I usually write gig reviews hot off the press with the sound of the music still ringing through my head - however I’ve been very busy since the 2 Dylan shows I saw last month, so am only getting around to it now and therefore my recollections may be a bit hazy!
Firstly, I went to the Cork show. Dublin’s southwestern capital was looking well on a mainly sunny day as a carload of us (myself, Jim, Mike, and John H) made it down around lunchtime. Dropping one of our party (regular readers might guess which one!) off at the queue at the venue (a big marquee in the Docklands area), the rest of us spent the afternoon having lunch, strolling around the city centre, and catching up with some other friends at a specifically organised live music event in a pub.
After that it was down to the gig, and we all did surprisingly well in getting positions at or near the front of the stage, and then the hour’s wait for the lights to go down for this tour opening night. Sure enough, all was as usual, lights down, spoken introduction by Al (no intro music), no band changes, Bob looking fighting fit in black hat and suit, and straight in to an absolutely barnstorming ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’. As good an opener as he’s had for many years, this one is just perfect for his current vocal range and immediately we were aware everything was good - artist and band in good form, with a great sound system in the tent and the vocals blaringly up front, just as I like it.
From there, it was straight in to a nice ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, Bob out front with no guitar, the familiar current fast-ish country arrangement, with a defiant but not annoying emphasis on the 2nd line in every verse, as is his wont these days on some songs. Plus some amazing harmonica!
Next up was a re-arranged ‘Things Have Changed’, with a bit of spiky stop-start action going on, worked really well, but at subsequent shows it was more a case of ‘The Arrangement Has Changed’ with this song and not always for the better in my opinion.
From there it was on to ‘Tangled up in Blue’. I’ve grown to like (if not love) it’s latest arrangement, by my count the 4th radically changed version of this song in the last 8 or 9 years alone, with Bob out front and almost dancing – it was a real crowd pleaser once they figured out what the hell song it was!
And I really must say the best thing about these shows is how animated Dylan is, and has been pretty much since late 2009. By my count, at the Cork show he was out front for about 8 of the songs, played guitar on 2, and was only stuck in behind the keyboard on about 5. What a change from 3 or 4 years ago! It’s great to see him engaging with the audience much more, and all the ducking and diving and expressiveness with mic and harmonica etc. This engagement/animation was of course to be taken to new heights at the infamous Milan club show the following week!
Also he’s putting much more effort in to his vocals. The condition of his voice is certainly no worse than it was in 07/08, and although he doesn’t have the range or the flexibility of the late 90s/early ‘00s golden age(!) of the Never Ending Tour, he’s still finding it in him to be damn expressive when he wants to be.
Anyway, back to the show - ‘Levee’s Gonna Break’ had a bit of a re-arrangement, more of a jump blues now than a rockabilly/blues number, as did ‘Highway 61’, now recast as a kind of swing number, or at least more country than what we’ve come to expect from this blues-rock warhorse. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ is also quite dramatically rearranged, and despite cutting out the song’s famous descending chord sequence I have to say I now quite like it, it’s forced Bob to sing it better for one thing, and the band do interesting things in the murk of what is now nearly a ‘song without chords’. I should mention Stu gets to play a lot of lead in this song as he usually doesn’t get to play much despite being more talented than he gets credit for. Charlie Sexton, a player who in my humble opinion is slightly less talented than he gets credit for doesn’t get to play much these days either. In general I like the way the current band is playing and the current song arrangements, but Bob letting his guitar players off the leash a bit more wouldn’t do any harm.
I won’t go through every other song played, so just to mention that ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘High Water’ and a massive ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ were other examples of show stopping songs on the night. But yes of course I’ve left the best to last – as ever Ireland seems to always get a little setlist surprise from Bob, as well as (arguably) getting some of the best show(s) of his recent European tours, so tonight in slot 7 we got an absolutely gorgeous rendition of one of his best ever songs, ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’, complete with lovely new arrangement and a killer vocal.
So, that was Cork, and after some end of gig chat with all our friends, it was back to Dublin and thence to London in time for the Feis two days later. This is a new version of the old Fleadh festival in Finsbury Park, and as before it is a muddy and drunken (but fairly good natured) affair. It is supposed to be a celebration of Irish music, and given that Bob is all but an honorary Irishman these days, who better to headline on day one!
I won’t discuss all the support acts, especially as many of them (Christy Moore and the Cranberries especially) seemed to suffer from a bad sound mix, and only one of the support acts is worthy of a superlative review anyhow - this being the cracking performance by the Waterboys. As ever, the Scottish/Irish outfit put on a killer show, judging their audience nicely, by mixing in big hits, with less well known songs but nothing too demanding for a drunken, rain-sodden crowd wedged together in a big field waiting for Dylan to come on. Mike Scott has added a pedal steel player to the band, and this guy certainly adds something, especially on a gorgeous pedal steel soaked version of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ with Mike quipping that Dylan is unlikely to play it himself later on but that if he does, we’ll be getting TWO versions of a great song in one night’. This was one of two covers on the night, the other being a northern soul encore, with Mike and band showing us they can do funky as well as any other music style. The opening song was done in a funky arrangement too, maybe alluding to future directions?
Anyway, to finish up, I’ll just mention one more setlist highlight, a version of ‘September 1913’, a poem by W.B. Yeats which Mike has put to music (along with a dozen others, which the band have toured as a bigger show in its own right, with album to following in September), and it was great to see it done in the context of the regular (smaller) Waterboys touring band.
So, with the Waterboys having laid down a marker, and perhaps the other most popular band on the day (certainly with the younger people in the audience) having been Gaslight Anthem (must check ‘em out..), Bob came on for his 90 minute headlining set, just as the crowd had got even more wedged in, drunks everywhere, several people taken over the barrier from fainting, too much booze etc. But it was another solid performance from our man, with several setlist changes from the Cork show, including set highlight - a remarkably quiet ‘Forgetful Heart’ which was a brave choice for such a boisterous audience, and one that worked in no small measure. Otherwise, most of my Cork comments stand at least for the repeat songs played, with my 2nd favourite song of the night being ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’. Never my favourite Dylan song, and one that has suffered from ever more bizarre vocalising in recent years, tonight his sing-song/talking staccato type-thing actually worked, and by the closing verse he had the audience totally reeled in. I think it works if it seems he is actually trying to emphasise particular lines or words with some sort of purpose, rather than just re-styling a song because he’s sick of singing it.
Anyway, another very solid performance all round, with excellent sound (the recordings from this tour thus far are very good too, although some of the Feis discs have unintended comedy in them from the noisy crowd – my favourite overheard comment being ‘oh-oh look out, we’ve got a puker here’!)
Final mention must go to the closing song, a version of ‘Blowing in the Wind’ which some people didn’t like. I thought it was very good, and instead of the normal closing harmonica solo, he soloed the hell out of the song on guitar, showing that as we know, he can play some decent almost technical guitar, when he wants to!
From there, off we went in to the night, my short Dylan jaunt over for this tour. Dylan wise, we continue to live in interesting times!