I thought I’d write a wrap-up review of the last few shows on the Dylan/Knopfler tour, focusing especially on the last show, but also touching on the entire tour, and where the Never Ending Tour is at (for me) as 2011 draws to a close.
Essentially this has been a good tour. By any standards. But especially by the standard of Dylan’s last few half-decade or so of touring. My opinion is that there has been a steady improvement since 2009, following a steady decline since 2001. That decline was very gradual though, and there were great periods within it, eg Fall 2002, Fall 2003, the likes of Bonnaroo, Barrowlands 2004, Fall 2005 with the altered band line-up, Fall 2006 which had the fillip of the Modern Times songs, etc etc. But 2007, 2008 were not so great really, so it’s been good to see a steady improvement since then.
However that does not mean his voice has improved. Far from it! The Dylan we see on stage today does not have anywhere near the vocal range of the late 90s/early ‘00s, nor even that of 2005. Coupled with this problem was that he seemed to get so fed up of singing some songs that he began to phrase them in ever more bizarre ways. In the heyday of the N.E.T. this was one of the ‘selling points’ for regular attendees, the fact that not only did he regularly change the song arrangements, but he also changed the phrasing, often from night to night. But, at that time, the ever changing phrasing seemed to have some point to it, and he usually found some way to make the phrasing fit the song, or whatever emotion he was trying to convey on the particular night. In recent years, while he can still achieve this when he wants to, there have been occasions when the bizarre phrasing didn’t seem to make any sense at all. Some songs seem to be guiltier of this than others, eg Hattie Carroll and Hard Rain. So good to see things improve on this front and that he continues to do 'interesting' things with what are left of his vocal chords.
All of which brings us to a mild November day in Hammersmith last Monday. The tour had been notable for several reasons. Firstly, of course, having Mark Knopfler as an opening act. Having seen the opening night of the tour in Dublin 6 weeks ago, I had been disappointed he played not one Dire Straits song, so it’s been good that he’s added Brothers in Arms and So Far Away to his set. The rest of his set is pleasant rather than inspirational, the most interesting thing for me being his guitar playing. He has definitely added something to Dylan’s sets too, as from mid-tour on he joined Dylan every night for the first 3 or 4 numbers, just playing guitar, and making a nice contribution to the band’s sound.
The other notable thing about the tour is Dylan’s increased engagement with the audience. From Glasgow onwards he had been out in the middle of the stage much more than usual (up to half the numbers) – and in a much more energetic way, moving around almost like a boxer just holding the microphone in one hand and his harmonica/harmonica mike in the other hand and/or using the mike stand as a prop of sorts. This has made the shows considerably more enjoyable visually, and haven’t hurt the musical performance at all, quite the opposite actually.
By the London shows, the level of energy from earlier in the tour had perhaps ebbed a little, but was still very evident on some songs. So, what were the highlights of the London run? Here are a few examples;
Mississippi – very enjoyable new bouncy arrangement, making this the best live version certainly since 2001
Blind Willie McTell – amazingly this is (arguably) even better than the great arrangement he had been using since 1997, now cast in a genre that’s hard to define – part country, part stomping 1920s dixieland jazz (if that makes any sense!), punctuated (and finished) with some of the best hand-held harmonica you’ll ever see
Man in the Long Black Coat – this great song from 1989 has been transformed from a slow atmospheric number to a powerful up-tempo opportunity for Bob to stalk the stage barking out the verses in his best 2011 growl, again with fine harmonica
Forgetful Heart – I’ve seen some amazing versions of this since the song came out on Dylan's last studio album in 2009, but the one on Sunday at Hammersmith probably tops them all. This is 2011 Dylan at his best, and by far the quietest song he performs these days (Dylan concerts are now very loud rock affairs, with very little acoustic or quiet songs). Anyway, he gave this song an incredible vocal in London and performed it very theatrically too, like some kind of torch-song, really communicating with the audience like he used to in 1995 or 1999 or earlier in his career. At times during this performance I felt he was incorporating the spirit of older performers, not the blues/country guys he normally reminds us of but people like Sinatra, Fred Astaire, even Charlie Chaplin.
These are just a few highlights – lots of other songs were also very well performed over these 3 nights, and my only complaints are that he plays slightly too many ‘by-number’ rock/rock’n’roll/blues numbers, and obviously we’d like a bit more set-list variation - his set-lists having become a bit more static (by his own high standards of variety that is) in the last couple of years, but this tour saw a small but significant improvement in variety. So overall just a good solid run of shows, ending a very good tour.
The final thing I want to talk about before I sign off is the last song of that last show. Up til then it had been a pretty good show, of a similar standard to the previous night, and definitely better than the first Hammersmith show, but now we were to get a performance/moment to take the show to another level.
I had been wondering would he ask Knopfler out for one final song, and sure enough there he was, strapping on his red Strat(?) and, adjusting the microphone in the middle of the stage. So, wow – we were to get a vocal duet – something that had not happened thus far on the tour (he had only played guitar with Bob to this point), and indeed, I can’t remember the last time Bob performed an actual proper vocal duet with someone – maybe Norah Jones in 2005?
Anyway, it really was the special moment that people have been talking about. Ok, perhaps nothing extraordinary musically, but just a very genuine and (presumably) relatively unscripted moment and it led to a lovely communal feeling of warmth spreading across this great old London venue. The song of course was Forever Young –Bob taking the 1st verse, Mark the 2nd and sharing the 3rd. As people will know, not just from other reviews but from the youtube vids(!), Knopfler sang the lyric ‘May your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung, and may you stay forever young’ right TO Bob, and gestured with his arm to Bob on the line ‘may your song always be sung’ to which the place erupted. You’d have had to have a heart of stone not to have enjoyed it, and if Knopfler was ever to win over the Dylan audience, he did it right there.
The song finished up with a solid harmonica solo from Bob (this tour having seen a very high standard of harmonica playing by the way), and the artists exchanged hugs with Bob giving Mark plenty of acknowledgement, showing friendship and respect between these two artists (and collaborators of old) in equal measure.
It was a fitting end to a decent year’s touring. With no rumours or news yet, who knows what 2012 will hold, but let’s hope, as he approaches 71, that he keeps it fresh, enjoys himself and is not done yet.