Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Bob Dylan Berlin review 2 July 2012
Due to the generosity of a recent 40th birthday present, yesterday saw me make a whistle-stop trip from Dublin to Berlin for the 2nd show of this latest chapter of Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour. Most legs of the N.E.T. come and go these days without much fanfare, due to the sheer number of shows he has played in the last few decades, but this one is already making a splash. Mainly for one reason! As reported yesterday on many of the world's leading music websites (Rolling Stone, Uncut etc) - Bob has decided to bring a grand piano along on this trip - and very welcome it is too, meaning he is now playing 4 instruments (5 if you include what he does with his voice!) on stage, guitar, organ, keyboard, harmonica. And in general, playing them pretty well(Dylan's musical eccentricity notwithstanding). However, the grand piano isn't the only development of note. Also of note is the sheer number of new arrangements. They were obviously busy during the 3 days rehearsals in Poughkeepsie! Ok, no major setlist surprises, other than the reintroduction of 'She Belongs To Me' after a 4 year hiatus, but some of these new arrangements are almost like new songs. Which is a good thing as far as most of us are concerned, although possibly not for the casual concert goer, nor indeed the casual concert reviewer. I go to a lot less shows than I used to, but regular (?!) readers will know I've been enthusiastic about Bob's return to the front of the stage (which he does these days for about half the show) and his renewed animation and engagement with the audience, since circa 2010. I'm glad to report all of this has been notched up yet another gear thus far on this tour. And with the prospect of the new album out in September, all really does seem to be rosy in the garden. Hell, he even had a costume change of sorts in Berlin, wearing shades and NO HAT (when was the last time he wore no hat?) for the first 4 songs, before whipping off the shades and popping on a hat for the remainder.. Last night, the animation didn't kick in properly until the 3rd song ('Leopardskin Pillbox Hat' had been the usual lively opener, and 'It Ain't Me Babe' with Bob on guitar, had been perhaps a little hesitant. But for a spell of about 6 or 7 songs from 'Things Have Changed' on, Bob was as animated as I've seen him for years. Older fans will remember that when he was in his 50s he moved like a man in his 70s, now that he's in his 70s he moves like a man in his 50s! Albeit not like any man in his 50s I've ever come across. His stage movements and expressions range from bizarre to limber, and really have to be seen to be appreciated. For anyone who's never seen him live, I strongly recommend that now is the time to do it - and get down relatively close to the front when you do. Just be prepared for eccentric arrangements and, of course, eccentric singing. But, back to the piano. He first sat down at it for 'Lovesick', and stayed at it for most of the rest of the show. It has a couple of affects on the show. Firstly, it's a welcome change from the 'circus-sound' of the Korg organ he usually plays, and has a lovely classic piano sound. Ok, so he's no Oscar Peterson, nor even Elton John, but he has a nice style all of his own, and seems to be playing in a much less percussive style than the keyboard (pre-organ) style he gave us from 2002-2006. Visually, it works too, as he doesn't just sit there, but fidgets a lot, and swivels around to engage with the audience, and band, at will. Now, let me get to some of the song highlights of the Berlin show. Vocally, he seems to have staved off the decline of the latter years of the 2000s, and has worked out a way of expressing himself in a (mostly) musically interesting way with what's left of his voice, only rarely lapsing in to ridiculous OTT phrasing. The first major rearrangement was 'Cry Awhile', Bob out-front with just harmonica and voice, a really excellent Chicago-blues type arrangement in what is now almost a trademark 'Bob-and-band' stop-start style. Anyway, it was very powerful and a reminder that Bob is just as likely to recast his recent work as his more famous older work. Next up was the biggest surprise of the night - a lovely country-ish version of 'She Belongs To Me' with a nice descending riff on the 2nd half of each line and a surprisingly prominent Donny Herron pedal steel sound. As we know Bob's N.E.T. band is always evolving it's sound slightly from tour to tour, but this arrangement took a nice step back in that it strongly reminded me of the Larry Campbell years. Maybe the best and most impactful song of the night was 'Lovesick'. As this was only the 2nd show with the grand piano, it was our turn in Berlin to hear it for the first time. A really powerful new version of this song, reminding me a little of the great 1920s sounding 'Blind Willie McTell' Bob played at the Scorsese tribute earlier this year. Old-timey in a good way. 'Levee's Gonna Break' on piano was maybe less successful, but towards the end of the song, Bob found a little riff he seemed to like and the band soon adapted and kicked in around that, and finished the song off well. 'High Water', the 2nd song ('Cry Awhile' being the other) from 2001's 'Love and Theft' album, has also been given another makeover. I really loved this one. Less overtly powerful than earlier arrangements of the song, they've given it a lighter touch - kind of bluegrassy/country-blues on it, and it really swings. 'Highway 61 Revisited' is a bit like a bus not coming, it gets the same old arrangement for years, and then we get 2 in 2 years - and this one is not bad. For me I've heard this song so many times, I can only enjoy it if they make it 'danceable' in some way, and I can focus on whatever groove the band is getting in to. And this one was certainly that, and as ever is a song the casual rock fan attendee will always want to hear. The rest of the show perhaps didn't quite reach the levels of that middle run, with a pleasant stab at 'Simple Twist of Fate', a novel (for now!) chance to see Bob play some boogie-ish piano on the likes of 'Thunder on the Mountain', the usual show-stopping 'Ballad of a Thin Man' - and by the way - any music fan who has not seen Bob do this song post 2009 or so is missing a big tick on his/her 'Rock to-do list'. 'Like a Rolling Stone' was performed much as usual, but I must say it was nice to see him play his most famous song on the instrument he wrote it on. People think of Bob as a guitar playing singer songwriter, but don't forget he also writes/wrote a large number of his songs on piano. The show closer, 'All Along the Watchtower' is yet another song to have received a re-jig, and is now much improved in my opinion - it's a faster, more urgent reading of this old warhorse, prior to a nice encore of 'Blowing in the Wind' capped with it's usual closing 'out-front' harmonica flourish. In conclusion, a really enjoyable show in the German capital with a nice atmosphere in a lovely Castle setting. Final point of note - Bob was 40 minutes late on stage (unheard of for an artist who despite a reputation for contrariness, is in many ways actually a very old-school music pro, and normally on-stage within 10 minutes of the designated time), and ironically the heavens opened and it rained pretty hard for the final 40 minutes of the show! But, who cared. A really good show in what is quite a decent period for the N.E.T. Go see one! Finally - a quick plug - please consider buying (and telling your friends about!) my short autobiographical e-book, in which I write not only about my years of going to Bob Dylan shows, but my experiences of Ireland's financial collapse, a few health battles and other cheerful topics! It's called 'Not Running Away', and is only 7 euros, available on my website www.notrunningaway.com Thanks.