Two different themes dominate this month's look at how the press treated Bob during June and July. Firstly, we have lots of reviews from the UK leg of the European tour and a few from the brief (by his standards, anyway) American jaunt that proceeded it. It's interesting to see what the critics made of him this time around, especially as the concensus of fan opinion seemed to be that he was o-kay, if somewhat unspectacular (other than one or two "he just keeps getting better and better" stalwarts, of course).
The other main theme concerns Bob's recent St. Andrews University doctorate, where, again, Bob's "I don't really want to be here" demeanour gave one or two critics the chance to sharpen their knives and settle a few old scores.
Before we get onto all of that, however, June's issue of Record Collector carried reviews of three new Dylan DVD releases. Kent Hunt cast a jaundiced eye over Mickey Jones' 1966 home movies and, like every critic before him, could only find it in his heart to award it one star. He points out that the '66 tour has been so dissected over nearly 40 years that there is very little left to tell and what little new information that's worth hearing may still be waiting to be discovered ain't contained here; "...only Boboholics with the worst withdrawal symptoms will go back for another helping". Jason Draper sat down to watch Masked And Anonymous and enjoyed it enough to give it three stars, admitting that the script is witty enough and Dylan is enjoyable to watch. However, he is not convinced that the whole movie is not one big joke from Bob Dylan's pen; "...at the expense of those still believing that Dylan-the-protest-singer can save the world." From there he moves on to the recently reissued Unplugged, which he enjoyed enough to grant it four stars. Whilst recognising that the MTV studio offers a slightly sterile environment, he finds much to admire in Dylan's voice and his band, before concluding that "this is a fine document of the two-night stand."
Onto the American reviews now, beginning with a review of Gilford's Meadowbrook Musical Arts Center, the opening night of the mini-tour, by Rich Bergeron in an unknown newspaper. He interviewed plenty of fans before and after showtime and nobody seemed disappointed, with Bergeron reporting that Dylan got 'em up and dancing in the aisles almost from the off.
masslive.com's Donnie Moorhouse was not so impressed by the Mohegan Sun Arena show in Uncasville, claiming that Dylan as hunch-backed keyboard player removes the centre of attention for the audience, making everything "uneven and uneasy", and gave Moorhouse the impression that the crowd spent the entire night "waiting for someone to step into that void". Consequently, while his shows over the years have always been hit-and-miss, even the worst ones seemed to make sense at the end, and this one didn't. Not only that, he concludes, "...while it can be argued that Dylan has never been in fine voice, his delivery was exceptionally unintelligible for a good portion of the night." A good time was enjoyed by all, then.
At the Big Kahuna Festival, Dylan played on a deck beside the Christina River in front of an enthusiastic full-to-capacity 4,000-strong audience, and Christopher Yasiejko of delawareonline.com enjoyed himself as much as the crowd. He felt at times that some of Bob's movements seemed strained ("a likely byproduct of his years on the road") but there were also encouraging signs as well; "...an occasional mid-song smile made clear his enjoyment of this moment in his career."
Onto the Lincoln Center Gala in New York, where Dylan appeared alongside jazz band The Wynton Marsalis Septet for versions of It Takes A Lot To Laugh and Don't Think Twice that may represent the only live material that's worth collecting this year. Frank Scheck, writing for Reuters, was actually very impressed by Bob's first tentative steps into the world of jazz (discounting, of course, If Dogs Run Free, which I will gladly), describing how his initial nervousness soon disappeared and calling his two numbers "slinky". He even suggests that Dylan should seriously consider re-recording some of his classics with a jazz arrangement. Sounds interesting, but I'd rather have a new studio album, thanks all the same.
New York Newsday's Gene Seymour enjoyed Bob's two-song treat just as much, and so, it seems, did the audience, once Dylan had gotten his nerves under control; "...almost immediately, one could sense, even from the jaded jazz heads in the audience, a feeling of this -works-so-well-how-come-nobody-thought-of-it-before sweeping the Apollo. Maybe it shouldn't surprise so many people that Dylan's blues could be given a Kansas City-style swing band fitting. But it was still bracing to hear." After an almost flawless Don't Think Twice, complete with "airtight calypso beat" and a bit of jamming between Dylan's harmonica and Ronald Westray's trombone, Seymour, like Scheck, was left to keep his fingers crossed that "there was a record producer or two among the assembled swells paying attention to the possibilities displayed here."
Bob's show at the Salem Civic Center was well received by The Roanoke Times' Ralph Berrier Jnr who, whilst concluding that it wasn't exactly like the Rolling Thunder Revue (would that it were, this late in his career), decided that it "proved that he can still make a joyful noise". Though his voice now resembles that of a "newly discovered Chicago bluesman", and is really only suitable for the rock 'n' roll numbers, Berrier discovered that it "still succeeded in making several standards from his 40-year-old canon sound exciting and contemporary". All in all, the gig was, in Berrier's eyes at least, a total success; "...Even with his Olympian legacy rising before him every time he takes the stage, Dylan still pulls out performances worthy of his reputation. Just like a legend."
Onto the UK tour where a preview of sorts appeared in, of all things, SAGA magazine (which, for those overseas readers who are perhaps unaware, is aimed at an audience who have reached - or as near as damn it - a pensionable age) by David Thomas. It's actually a pretty decent piece, as far as these things go, concentrating primarily on the recent Victoria's Secret scandal (in which, apparently, Bob observes the barely-dressed young lady "looking wizened, moustachioed and - as is his wont - plain weird") but also touching base on the many other times that Dylan has horrified and defied his audience. This is not, however, a sarcastic put-down or even a full scale outraged attack from an ex-fan who feels let down, both of which we witnessed in spades from the other side of the pond a few months ago. Rather, Thomas concludes with equal parts wit and common sense; "...I don't think they (the adverts) need too much explanation. Bob Dylan is a man of 62. He was asked to fly first class to Venice, stay in a fabulous hotel and spend a few days hanging out with a supermodel dressed in sexy undies. And then they paid him. I'm not sure any reasonable human being would expect him to say No." This is exactly the argument I put forward in an issue of Freewheelin' at the time of the uproar, but it's nice to see it endorsed by a "proper" writer.
Neil McCormick of The Telegraph was not betting on what Bob Dylan we would get this time around. From the first time he saw him in 1984 when "I was overwhelmed by a sense of almost religious awe as I struggled to comprehend the notion that this icon could actually occupy the same time and space as me" (my first Dylan gig was also in 1984 - at Wembley Stadium, to be precise - and I know exactly what he means when he says that) through the bad and indifferent gigs during the intervening years up to 2002, where Dylan "tossed away lyrics with a kind of high-speed contempt, singing entire verses in the first bars of the song, without pause for breath or breaks for syntax, then waiting for the band to catch up", he, like us, has seen it all. This year he's heading for the Fleadh, as much for the experience of being a very small part of a very big audience as anything else; "...I have witnessed it time and again. People go to a show as individuals and emerge as a kind of community, pouring out into the night, still singing the last refrain. I think we go to such events to sing our songs. And if Dylan turns up to sing them with us, so much the better."
It seems as though Bob's Fleadh performance, at least as far as the critics were concerned, was decidedly more miss than hit. The Independent's Andy Gill, usually one of Dylan's staunchest defenders, was pretty unimpressed once the opening Down Along The Cove was out of the way. Maggie's Farm, turned into "a strutting funk workout", was "a bit perfunctory" and a "plodding" Desolation Row saw the show hit an all time low, as this was a version "from which every drop of juice has been drained." All in all, one Dylan show best forgotten, but, as Gill concludes, "the one thing you can be sure of with Bob is that there'll be others, and far better ones, to come."
Stephen Dalton of The Times was equally unimpressed, claiming that, "having toured for the past decade, the 63-year-old rock shaman should have effortlessly energised the Fleadh's partisan audience. Instead, he seemed shifty and remote, stumbling through two hours of middling pub-rock teasingly punctuated by rare flashes of frail, ghostly beauty." Bob Dylan in 2004, suggests Dalton, has swapped "youthful urgency and explosive charisma for saloon-bar noodling" and, although he remains "a genius, a one-off and a walking encyclopaedia of American folk music...even living legends need a kick up the back pages some times."
The Guardian's Robin Denselow begins his piece by reminding us that Dylan has spent a lifetime confusing and surprising his audience and his Fleadh performance "was a classic in that respect". He also felt that Desolation Row was a pale shadow of it's former self and had "lost much of it's old menace" but, at the end of the day, "this was not Dylan for the purists, but a powerful, intriguing set all the same."
From the fields of London, the Bob carnival headed north to Scotland, and Russell Leadbetter of the Glasgow Evening News enjoyed the Glasgow SECC show enormously, claiming that Like A Rolling Stone sounded as fresh as it did almost 40 years ago. "Dylan may not be able to claim any records for album sales, but his genius is still in full flow", he exclaims.
The Sunday Mail presented two brief reviews; one of the SECC gig by David Ross ("...Any doubts about his place in rock history were dispelled by a stunning encore") and a surly write-off of Barrowland by Billy Sloan ("Scotland's Greatest Rock Writer", don't you know?); "...Bob is a music legend...but as a live act he's a real spent force.").
On the other hand, The Glasgow Herald's John Williamson considered the Barrowland gig to be one of the best he had ever seen, by Dylan or anyone else; "...even hardcore Dylan aficionados, who have stuck with him through his many tangents, would be hard pushed to be prepared for the sheer impact of such an intimate performance, where, for the first time in many visits to Scotland, he appears to be both utterly engaged and - whisper it - possibly enjoying himself...There may never be a chance to see Dylan this close and animated: that he is in such good fettle is a real bonus".
Damien Love of the Glasgow Sunday Herald reckons that the SECC show was Bob's best in that venue, burying the unfortunate 1991 performance ("I saw Dylan charge like Custer at a suicidal set, leaving his band scattered behind") once and for all. However, it was nothing in comparison to Barrowland, where a sing-along Just Like A Woman took the gig to a whole other level. A Hampden Roar from the assembled throng almost took the roof off and brought delighted and bemused smiles from the band members; "...Dylan is standing chording away at his keyboard, leaning into the song now, listening, and a surprised grin flashes across his face, too. Anyone who knows anything about Dylan will not believe this, but, by the end of the song, just for a moment, the man famous for wilfully restructuring the DNA of his songs seems to be singing along with the crowd, not vice versa." By the time the show reaches the encores, another sing-along to Like A Rolling Stone even inspires an onstage comment from the Bobmeister; "We musta played that song a thousand times, and no one's ever kept up like that!" The evening presented, so Love unsurprisingly concludes, "the greatest concert I've ever seen".
The Scotsman's Brian Morton was almost as impressed with Barrowland, though he felt that the set offered too little variety and the encores were "predictable enough". It is, for Morton, Dylan's voice that rescues the event from becoming Just Another Concert; "...Rumours that Dylan's voice has succumbed to ill-health are exaggerated. He was never a nightingale, but he hasn't yet become a screech-owl, and when he gets to I Believe In You, he's more like a flittering nightjar, turning the song into something like a nocturne."
On the eve of Bob's Belfast visit, restaurant owner Joe Webb was expressing hope that he pays another visit to Webb's TL2 diner. The Belfast Telegraph's Eddie McIlwaine reports that Dylan, Van Morrison and a few band members visited the eaterie the last time they were in town six years ago, and Dylan came as close as he is ever likely to come to promising that he would return to TL2 as soon as he could. Webb reveals that he is a big Dylan fan and professes a liking for Blowin' In The Wind, Lay Lady Lay and The Times They Are A-Changin'. "In the restaurant he was quiet and reserved and easy to serve," he says, "It was a special kind of evening." Whether Dylan did keep his promise or not is unknown. Perhaps Webb will reveal all in another six years.
Unfortunately, David Gordon of The Belfast Telegraph didn't enjoy the Belfast Odyssey concert, suggesting that Bob is now past his sell-by date and should be finding a more productive way of spending his evenings, especially as he probably doesn't need to tour for the money; "...for the most part, the overriding impression was of a man who just wanted to get the job done and get out of there."
A few days later, the same newspaper featured brief reviews of the same show by a Dylan veteran (John Caruth) and a novice (Una Bradley). Caruth enjoyed it well enough, giving special praise to the band, and his only real complaint was that Dylan's keyboards were too low in the mix. Bradley, with only one previous Bob show under her belt, was also impressed, though she missed "his romantic, slushy ballads". She praised his energy and the encores and, for some reason, concluded that "for a man of 63, his pelvic thrust ain't half bad".
Whilst in Belfast, The Belfast Telegraph's Maureen Coleman reported that Dylan paid an impromptu visit to the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children, where, clad in the familiar Stetson, he visited three wards, chatting to the kiddies and their parents, playing harmonica and handing out little mouth organs to the patients. A hospital spokesman revealed that Bob's management called them up out of the blue and told them that he was keen to visit. "I'm not sure if the children knew who he was," he continues, "But because he was dressed in cowboy boots and Stetson, they knew he was someone famous. It was an unexpected surprise and the dads of some of the children were chuffed to bits. He was very pleasant and friendly and staff were delighted to welcome him to the hospital." Nice story and, to be serious for a moment, it does prove that, whatever we may think of the public Bob Dylan circa 2004, and however much he hides from his fans and their cameras, he really does still have a heart of gold. God bless him.
And that, ladies and gents, concludes the tour coverage for this issue. I will hopefully be looking at how the German press received our man next month.
Onto the other main topic this month; that of Bob being awarded - and actually turning up to receive - an honorary doctorate from Scotland's St. Andrews University. The news hit many of the newspapers worldwide, with most pointing out that this was his first such degree since Princeton in 1970. Dylan did himself no favours by accepting it in person, and gave the European and American press more grist for the mill. Did we honestly think that it would be any different? Firstly, he arrived late, presumably to make sure that he wasn't troubled by any pesky photographers or fans. Secondly, he spent the entire time that he was there looking as though he'd lost a pound and found two pence (thanks to my Mum for that expression!) and yawning his head off, reacting to the university choir's version of Blowin' In The Wind the way you or I might to stepping into a particularly squishy dog poo. Thirdly, he nipped off sharpish at the end of the ceremony, not wishing to take part in the little party afterwards, and was whisked away behind tinted windows.
The New York Daily News reported that he arrived 50 minutes into the 90 minute ceremony and, even though he sat silent and brooding throughout, he "brought a strong dose of star power to the University of St. Andrews commencement."
msnbc.com quoted part of Neil Corcoran's "awe-struck" address; "Many members of my generation can't separate a sense of our own identity from his music and lyrics.... (his fusion of folk, blues, country, rock and poetry) moved everything on to a place it never expected to go and left the deepest imprint on human consciousness.....His magnificent songs will last as long as song itself does."
The BBC News website also concentrated on Bob's surliness and quoted University principal, Dr. Brian Lang; "...His song, and in particular his lyrics, are still part of our consciousness. We are very pleased to take this opportunity of honouring such a major artist." It also featured a couple of nice photos of Bob at the ceremony.
Tim Luckhurst of the Independent reported pretty much the same thing but added a nice little coda, revealing that, when he knelt in front of the Chancellor of the University, Sir Kenneth Dover, Dylan had to stay there four times as long as anyone else, waiting for the cheers and applause to die down.
Chartattack.com began their report thus; "Getting a doctorate takes years of hard work, inalterable dedication to scholarly research and the borderline insanity to actually want to be in school for the majority of your young life. Or you can sing oft-unintelligible lyrics over simple chord structures and bypass all that garbage." We are informed that Dylan was "painfully shy" and looked awkward in his "monk-type robe" and he was without his "Rizzo The Rat-style moustache". They also take time out to mention Bob's impending tour with Willie Nelson, or, as they call him, "a bearded, pig-tailed, bandana-wearing country music twanger".
John Dingwall of Scotland's Daily Record quotes one member of the choir who was less than impressed with Dylan's attitude, especially his comatose reaction to their Blowin' In The Wind tribute, and the fact that they were told that they couldn't go up to the balcony afterwards to where Dylan had (presumably reluctantly) agreed to a photo shoot. "My friend is a doctor," she reveals, "who thought Dylan looked ill, grey and tired. He didn't seem too happy to be there. He should have sat through the students graduating but he refused. At the end of our performance, he just put his hands together twice and didn't applaud...He had nothing to say to us at all and didn't seem to want to have to brush shoulders with anyone. We have sung for the Queen before and she seemed far more appreciative." Looks as though there's one person who won't be rushing out to buy a Dylan album as a memento of a special day. Make that two people; another student complained; "He was a grumpy old man. If he didn't want to be there, he shouldn't have bothered."
Selina Scott, writing for Scotland's Sunday Mail also mourned the days when the only way to receive a university degree was through hard work and dedicated study. "Now," she complains, "They even dole the things out to TV presenters, actors and folk singers", revealing that St. Andrews have also awarded honorary degrees to Sean Connery and war correspondent Kate Adie. Still, she's obviously a bit of a fan, suggesting that Bob is nowadays a better poet than his "idol" Dylan Thomas, and, when quoting Neil Corcoran's address that his lyrics are as "complex and compelling as that of gifted poets of the printed page" adding that "few would disagree".
The Mesabi Daily News decided that Dylan would never receive a degree for social graces; "...Arriving on time would have been a nice gesture. A nod or some kind of acknowledgment of the choir's performance of his song would have been a small expression of gratitude. And a simple thank you would have shown a little appreciation. Then again, that would not have been Dylan being Dylan."
The Scotsman's Gerard Degroot concluded that "Dr. Dylan is proof that the baby boomers have taken over the establishment" and, most succinctly, "He's a miserable old fart, but that's why we love him". Now, wouldn't that make a great tag line on his future concert posters?
A day or so later, Simon Pia, also of The Scotsman, reported that Dylan took such a shine to his graduation gown that, after the ceremony, he asked; "Can I keep this?" It was, so we are told, the only time he spoke and everyone was so flabbergasted that, as another honorarian explained, "No one had the gall to say; "No, you bloody well cannot"." The gowns, modelled on those of medieval scholars, are worth a fair bit and Bob was "last spotted disappearing with a Transylvanian flourish", presumably with the gown tucked underneath his arm.
Finally, let's end with The Times' Allan Brown's overview of Bob's entire recent UK tour, which begins with a discussion of some of his more dedicated fans who read something cosmic and important into the slightest of Dylan activities ("He is the rock-fan equivalent of JRR Tolkien"). Wisely skipping the Fleadh, Brown begins at Belfast's Odyssey Arena, where "much of Dylan's artistry now is lost beneath the fuzzy cataract of noise required to reach the size of crowds he attracts. This, allied with Dylan's allergy to showmanship, can render his stadium shows thankless, tedious affairs." Presumably his outdoor shows are even worse, since his Pearse Stadium show in Galway was even immune to the sunshine, which couldn't "rouse Dylan to anything beyond his standard, blithely disengaged template performance."
Scotland's SECC gig was no better, offering a "thundering and lumbering country-rock sludge from which few gems winked, all of it diminished further by the attritional chill of Dylan's Never-ending bad mood." However, the Barrowland show offered something to savour and remember, revealing, as it did, "Dylan's genius in all it's cussed, weather-beaten glory... (he) laughs and clowns throughout the show, clearly energised by the proximity of the audience."
Whilst in Glasgow, Brown finally gets close to the man offstage, nabbing him as, hooded and surly, he is heading back to his hotel, and thrusting a copy of Blonde On Blonde into his face for an autograph. As quick as you like, a minder appears out of nowhere and states; "Nah! We don't do that!" Dylan, who barely seems to have registered Brown's presence, "continues his loping stroll up the hill".
What does Brown make of Bob Dylan still on the road here in 2004? "Well, it tells us that he's tiring physically, more vocally hampered than ever and preparing himself, I'd say, for some serious career retrospectives, after which he'll no doubt tour till he drops. What he should do is play at a scale where audiences can appreciate his weathered mastery and cask-conditioned genius, but I doubt the management would allow it. Either way, it was nice to encounter him and, even if only mentally, to say, how are you, good luck. And mean it."
On that less than encouraging portrait of a man who, after the triumphs of Love And Theft, the 2001 Autumn tour, Masked And Anonymous and 'Cross The Green Mountain, seems content to spend 2004 treading water, we must leave it for another month.
Fare thee well.
THANKS TO: THE EXPECTING RAIN WEBSITE, BOBBY R & CHRIS
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