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Review by John Butt
The vagaries and variations of Dylan performances have often preoccupied
contributors to these pages.
Many mention how Bob changes the tunes of songs. We have come to expect that,
and experienced Dylan-watchers find fun in playing "spot the song" as he
launches into a unrcecognisable ditty that usually turns out to be "Don't Think
Twice it's alright" or something equally familiar.
Marcus Prieur has been doing an interesting study of the various songs Dylan
has sung on his present tour.
What I have always wanted to study was how Dylan changes his lyrics to suit
his mood and outlook. It was his various treatments of "Twist of Fate", which
originally inspired this interest. What changes in Dylan's outlook must have
come about for him to change: "He woke up the room was bare, he didn't see
her anywhere. He told himself he didn't care, pushed the window open wide",
into: "He woke up and she was gone. He didn't see nothing but the dawn. Got
out of bed and put his clothes back on, pushed back the blind."? (Budokan, 1978).
I took my notebook with me to Wembley Arena on the evening of Friday, October 6,
hoping to note some similar lyrical shifts, but there were hardly any to speak
of: except, that is, for a gem on "Memphis Blues Again", when "He just smoked
my eyelids" became "He just smoked my eyeballs" - Ow!
But for the most part, Dylan does not have to change his lyrics: he still feels
them in the same way as when he wrote them. In fact, he is true to a tradition
which goes back further than his own songs.
This much was clear in his beautiful rendition of "Song to Woody". Visions
of a teenaged Dylan, visiting an ailing Woody Guthrie in his hospital bed,
"Here's to Cisco an' Sonny an' Leadbelly too,
An' to all the good people that traveled with you.
Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind."
Old lyrics themselves take on new meaning. Nowhere was this more true than
in "I Shall be Released". In the light of Dylan's increasing preocuppation
with life after death, it seemed as if the "release" he was speaking of here
was from worldly detention.
Some reviewers have suggested that he should leave "If Dogs Run Free" behind.
But how can he, when:
"The best is always yet to come,
That's what they explain to me.
Just do your thing, you'll be king....."
I guess I must have seen Dylan once or twice on each of his five or six tours
in the last decade. Three of those concerts have been with the same friend.
Of the first concert he attended (Hammersmith Odeon) in 1991, his comment was
"perfunctory". In 1995 (Brixton Academy), this had mellowed to, "There is noone
like him". Last night, at Wembley Arena, the same friend's accolade was, "He is
the king of rock'n'roll".
The crowning of the king tonight was "Like a Rollin' Stone". This, arguably
along with "Satisfaction" the greatest song of the rock'n'roll era, was
performed with a rhythm and aplomb which outdid even the Budokan masterpiece.
One's eyes scoured the audience for 16-year-old Bruce Springsteens, whose
reaction on hearing the original "Like a Rollin' Stone" is recorded for
posterity: "Here was this guy, shouting out: 'You are not alone!'"
After all these years of "hard travellin'" "on the road, heading for another
joint", Dylan is still shouting, and the audiences are responding in an ever
more postive way.
As we left the concert, our car stereo was playing "Leopard-Skin Pill Box
Hat" from the 1966 Albert Hall concert. Dylan had done the song in a similar
way this evening, though of course with more swivelling guitar solos and
Chuck-Berry shuffles. But whereas the audience reaction was stony - in some
cases hostile - in 1966, this time the audience were with Dylan heart and soul.
Things have changed, but they are the same also:
"You know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still."
The harmonica, which he once "blew for free" - tonight there was just one
harmonica solo on "Girl from the North Country" - has given way to "strumming
on a gay guitar", but Dylan is still the same. We have come on with him:
"We always didn't feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view."
And just to think, the best is yet to come.
Review by Robert Wilkinson
Having enjoyed the Sheffield show so much a fortnight ago, we just had to
catch Bob one more time so we booked tickets for the final London date. We
arrived quite late for Sheffield so had no time to soak up the pre-concert
atmosphere; however last night we got there in good time (7pm) and Wembley
Arena was buzzing with expectation. As usual the London fans were friendly
and in good humour - although I do miss some of the extrovert and
colourfully dressed devotees who used to appear at Bob dates years ago....
The audience spanned three generations as usual these days. I tried to spot
the intense-looking girls (now forty-somethings) with long, black hair and
leather, and the smiling, henna-haired beauties smoking headily aromatic
cigarettes...well, there were a few still about! "But I was so much older
then, I'm younger than that now". Well, perhaps! But most of the time I
kept my eyes strictly on my plastic cup of lager - after all, my son, wife
and granny-in-law (dressed in black-and-gold Sun Studio sweater - did you
see her?) were with me.
It was fascinating to see two shows so close together, and yet not too
close...there were lots of similarities of course yet differences too. At
Sheffield the sound-mix was well-nigh perfect, with Bob's voice well to the
front, coming out clear and strong and full of subtlety. Totally unforgettable.
Unfortunately at Wembley the sound seemed a bit muddy, with an annoying echo
at the back of the arena, so some of the clarity was lost...however the sound
level was really cranked up for the electric standards like "Leopard Skin"
and "Highway 61" so the place really rocked. I enjoyed the whole buzz of
Wembley Arena much more than the rather muted atmosphere in Sheffield. Bob's
voice however had obviously suffered, due to the rigours of the European tour,
and had lost some of its strength and vowel-bending brilliance.
I won't give a blow-by-blow account of each song and the order in which it
was sung - I'm sure others will do this! - but the structure followed the
usual pattern for this tour. "Tangled up in Blue", " Soldier's Grave",
"Country Pie", "Leopard Skin", "Things have Changed", "Like a Rolling Stone",
"Highway 61" and "Blowin' in the Wind" occupied their usual slots, with the
remaining 11 songs taken from the whole range of the back catalogue - from
"Song to Woody" (sublime!) and "Girl from the North Country" (what a treat -
with Bob on a rare harp tour-de-force) to "Standing in the Doorway" and "Cold
Irons Bound" (this is simply stunning, much more adrenalin than on the album,
possessed with a dark, demonic power). On the way there were many other treats,
from a rock-driven "Desolation Row" to a completely unexpected jazz-inspired
"If Dogs run Free"; from "Stuck inside of Mobile" (this worked up to a
completely awesome climax) to the heartfelt "I Shall be Released". A
highlight for me per sonally was "Blind Willie McTell" which was quite
beautiful - that haunting riff (you know what I mean!) just etches itself
into your consciousness.
The band musicians were tight and supportive as always, with Larry looking
as cool as ever and Tony smiling non-stop. Bob went through quite a selection
of his endearing idiosyncracies: stilted stage stroll, pointy feet, one leg
waving, occasional smile/grimace etc. but we sorely missed his rapport with
members of the audience he enjoyed at the Sheffield Arena gig with Van
Morrison in 1998. (Wish I'd seen the flirtation with the Turkish lady at
Frankfurt a week ago).
Finally everyone stumbled out into the night air - I don't know but it
somehow seemed quite in keeping that the night was filled with police cars,
ambulances, sirens and mutterings about some serious incident at a tube
station. "People are crazy and times are strange". The poster sellers cleaned
up and the car park cleared in a miraculously quick fashion. An urban fox
padded across the tarmac, looking for something to scavenge. We ate our stale
sandwiches, drank our coffee and drove off in search of the North Circular,
the M1 and the road back to Nottingham.
Review by Martin
On the following night I met John, Elgin & Ben inside the arena, and spent
awhile standing around hoping to be picked for the front. We talked to a
nice French girl and after speaking to Bob’s minder again he let us
through and we found a nice spot. The first few songs were very
powerfully sung, especially Desolation row and even Tangled up in blue was
impressive. My personal favourite was Song to woody which featured Bob
playing alone for the first verse. I started thinking how incredible a
show would be that consisted of songs arranged in this way, with the band
playing a more low key role, and not playing on every song. I was
thinking this during Blind willie mctell, which is such a great song and
which I think is really let down by the current arrangement. If Bob
allowed a piano player onstage with him again, perhaps he would be
encouraged to try the original arrangement, just piano and guitar, and
drop the unnecessary ‘I can tell you one thing’. If dogs run free was
better than last night, but on the other encores, Bob sounded like he was
a little bored. He may enjoy playing his guitar, but his two note solos
would probably sound better if they were limited to fewer songs. Song to
woody and Duncan & brady were sung brilliantly, with short and precise
guitar flourishes, whereas too many of the later songs featured lazy
singing and increasingly frequent and tuneless solos. Maybe he thought
he’d done so well at the beginning that he could afford to make less of an
effort. Obviously this is just an opinion, and of course I’d rather see
five Bob Dylan concerts in three weeks than not, but when some of the
performances are so good, I can’t help wishing that they all were.
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