Happiness is but a state of mind. Anytime you want, you can cross the state line….
I have seen Bob Dylan ‘in concert’ quite a few times and he has always impressed me. Certain gigs stand out in my memory – as a kid in 1981, when he was my new hero; in 2000, in Cardiff, where he was swept along by the warmth of that small crowd, dancing, smiling, rocking and rolling and also his fantastic, hilarious, MC routine at the Hop Farm gig in 2012.
I never thought that I would see him, at 72, play the Royal Albert Hall, but life is like that. You just never know.
While travelling, I listened to Tempest again, as I knew he was playing a lot of material from that collection and I hadn’t heard it in a while. I like most of the songs and adore the actual sound of it. It sounds warm and noisy, like it was recorded on to tape, rather than onto a hard drive.
I had never been to the Royal Albert Hall before, so, after having a quick look at his ‘Mood Swings’ work at the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair, I took the tube to South Kensington and arrived early, getting a drink and a bite to eat, then had a nose around.
I had a seat in one of the Loggia Boxes, with an alright but distant view. It was the furthest I have ever been from the stage but the ticket was a surprise birthday present, so I was extremely grateful just to be there.
The ‘hall’ was gorgeous and filled with history, and it soon started to fill with people, too.
The guy next to me was a giant, drunk Slovakian who told me: “I want see him now because he die soon, yes?”
He thought that was hilarious.
He drank an entire bottle of Vodka in the time we were there, and talked to his two sons throughout the entire gig, which seemed like a waste to me, but each to his own.
At half past seven, the band walked on to a dimly lit stage to hearty applause and got into the positions they would remain in for the evening.
Stu Kimball strummed an acoustic guitar and then, from the shadows, emerged a head of grey curls, no hat, sharp suit and an ambling gait in pointy boots. The Royal Albert Hall erupted in raucous applause.
There he was. The man himself.
Things Have Changed is a good choppy opener and it gave me a chance to get used to the new sound via a well-known number.
Immediately, it was apparent that he was into it and standing cocky, in front of a centre-stage microphone, hand on hip, is a great way to start a gig.
He looked great – slim, sprightly and fully committed. Still funny, too. His legs make me laugh out loud. No-one moves like him – part cowboy, part Chaplin and part marionette but…cool.
He’s not embarrassing like Mick Jagger, breathlessly jerking around a stage like your Grandad dancing to hip-hop.
He has dignity and grace and carries himself the way the old blues guys do.
On his second record, he was quoted as saying:
“I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people.”
Well, he does now. He’s earned his position and knows it.
I watched the sound guys tweaking the faders and by the second half of the song, they’d got the sound spot-on, given that his voice is an engineer’s worst nightmare. Deep rumbling lows, harsh spiky highs. It was hard to decipher the words sometimes, but, well, that’s nothing new.
She Belongs To Me has a great new arrangement, allowing him to play with the timing and phrasing of the familiar lyrics. He even elongated the vowel howls – like the infamous 1966 ‘Royal Albert Hall’ version (although actually from the Manchester Free Trade Hall, of course).
He’s really got to grips with the character of his tired voice, and uses it to his advantage. The intricacies and nuances are kaleidoscopic. It’s a thing of cracked beauty and wonder. And as expressive as any soul diva.
His harmonica tonight was played straight into his vocal mic, not through a bullet, and sounded clear and stark. It was a treat to hear that lonesome, defiant edge un-effected.
He has a penchant at the moment for playing jazzy, off-beat piano riffs and I love it. I haven’t heard anything quite like it before. Occasionally he played a few bum notes and once or twice it seemed to clash with Charlie Sexton’s guitar runs, or Donnie Heron’s pedal steel, but it’s live music and that kind of stuff is fine with me.
I don’t go to a Dylan concert to hear slick.
On What Good Am I? he played a really interesting repeated lead riff that I thought worked well, then changed to chords for the chorus. His voice sounded particularly great on this one, half-whispering then tenderly caressing particular words, his piano stabs punctuating lines. It reminded me of the way Blind Willie McTell played guitar, replicating a vocal melody with single notes after he’d rasped out the words. It was brilliant, I thought. Very delicate and unusual.
It was a real birthday treat for me, as I’d never heard him play that song live.
Duquesne Whistle was a blast. He sang with confidence and obviously enjoyed it and the same was true of Pay In Blood, where, vocally at least, it sounded more vitriolic and searing than the album version.
Tangled Up In Blue was received particularly well, and is a great song, no matter how he does it. I couldn’t make out all the new words, but enjoyed it immensely, regardless. That was immediately followed by an even better Love Sick, with Dylan pounding those keys for all he was worth and singing it very, very well, especially as he raised the vocal register towards the end.
It may sound daft, but I liked that Dylan introduced the interval himself. I don’t know why.
The break gave me a chance to stretch my legs and munch a few hospitality sandwiches while wondering what further treats would follow from the stage.
As it turned out, there were plenty. On Simple Twist Of Fate, he played the piano beautifully, letting Charlie Sexton weave some nice sparkles around his almost conversational and surprisingly tender vocals.
And then, after the excellent, flat-out riffing of Early Roman Kings came the beautifully mournful Forgetful Heart.
Donnie’s dark, drone-like violin and Stu Kimball’s guitar were entrancing. Dylan’s broken voice and sobbing harp just about had me in tears.
It was ‘The Dylan Moment’, where, unannounced, something other-worldly happens that causes my senses to forget everything and feel like I’m standing in the light of something awesome and utterly lovely, divine even.
Like the alignment of the planets, but through music.
It’s not even a song I particularly like, and though the chords are fairly standard and emotionally manipulative in terms of Western patterns (F, Dm, and Am I think), something else happened and I was transported to a better place for a few beautiful moments – some kind of melancholic heaven.
The audience responded with standing applause and, again, the obvious love for the guy and his music was crystal clear.
Soon After Midnight is a lightweight favourite from ‘Tempest’. I find myself singing it a lot. I love the wry grin in the lyrics, the sheer audacity and wit. Bob Dylan has written hundreds of Class A songs, and is known to have penned a clever rhyme or two, so I love to hear him playing around with lines as simple as:
“Charlotte’s a harlot
Dresses in scarlet
Mary dresses in green
It’s soon after midnight
And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen”
Especially when preceded by lines like:
“My heart is cheerful
It’s never fearful
I’ve been down on the killing floors
I’m in no great hurry
I’m not afraid of your fury
I’ve faced stronger walls than yours”
Tonight’s version had the band create a subdued, stately sound, with Dylan clipping the vocal lines short while tickling one note melodies out of his baby grand. I loved it.
My one criticism of tonight would be this: why have a great, great player like Charlie Sexton in your band and hardly let him off the leash?
His rhythm work is excellent and he adds frills and sparks to the restrained, grown-up sound, but, Bob, let him loose to cause a little mayhem! I think it would add contrast, another dimension, an extra excitement and colour. I feel that way about the whole Tempest album really.
Towards the end of the show, something else struck me – there was no nostalgia. At all. No reminiscing or rose-tinting. Most of the songs tonight were relatively current, which is pretty gutsy given that his catalogue stretches back 50 years.
(For the anoraks like me, there were 7 from Tempest, 2 from Blood On The Tracks, 2 from Together Through Life, 2 from Love & Theft, 1 from Time Out Of Mind, 1 each from John Wesley Harding, Freewheelin’, Bringing It All Back Home, Modern Times, Oh Mercy! and the country waltz, Waiting For You, was written for the soundtrack of Callie Khouri’s 2002 movie, ‘Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’).
I saw Bowie a few years back and his show was strictly ‘hits’. There wasn’t much personality or risk involved, it was simply a very professional, crowd-pleasing, backward-looking exchange for your money.
There’s nothing wrong with playing accurate renditions of your hits, I guess, but Dylan seems unwilling to do that and, like it or not, it makes for a lively and challenging experience.
Personally, I love that he keeps his songs alive and kicking. Even tonight’s first encore, 1968’s All Along The Watchtower, sounded fresh and still ominous and, for once, Charlie Sexton got to bend a few strings and turn it up a little. Dylan’s voice and delivery enhanced the apocalyptic vibe, making it…yes, scary. I enjoyed the breakdown at the end and the interplay between the piano and guitar, too.
I have to confess that I haven’t liked Blowin’ In The Wind since I was a fifteen year-old kid and heard the version on Freewheelin’. I skip over it on gig recordings or albums but, again, the arrangement tonight was so good, and his performance so interesting, that I really enjoyed it.
I think there is room in the world for a touch of innocence, especially as a final encore from a 72 year-old Bob Dylan.
They played it as a slow gospel march and Dylan’s harp was ace. I’m a sucker for those few repeated, building notes he plays over the changing chords.
And then he stood with his band and soaked up the applause, turning and acknowledging the people who were sat behind the stage, and that was it. He was gone.
I left and enjoyed the cool night, walking with the chattering crowd through the street lights.
Some of the arrangements tonight were as different from the officially released versions as those on Budokan or Hard Rain.
He may be getting on, but he isn’t getting old and I really respect him for that.
I saw two people walk out tonight and heard a couple of grumbles (amid mostly very high praise) on the way to the tube station. I slowed my pace to be nosy and eavesdrop and I understood their complaints about his voice and arrangements, but silently disagreed with it.
If you like a bunch of Dylan’s old songs and want to hear them again for a sweet meander down memory lane, then it must have been a shock, a disappointment even, but he ain’t gonna stand with a Gibson acoustic and sing the early hits. That would be artistic death and, really, I’m not sure why anyone would expect Bob Dylan to do that anyway. It’s not like they haven’t been warned!
“They say sing while you slave/I get bored.”
“He not busy being born is a busy dying.”
With Bob Dylan, I think you either love him or you don’t. There ain’t nooooo neutral ground.
I love it all the way and tonight reminded me why.
Bob Dylan – vocals, piano, harp
Stu Kimball – guitar
Donnie Herron – steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin
Charlie Sexton – guitar
George Receli – drums
Tony Garnier – bass
Things Have Changed
She Belongs To Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
What Good Am I?
Waiting For You
Pay In Blood
Tangled Up In Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist Of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Spirit On The Water
Soon After Midnight
Long And Wasted Years
All Along The Watchtower
Blowin’ In The Wind
Andrea Orlandi for permission to use his photo; my Dad for the ticket; my brother for the hotel and Dag Braathen for being Dag Braathen.