points and low points; however the Stirling show was just a completely different beast. During the show I was convinced it would be the best show Id ever see, I even thought it better than my first show in Newcastle the previous year. I was hanging on every word Dylan uttered, every nuance, every tone, every melodic shift and thinking, thinking about it, trying to rationalise, trying to deduce what I was experiencing, I was intensely there with Dylan the whole way, it was exhausting. 

After the show when the bootlegs began to surface however, I found myself distanced from the show, unconvinced about its standing and basically concluding it was one of those “could have been” great shows, and that the setting, as well as the hype and expectation that filled the audience that night was nothing more than a prop and if that was stripped away were we left with anything other than a halfway-decent show? I really couldn’t decide and the Stirling show ended up being one of those bootlegs to which I never thought I would return to. 

It is now over three years since the show at Stirling Castle and it was only last week while making a mini-disc compilation of the highlights of each of the shows I have so far attended, that I returned to Stirling Castle for a quick listen. It is strange how feelings evolve, because I found myself really getting into the show this time around, remembering the hype of the day, remembering my initial feelings and now placing everything into context, summing it up alongside the current Dylan and all the shows I myself have seen so far. 

While listening back to Stirling Castle, I began thinking on the notion that a Dylan show as experienced – saw and heard and felt in the instant the music is being created – differs very much from that of a Dylan show heard – on bootlegs – after the fact because you are not feeling the authenticity of the show in its true atmosphere, setting and/or experiencing the moments in which the music was made. We are in fact hearing a re-production in many ways of something pure and all we have to judge it upon are previous concerts we’ve heard on bootlegs within a similar time period and if one wasn’t there to experience the show it in a way limits how the show can be fully judged or realised even if in hindsight, a position I now found myself in. 

However the key to all of the above for me in consideration of Stirling was the notion of the ‘visual’. Yes I saw and heard Stirling Castle, yet I believe it was what I saw that exhausted/amazed and troubled me so much as I experienced the show. Dylan seemed distant, angered and frustrated. The instrument with which he can and has created such wonderfully simple and beautiful notes and chords was being thrashed at and struck at by its master. Dylan seemed at times to have no consideration for his guitar at all and at one point during the show scowled and proceeded to stagger to the back of stage and turn his amp up louder than both Larry’s and Charlie’s. 

Of course speculation was rife. Has Bob had an argument with Larry? Why is Larry on the far right of the stage? I always found it strange how people would comment, especially on European tours of the past, that there was some sort of rift between Campbell and Dylan and I've always felt it necessary to reassure people that in my opinion, Campbell’s position in the band is as strong and as important as ever. As solid as Tony Garnier is, it is Campbell in my mind who keeps the music afloat, who provides all the riffs and carries the musical backing so perfectly. However on that particular day Dylan seemed to be particularly frustrated about something, his voice also didn’t sound as good as it had in May, especially when listening back to concerts such as Ashville. However in consideration of Dylan’s most recent vocal styles/deliveries such quandary or disappointment about his voice are rather void and pointless, and perhaps in one way that’s what brought me back to Stirling with new interest. I now had a new stance as a Dylan appreciator, because it is now 2004, with a very different Dylan, a keyboard, a slightly different band, a different voice and a rhythm and blues driven sound. And as much as I am a defender of Dylan’s current vocal styling – whether they are self-inflected damage or conscious vocal changes –listening to Stirling presented such a contrast, it was also a wonderfully nostalgic experience. 

Dylan’s apparent mood at that show however, certainly contributed to the atmosphere of the show as a whole, people were perplexed and amazed at the visual Bob Dylan, at what they were seeing – the ‘visual’ - and experiencing as well as what they were hearing that I think when people heard the bootleg in the months after, they were left rather disappointed. Yes his voice wasn’t as strong as previous shows and certainly not as strong as the UK and US fall tours of the previous year, yet in consideration of our current Dylan and in looking back in hindsight and judging Stirling on its own individual terms, I now find the show rather wonderful. 

There are many wonderful and rather quirky versions of songs present on the Stirling bootleg and although it was not a conventionally solid all-pleasing show, which was perhaps its first stumbling block, there are aspects of the show which are truly wonderful.

The show opens rather promisingly with a solid and driving version of ‘Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie’, followed by a fair ‘To Ramona’. I remember initially hearing the bootleg and not being impressed by either ‘To Ramona’ or ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, but now when I listen back, especially to Tambourine Man it is his phrasing on that song that drew me in, and in consideration of what I've said above, I now look back upon the tone and sound of his voice at that time with perfect satisfaction. 

Tambourine was followed by what I have now come to see as a brilliant ‘Maggie’s Farm’ which for me has perhaps some of the best harmonica playing I’ve ever heard from Dylan. ‘Tell Me It Isn’t True’ was next up and also a wonderful surprise. However the show stopper was perhaps the next song, ‘Just Like A Woman’, without doubt it was one of the strangest versions Id ever heard, the melody was near gone from the song, Dylan was concentrating more on phrasing than he was on melodic recitation and the phrasing was truly wonderful in many cases, and importantly so with both his vocals and his guitar phrasing. Although at times Dylan seemed rather frustrated with his guitar there were moments throughout the show when his playing was splendid, where he seemed to find a groove that no one else had, his soling was a far cry from those horrible fuzzy 3-note search and destroy solo’s of previous years. During the instrumental breaks after every verse of ‘Just Like A Woman’ Dylan played a variation on the basic major scale ascent on guitar, and to marvellous effect. He chased the notes up and down the fret board, with such precision, like he’d remembered how to play guitar again and his guitar chimed gloriously, there was something about the sound he was getting that had the essence of the mystic, he was finding something truly beautiful in the moments he played. You could even see by the look on his face that he was amazed with himself. I remember Ed Nash and I going crazy when we saw this happening. I also remember the whole audience going crazy at how Dylan sang “I just don’t fit”, with such sadness. In fact much of the of what I now like about the Stirling show was that he was being completely subversive with his songs, he was chasing them, he was tearing them apart, reinventing, succeeding and failing all in the same moment and throwing the songs out at the audience with such raw intensity, that as an audience we were certainly exhausted. 

There were other highlights for me when I think back on it now, there were other great moments that only now I have come to realise as an older more experienced Dylan fan. It was my first Visions of Johanna, my first Not Dark Yet and my first Gotta Serve Somebody, and what a version it was, completely re-arranged, full of gods own thunder. And when I look back on Stirling Dylan was generous in many ways. We got a very long Setlist and an extra encore. The magic of this Dylan show was in the uncertainty, in the frustrations of Dylan and his audience, in the setting behind the Scottish hillsides with the sun going down and the rain pouring as the band played Not Dark Yet. I remember now, I remember, that’s what I love about Bob Dylan, that restlessness, that uncertainty, that magic, the feeling of not knowing what was going to happen next. I remember.