I'm going to cheat (I think) a bit here, and write not about the last time I listened to Dylan, but the last time (as I write) that I saw and heard him live, which was at Brixton in 2003: it was an intensely memorable experience, and one of those moments in time that make you re-evaluate things. I wrote about it briefly soon after the show, but thinking back on that night has made me want to delve a little deeper into why experiencing Dylan in performance can be so moving and powerful. And a little bit deeper into what "last times" mean...
Sometimes context can be a very important part of it. A great deal of the excitement of being at Brixton Academy on that late November night in 2003 was what had gone before in the two shows immediately prior, at Shepherd's Bush and at Hammersmith Odeon, of course, with Dylan (as one critic at the time put it) "looking through his own songbook and then ripping it up". After seeing a good but not extraordinary show in Munich a few weeks before, and then suffering the worry of Dylan having cancelled a show in Ireland through illness not many days before he was due to get to London, the blistering performance and jaw-dropping song-list at Shepherd's Bush (where Monica and I had queued for five hours in absolutely torrential downpours of rain to make sure we had the pick of the seats) had come like a bolt from the blue - as Dylan well knew it would. From our seats which were practically hanging over the stage, looking straight into Dylan's face as he hunched over the piano, we could tell he was having a rollicking good time blowing our socks off. The poor guy sitting at the end of our row, who had never been to a Dylan show before but had driven up from Devon for this one, had to have it explained to him why all around him keener Dylan concert-goers were getting near-hysterical as each unexpected song started, laughing out loud and becoming incoherent with excitement. Quinn the Eskimo! Tough Mama! Dear Landlord! Jokerman! And then Romance in Durango at Hammersmith...
So Brixton came on this wave of "What the hell is he going to do next?" and excitement that all things were possible, and that Bob was enjoying himself.
Monica and I had been riding a wave of incredible luck that week, which continued as we got into the theatre: although we hadn't been able to leave Hastings until school had ended, and were therefore way back in the queue by the time the doors opened, Monica and I incredibly found ourselves in the second row of the balcony, dead-centre, and after an intense but fortunately not physical argument with the chap in the seat in front of us (who informed us he was going to stand up all the way through the show : we in turn informed him that, were he to do so, we would chuck him off the balcony...) we ended up in the front row itself (the said chap having decided that going downstairs of his own volition would be safer). (I am usually milder-mannered than this, but anyone who threatens to spoil my enjoyment of a Dylan show should take care...). So the excitement of the evening was all set. You could hear it, too, in the huge cheer that went up as Dylan was announced and came onto the stage at Brixton.
(To digress a little - don't you find that Dylan shows all have their own individual character, their own taste, only partially to do with what Dylan himself does on stage? The whole experience builds up differently each time: how you travel to the show and who with; whether it's in England or abroad; who's in the queue with you; who else you see to talk to inside the venue; what merchandise you buy; how good your seats are; what the atmosphere in the crowd is like...However many shows you go to, and most people get to a lot more shows than I do, each one has its own defining moments and experiences, and associated memories. And I don't know whether it's me or Dylan, but some extraordinary things have happened to me on the way to or from, or at, Dylan shows. The night of my first Dylan show ever is the best example - October 15th 1987, the Night of the Hurricane. I walked home from the train station down the centre of the road because the trees were being blown so hard they were bending down and whipping the pavements. Blimey, I thought, I didn't know Dylan shows were going to have this effect...And for several tours after that - think of 1990 - Dylan shows were associated with extreme weather. I remember walking around Hammersmith through deep snow drifts that year. At Jones Beach in 1997 not only did the full moon sail into view behind Dylan the very second he walked onto the stage - I am not exaggerating, the whole crowd went "Ooooh" as it happened - but a monsoon-like rainstorm started within seconds of him leaving the stage. Go figure, as the Americans would say).
End of digression, back to Brixton. Sitting in the front row, all excited and wondering what astounding little rabbits Dylan was going to pull out of the hat to top the surprises he'd thrown out in the previous two shows...
...And he didn't. Of course he didn't: this is Bob Dylan we're talking about. He went one step further than that again, and produced what, for me, was the best show - musically - I have ever been at.
Listen to the snarl in the voice in Wicked Messenger, the opening song, and the way his voice swoops through the ends of the lines, for example, "...if you can't bring good news, then don't bring any!" The harmonica comes in strong and wild in this very first song, blown with real gusto: here is an artist hitting the ground running, and with all engines firing (yes, it's a mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean). One of the recent reviews of Dylan's shows in the Beacon Theatre in New York last month said that this late-career Dylan incarnation was "ferocious and palpable", and I think that hits it right on the nail. No evidence of an artist fading out here.
Being Dylan, the tempo and temperature is then played with as the set develops, in the interplay between songs and in the vocal effects Dylan brings to each. The second song, Yeah! Heavy And a Bottle of Bread, is gentle and breathy, with careful enunciation and phrasing that fits beautifully with a jazzy, loose, held-back dual-guitar feel provided by Freddie and Larry. It's followed by a slick, punchy Tweedledum and Tweedledee, again with Dylan taking what seems like particular care with the delivery of the lyrics. Despite its familiarity on this tour, there is no feeling of slapdash or settling for the mediocre. Listen to the deliberate gaps between the words in "your presence.. is.. obnoxious.. to.. me".
And then slam-bam into Blind Willies McTell, and you can hear from the audience reaction how delighted they are to recognise it. Dylan's piano playing hits a few clunkers early in the song, unfortunately, but the voice is spot-on, gorgeously growly and right up-front, every word, and the guitar solos between verses more than make up for the damage Dylan's keyboard is trying to do to the tune. You can really hear Dylan's conviction throughout this song, but especially in the "There's a woman in the river..." verse. Hear the lovely pause before the word hand in "Bottle of whisky in his...hand", and the number of notes he manages to sing into the word "sing". The last lines of this verse, "I can tell you one thing/Nobody can sing /the Blues, like Blind Willies McTell" is just glorious, a real full-throated, last-stand statement. Freddie Koella's guitar solo after the final verse manages to do more than justice to what Dylan has managed to find in this song on this particular evening, and the whole band's performance releases a huge cheer from the audience when it finishes.
Then into the cheerful jingle-jangle of Tangled Up in Blue and some really happy harmonica tootling straight away. You can certainly hear Dylan's contentment with himself here. There are lots of lovely eccentric but meaningful phrasing touches (at one point the lyrics are delivered in a gentle staccato that plays off what the band are doing beautifully) and the song swings along joyously. Dylan plays with the way that the phrase "tangled up in blue" is delivered, managing to make each one different from the one before. All of the harmonica breaks are pointed and convincing, and add to the overall feeling that here is an artist really enjoying and "into" what he is doing, at this moment, in this place, with these musicians.
Another change of pace. Into the deep, dark, gloomy of depths of Million Miles. Muted but pounding piano chords contrast with rumbling, shivering guitar work that build up the picture of fractured, frightened need. Hear the long drawn-out "I wonder what it's all coming....tooooo". (Unfortunately, the CD of the show reveals that there were - unforgivably - a significant number of mindless idiots in the audience who talked all the way through this song. How do people have the damned awful manners to chat when an artist is giving his work all of his effort like this? Can't they perceive subtlety in performance? I'm sorry, but I think they're cretins. If I had been sitting nearer where the taper was sited, you might also have heard me telling them to shut up. I seem to need to do it at least once in every show).
The next song, Boots of Spanish Leather, was my favourite of the tour. The new arrangement that Dylan produced on this tour was unbelievably pretty, and it drew from Dylan on nearly every occasion a vocal care and tenderness that literally made me hold my breath, astonished. You can hear Dylan's deeply-held belief that this is still an important song. Listen to the way he pulls out the distance between "lonesome...day". The lonesomeness of the day goes on eternally. The emotional truth at the centre of the song is as bright and powerful as the day it sprang from the love-wounded heart of the young Bob all those decades ago. The harmonica break at the end manages to be both chirpy and poignant at the same time. A very nice performance all round.
And then the song that absolutely blew me away. I don't know how many times I've heard Highway 61 performed, but I've never heard it performed like this. Wow! It burns and blazes, right from the start. And the guitarists are the key to it. Their sure-footedess allows Dylan to really sing, and Freddie is, of the two, the more impressive here. He sounds as if he's been playing this song all his life, bending and stretching it into fantastic shapes. Larry's is the more conventional, but no less blistering, reading of the rock-and-rollness of the song. Dylan has to pull out a first-grade vocal performance just to keep up. Up in the front row of the balcony, I was beside myself with glee. It felt like hearing rock music played for the very first time. Absolute joy. The band are completely inside the song, riding it all the way through with the audience.
Listening to the show again as I write this, I'm beginning to understand more of what Paul Williams meant, in last year's third part of Performing Artist, when he talked about Dylan taking more care over his setlists - in his placing songs into a matrix of interaction with each other - than perhaps anyone has ever given him credit for. It's certainly a tangible force here, Dylan's deliberate placing of songs either to hit off each other in contrast or to strike chords within each other.
Love Sick, for example, pulls the pace right down again after Highway 61, but the two are tied together both by the conviction in Dylan's voice and by Freddie's billowing, blousy, brilliant guitar work. In terms of the two songs side by side, it's a tour de force, in Dylan's ability to manipulate the emotional temperature of performance without losing momentum. After the nuclear blast of Highway 61, a slower, more subtle song could have been a tricky proposition. (One can think of dozens of artists who couldn't, in a month of Sundays, pull off the transition). By this stage in the night, though, Dylan is so convinced of his control that the step down in pace feels nothing like a step down in power. It's true: sometimes silence can be like thunder. It's a great performance of a very strong song.
I can think of one close friend of mine who's not going to agree with my next statement, but Jokerman, the next song on the shortlist, does seem like a bit of a step down (sorry, Karen). It's a good reading of a song with truly fantastic lyrics - but the choppy guitar sound tends only to highlight the flatness of the tune here and gets a bit repetitive: there's very little room for the guitarists to add anything of themselves into this arrangement. The choruses are sung very strongly, though, with Dylan putting his throat into the non-verbal bits ("Aaahhh"), and some of the verse lines get some lovely decoration - listen to "the rich men without a name". It's always nice to hear a less-often played song, so I wouldn't dream of knocking its inclusion: it's just that it doesn't shine as brightly as so much of the rest of the setlist tonight.
Hard Rain, up next, continues the theme of the evening: here is a man enjoying his artistry and committed to it, and taking care to deliver it well. It builds really nicely to a climax, all the lines sung clearly, and the crowd shows its appreciation of the way the last verse naturally climbs to a conclusion. It also provides a good foil to the swagger and brimstone of Honest With Me, sharing with it an apocalyptic message, but with the newer song, on first impression, punching above its lyrical weight (again, largely due to the skill with which the guitarists are in synch with Dylan's mood tonight). One feels Dylan to be saying, in the lines between the text of these performances, that his latest works more than stand up to comparison with some of his earliest, that they are every bit as valid and valuable. "I'm going to build an imperial empire, I'm going to do whatever circumstances require!" What a contrast to the context and content of Hard Rain, the ultimate tale of the folly of empire building! Another example of Dylan's conscious use of the dialogue between songs in their deliberate juxtaposition? It's certainly the old Dylan talking to the young, developing and even perhaps upending a previous world-view. Seen in these terms, which Dylan is the more daring, the more cheeky, the more confident, the more adept? Definitely the older version, on this evidence.
And here comes the Master's hand again, Contrasts and contexts. After a fast, loud song, an old song, a slow song - Hattie Carroll. Like Boots of Spanish Leather, its beauty and power lies here in its restraint and its deliberation, especially in Dylan's vocal. Played slowly, at the end it dwindles prettily away...and in swings Summer Days! These new songs, the ones from "Love and Theft" and Time Out of Mind are really superb in live performance, as they seem to have been written to be. The band is really cooking throughout, and I love Freddie's guitar here again, especially towards the end of the song. This is his sort of music, completely. And doesn't Dylan just love this song? His voice rolls and swings with the dance tempo. Released from guitar playing, he can relax into his vocal performance and enjoy himself. The lyrics pile up fast and furiously, sung with supreme jive confidence. We lucky people in the audience yell our appreciation at the end, utterly convinced. A great end to the main body of the show.
The encore returns in the same vein, with a rollicking, fast-paced Cat's In the Well, a song I've always liked, and one that wouldn't seem out of place on "Love and Theft" (it was always my favourite on Under the Red Sky) in its old-timey swing feel and Americana lyrics. Unfortunately, Freddie's jazzy solo hits his only bum note of the night, taking a fraction too long to get into gear, and Larry wins hands down in this song.
No pause, straight into Rolling Stone (another new(er)/old song juxtaposition that works well). How difficult must it be for Dylan to sing this song with conviction, for the nth hundredth time? The momentum of the evening carries him through it tonight. It's sung straight for the most part, giving the audience what it wants (and takes - ie. an opportunity to throw its collective head back and sing along). Freddie doesn't make all he could have done of his guitar solo, but does well enough to launch Larry. Dylan takes on the challenge of the lyrics and chops up the "secrets..to..conceal" line nicely.
After the song ends, and before Dylan can get into his band introductions, someone throws something onto the stage and Dylan says/mumbles something which may or may not be along the lines of "..being here in Great Britain...take him out and hang him". It's good-natured, but unintelligible. Well, at least we could be grateful it wasn't one of the Dylan "jokes", of the "windscreen vipers"/"fork in the road" variety, he's taken to delivering.
All Along the Watchtower, the final song, blisters at beginning and end, but falters at several points in between - perhaps needless to say, both of them are keyboard solo moments. When the guitarists get their hands on it, though, and especially in the final verse when the drums kick in big-time, it sounds great, and Dylan's final line of the evening - "Nobody knows what any of it is worth" - is as impassioned and powerful as I dare say it has ever been, and makes for a more than worthy end to a magnificent show.
Do you hear it like I hear it? Were you there and felt it as I felt it? I hope so.
And that was my last time...But as with all Dylan shows, the hope is always that it won't be the real last time, please God. Keep him healthy and happy, we all breathe, as we leave the concert hall, and bring me back safely, too, to another Dylan show sometime soon. Someday, of course, it will really be the last time. How will that feel? How will it feel never again to be in the same space, in time and location, as Bob Dylan, and experience with him the thrill of the creating of his art another time? Will we be able to be grateful and thank God that we were able to experience it the amount of times that we did, or will it leave an unfillable hole? I'm sorry, John, but the best is not always yet to come - such is life. All things must pass, and all that. For the meantime, with Bob enjoying his music and willing and able - God knows by what power - to keep touring hard and performing with conviction, we are justified in hoping, at least in the short term, that there are great experiences awaiting. And if death is not the end, then neither, perhaps, need we fear the passing of Freewheelin', if that is what this issue in fact is. The best we can do, as Dylan reminds us constantly, is to honour life. How we do that is up to us.
Note: the above was written prior to the Dylan tour of Europe in 2005 – now that is another story!
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