Seasoned Bob

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

Last night I saw Bob Dylan. What an ordinary – yet still extraordinary – thing that is to say. When I first saw Dylan in 1978, at Earl’s Court, it was like the second coming, so utterly unlikely did it seem to most of us there that we were ever going to get a chance to see the man in our lifetimes. Now the man, dedicated to what fans have dubbed the ‘never-ending tour‘ (he’s been on the road pretty much continuously since 1988), turns up reliably and frequently at a venue near you, like the seasons. You can’t miss him, unless you intend to do so.

So there I was in the Royal Albert Hall, seated near to but almost behind the stage, and there’s Bob Dylan in a fedora with sparkly suit and stylish shoes, backed by a blue-suited band (of outstanding musicianship), and it’s still extraordinary to see him in the flesh. Can this be real? Well of course it is, because even legends come in flesh form, and they have to be somewhere, and last night he was in the Royal Albert Hall and so was I. So on with the show.

I was speaking to someone a while ago (it was the head of the British Library) and he said how the Dylan he liked, and the only one he listened to, was the Dylan of recent times, the man who has been through such a remarkable creative renaissance since 1997 and the release of Time Out of Mind. He was the Dylan who had lived a bit – seasoned Bob.

I like the idea of seasoned Bob. There have been many different incarnations of the phenomenon that is Dylan over the decades, but perhaps his career can be broken down in two phases. The first is when Dylan was reacting to the world around him with extraordinary creative intensity in the 1960s followed by a more erratic period of the 1970s and 80s when he juggled with career, domesticity, cultural change, and aging. The second phase, which I’d date from 1993 and the release of his solo-performed album of folk standards, World Gone Wrong, is the Dylan who has learned something, looks back, yet does so not by replaying the past (past songs, past experience) but by engaging creatively with what he has learned. Seasoned Bob.

Bob Dylan and band at the Royal Albert Hall, from the previous night but close to angle from where I was sitting, via http://www.theartsdesk.com/
Bob Dylan and band at the Royal Albert Hall, from the previous night but close to angle from where I was sitting, via http://www.theartsdesk.com/

So it that a Bob Dylan concert nowadays is not a place for nostalgists, certainly not for someone who hasn’t taken notice of anything he’s produced since Desire. Unlike any of his contemporaries Dylan does not churn out the old hits as they have always been as though he were still 25. He’s long been known for mangling his back catalogue to the point where you could be three-quarters of the way through a song sung live before you were able to guess what it was. Now he simply ignores the back catalogue as much as possible – last night’s show had just three pre-1997 numbers, ‘She Belongs to Me’, ‘Tangled up in Blue’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. The man has too much that’s new to sing, and let’s face it, Time out of Mind was eighteen years ago, and is practically ancient history itself (he played just one song from that album, ‘Love Sick’, as an encore).

This was the set list from last night:

First half:
Things Have Changed
She Belongs To Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
What’ll I Do?
Duquesne Whistle
Melancholy Mood
Pay in Blood
I’m a Fool to Want You
Tangled Up in Blue

Second half:
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Why Try to Change Me Now?
Early Roman Kings
The Night We Called it a Day
Spirit on the Water
Scarlet Town
All or Nothing At All
Long and Wasted Years
Autumn Leaves

Encore:
Blowin’ in the Wind
Love Sick

And while we’re at it, and because this things are so marvellously documented on the Bob Dylan website, here’s the set list that I experienced back in 1978:

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Love Her With a Feeling
Baby, Stop Crying
Mr. Tambourine Man
Shelter From the Storm
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Tangled Up in Blue
Ballad of a Thin Man
Maggie’s Farm
I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
Like A Rolling Stone
I Shall Be Released
Going, Going, Gone
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)
You’re A Big Girl Now
One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)
Blowin’ In The Wind
I Want You
Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)
Masters of War
Just Like a Woman
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
All Along the Watchtower
All I Really Want To Do
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Encore:
Forever Young
The Times They Are A-Changin’

It was one hell of a show back in 1978, though surprisingly just the two songs (‘Baby Stop Crying’ and ‘Senor’) from what was then his new album, Street-Legal. In 2015 Dylan was much more concerned to give numbers from his latest album, Shadows in the Night, a collection of standards associated with Frank Sinatra. The album isn’t to my taste, but the numbers were artfully interspersed throughout the set, and stood out all the better for the contrast (and alliance) with Dylan’s own songs. Indeed there were two kinds of vocal delivery that he gave us: a strikingly mellow yet forceful projection of the Sinatra homages, and something a little rawer for his own songs. However in each case this was a Dylan able to hold a tune when he wanted to and with a voice clear enough to suggest that he really must have given up smoking.

Anyone hoping to see Dylan with guitar in hand would have been disappointed. He never picked up the instrument, instead standing at the mike stand, which he sometimes pulled towards towards him like a crooner of old, and occasionally sitting a grand piano. At times he shuffled at the mike in a way that looked like he was operated on strings like a puppet, but had to be chalked down as an attempt at dancing. The sort of embarrassed dance that someone who doesn’t like to dance or doesn’t know how to finds themselves obliged to attempt at a wedding, but an attempt at musical movement nonetheless. During a storming version of ‘High Water (for Charley Patton)’ he just couldn’t help himself. When a man’s gotta shuffle he just has to shuffle.

The nostalgists would have been happy that Dylan still plays the harmonica, though. It came out for two numbers, including a sparkling solo during a imaginatively re-imagined ‘Tangled up in Blue’. Other highlights for me were a chirpy rendition of ‘Duquesne Whistle’ (the opener from his most recent album of original songs, Tempest), a lovely ‘Spirit on the Water’ (with piano solo, no less), a heartfelt ‘What’ll I Do?’ from the Sinatra numbers, and purposeful versions of some of his more foreboding numbers of recent times, including ‘Scarlet Town’ and ‘Pay in Blood’. Why on earth sing audience-friendly stuff like ‘Lay Lady Lay’ or ‘Forever Young’ when you still have something to say, and the right way of saying it? That’s seasoned Bob for you.

I was sitting next to someone whose first Dylan concert this was. He was thrilled by it all, indeed just thrilled by the chance to see the man himself while he is still around to be seen. He could see that Dylan was singing what he needed to sing, and like much of the rest of the audience admired him all the more for doing so, yet held a wistful hope that Dylan might sing his favourite song, ‘One More Cup of Coffee’. No chance of that, of course, but it’s not the point. I saw Dylan sing ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ back in 1978. I have no memory of it at all. But I do remember a powerful sense of performance and connection with the audience overall. Dylan hasn’t always been able to demonstrate this in the intervening years, but he certainly is demonstrating it now. He has found a timeless sound, the musicians to give air to it, and an audience that for the most part understands. And there is still so much that he has to say.

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4 thoughts on “Seasoned Bob

  1. An excellent read Luke, a friend of mine who also saw him at the Albert Hall had the evening ruined by someone saying Bob sounded like Spongebob Squarepants. Personally I prefer the look/sound of the 78 concert, although I have many of Bob’s more recent albums I did fail to instantly recognise the set list. Perhaps time to dig them out again.

    1. Hi Anna,

      First, I have to ask – Anna Calvert who used to work at the BFI, or some other Anna Calvert?

      Anyway, glad you like the post. Can’t say I see the Spongebob likeness. Maybe when Spongebob has racked up a few more years of experience.

      The 1978 set looks like a list of greatest hits, the sort of thing he’s tried to get away from ever since, but then probably any broad selection of his songs was going to come over as greatest hits. I actually saw Dylan twice in 1978, because just a month he played at the Blackbushe festival, and his set list for that was amazing:

      My Back Pages
      Love Her With A Feeling
      Baby, Stop Crying
      Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
      Shelter From The Storm
      It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
      Girl From The North Country
      Ballad Of A Thin Man
      Maggie’s Farm
      Simple Twist Of Fate
      Like A Rolling Stone
      I Shall Be Released
      Is Your Love In Vain?
      Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)
      A Change Is Gonna Come
      Mr. Tambourine Man
      The Long And Winding Road
      The Man In Me
      Gates Of Eden
      True Love Tends To Forget
      One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)
      Blowin’ In The Wind
      I Want You
      Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)
      Masters Of War
      Just Like A Woman
      To Ramona
      Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
      All Along The Watchtower
      All I Really Want To Do
      It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
      Forever Young
      Changing Of The Guards
      The Times They Are A-Changin’

      Can he really have sung The Long and Winding Road? I have no memory of it. Indeed all I can remember with any clarity is a sweet reggae-fied Don’t Think Twice. But I do know it was a sensational show.

      1. Yes the BFI one! I think in 1978 I would have been anxiously hoping the Clash or Buzzcocks would come to my hometown, Dylan not on my radar then. I have a good wedge of his albums now, mainly vinyl.Great when you get to see a concert and the artist makes it special (and plays a few hits!)

        1. Aha! I didn’t know any other Anna Calverts, but who can say who else is out there? Anyway, great to hear from you, and I hope things have turned out well for you. Back in ’78 I was belatedly discovering the New Wave, but Dylan reigned supreme. Sadly I sold all my Dylan vinyl years ago when poor. But I think I prefer current, seasoned Bob above all prior Bobs.

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