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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Five nights in Brixton, Five nights with Bob Dylan. Your first question must surely be, why? If you have read my Rockbeatstone reviews of ‘No Direction Home’ and ‘Desire’ then you will understand that I’m a Dylanfreak. However, I haven’t done anything quite like this before. Sure I’ve travelled to see Dylan live, but never have I had such an intensive burst of Dylan over such a small period of time. Perhaps it is best explained if we look at the statistics of this thing. Over five nights I saw forty-seven different songs (eighty-seven songs in total). There is quite simply no other act around like this. Dylan sold out the five nights, playing to a total of 23,000 people, and it was sold out before the mini-Bob Dylan festival that we had in September surrounding the release of ‘No Direction Home’. Ticket touts were selling tickets at £300, for five nights Dylan seemed to be the most important act playing in town.

Having followed Dylan intensely over the past five years, I was worried to see that many were posting internet reports claiming that his voice was shot, that his band paled in comparison to previous incarnations, that Dylan had lost the desire to keep on keepin’ on. However, somewhere deep inside of me, I knew that this quite simply could not be the case. So I swallowed my fears and bought the tickets for the whole residency. I had enough faith in Bob’s ability to surprise and entertain me that I parted with a hefty sum of cash and Ticketmaster bought an island with the proceeds of my ‘processing’ fees.

Seeing Dylan live over five nights was much more than a series of concerts, for five days I lived and breathed Bob Dylan, nothing else was really important. If I was at work I was day dreaming about the performance the day before and guessing what gems he was going to play that night. Around Brixton, I could see the fans hanging around in anticipation, acknowledging each other with a wink and a smile. We were all there for the same reason and we all knew that Dylan in Brixton was going to be special.

Sunday
Sunday night started early with an organised party at the local pub. I had the chance to meet numerous internet user-names in the flesh as people in the Bob Dylan community came from around the world (Canada, the US, Germany, France, Belgium, among others) to meet in Brixton. There was lots of Bob-talk, lots of wishes, desires and hopes for these five concerts. Needless to say, by the time 7pm came around and we decided to make our way to the venue, me, my Finnish housemate Janne and my long-time friend Steve were quite drunk.

Fortunately Bob had all his wits about him and delivered a blistering set. Songs sung with passion and delivered strongly. All fears that Dylan could no longer do it were relegated to the back of my mind. Highlights included a haunting ‘Señor’, a beautiful and waltzy ‘To Ramona’, a rare outing for ‘New Morning’ with Dylan’s vocals strongly delivering the chorus. The main highlight was for me, ‘Desolation Row’. The vivid imagery was delivered with mesmerising grace. The legion of Dylan fans who had invaded the academy cheered and clapped throughout the song in reverence and in all the right places! It was a truly stunning version of a song nearly forty years old. Going back to what I said in my introduction, this is why I spent all that money, this is why I decided to come for all five nights. It was all worth it for such a great song, sung with such passion and fever. I staggered home after the gig and passed out, no doubt with a broad smile on my face as my subconscious recollected the beauty of Bob’s performance in Brixton on Sunday.

Sunday Setlist
Rumble (incomplete)
Drifter’s Escape
Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)
God Knows
To Ramona
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Queen Jane Approximately
‘Til I Fell In Love With You
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
New Morning
Highway 61 Revisited
Man In The Long Black Coat
Honest With Me
Desolation Row
Summer Days
(encore)
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
All Along The Watchtower

Monday
I woke up on Monday with what I thought was severe ‘food poisoning’. Rushing from bed to toilet for most of the morning, my body obviously couldn’t take yesterday’s excitement (or indeed the beer). By the time I left home and meandered towards the pub, it was late afternoon. I decided to walk past the Academy where the queue was all the way back to the stage door. Those who are in the queue at this time (and who have been since early morning) are doing so for one reason only: to be close to the musical genius on stage. Many of my friends think that I am Dylanfreak but I am nothing compared to these people. I could not queue for hours, in late November just to be close to the stage. I spoke to someone who I met in the pub on Sunday, today looking to be at the front for the gig. We both agreed that Sunday’s show was excellent and we were in high spirits expecting a great show tonight. I told him that if it was half as good as yesterday we would be in for a treat. Little did I know that Monday’s concert would be the most amazing concert experience that I have ever been part of.

‘Rumble’ by Link Wray (who had recently died) started off this concert. It is an instrumental track that most young people will recognise from Pulp Fiction. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was spat into the microphone with venom as Dylan plonked the piano keys as if the apocalypse was just around the corner. Song four was ‘Million Dollar Bash’ As the band started up the song and the introduction was played through a small ripple of applause cascaded into cheers of joy. The reason: we had never seen this song before. Originally released on the ‘Basement Tapes’, this song was recorded in 1968. As the hairs on the back of my neck raised, Dylan’s band funked through the song as Bob played with the words and joyfully sang the chorus (‘Oh eee Babe, Ohhhhhhh eeee, It’s that Million Dollar Bash’). Bob Dylan was premiering a song he had written and recorded some thirty-seven years ago.

But the surprises were not over. A beautiful ‘Visions of Johanna’ was perfectly (well as perfectly as Dylan can manage nowadays) sung and it would have been the highlight at any ‘normal’ Bob Dylan concert. The crowd was silent, treating the song with the reverence that it deserves. The mystical, wild, mercurial lyrics echoed across the venue and were as moving in 2005 as they would have been when they first echoed across living rooms in the 1960s.

Another world premiere followed! ‘Waiting for You’ was another surprise. Written a few years ago for the ‘Devine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood’ film (by most accounts a rubbish film and with a ridiculous name), the tender, country-rocking song was well-delivered and well-received. A rollicking ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ followed, turned from a rocking-blues song into the blues-rocker from hell. The tempo of the song remained up-beat throughout except when Bob and the band playfully slowed it down to the point where heads were turning and wondering if he had bolloxed up the song. The music became a whisper and then exploded back into life as the band rocked all the blues possible out of this song.

A longer than normal encore and when Bob and the band came back to the stage launching into a song that I initially did not recognise. The people around me also seemed equally bemused. But it all made sense when the drum solo kicked in and I realised that Dylan’s country-blues-rock band were playing tribute to Joe Strummer: ‘London Calling’ by the Clash! (if you’re taking notes, that is three songs that Dylan has never performed live before in Monday’s concert) The crowd went completely wild as the first verse was concluded (including the ‘phoney-Beatlemania’ line – perhaps Bob is saying something else here) and the band went into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. The crowd still wild with enthusiasm took this song into their stride and continued to cheer throughout. This magical concert ended, as it did every night, with ‘All Along the Watchtower’, with the band playing tribute to Jimmy Hendrix, albeit with a pedal steel guitar. If Sunday was a brilliant concert, then there are no words to describe Monday’s. It was quite simply breathtaking.

Monday Setlist
Rumble (incomplete)
Maggie’s Farm
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Million Dollar Bash
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Moonlight
Down Along The Cove
Boots Of Spanish Leather
Cold Irons Bound
Mr. Tambourine Man
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Visions Of Johanna (acoustic)
Honest With Me
Waiting For You
Highway 61 Revisited
(encore)
London Calling (incomplete – 1 verse)
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower

Tuesday
On Tuesday night I was accompanied by my girlfriend and a group of friends, some of whom had not seen Dylan live before. To be honest I was afraid that they were not going to completely appreciate Dylan live in 2005. Happily they seemed to enjoy it (at least that’s what they said). It is fair to say that Dylan in 2005 isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Where critics see a wheezing, growling grandpa, I see a song-and-danceman who has done it all before, continuing to reinvent himself and his songs and not falling back on a greatest-hits karaoke fest like Paul McCartney has. One thing that Dylan’s critics cannot claim is that he has a poor backing band. They are able to play country, folk, rock, blues and everything in-between. Particular standout members include the drummer, George Receli who is able to play both jazz and rock beats with ease and grace and multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron who over the five nights played banjo, a small guitar-type thing, lap and pedal steel guitar and violin.

Today’s concert did not reach the heights of Sunday or Monday but was still an excellent gig. A beautiful ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’ proved that Dylan is still able to sing his more tender songs. ‘John Brown’ written about a young man going off to war in Vietnam was as relevant today as all those years ago. The haunting, moving lyrics accompanied by a new, equally as haunting arrangement lead by the banjo.

‘Mississippi’ is one of Dylan’s more neglected songs from his last studio album, ‘Love and Theft’ and was a nice surprise. Dylan really should play this song more, it is, after all, the best on the album. However, this is why I follow Dylan – he makes his own rules and sings what he wants to, and to be fair he has every right do as he wants.

Tuesday Setlist
Rumble (insturmental song by Link Wray) (incomplete)
Maggie’s Farm
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Lonesome Day Blues
Positively 4th Street
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
Cold Irons Bound
Girl Of The North Country (acoustic)
I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
John Brown (acoustic)
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
Mississippi
Highway 61 Revisited
Waiting For You
Summer Days
(encore)
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower

Wednesday
Wednesday came around so quickly! I am now having problems remembering what happened and on what day. Everything has merged into one mega-concert (with large intervals in between).

See Also

Dylan today is in less of a playful mood it seems. He seems to be more tired than in previous nights. Energy seems to be lacking, Thinking more about this it seems bizarre that a 64-year old man is still the focus of energy on stage. Although he is stuck behind the keyboard he is still the focal point. If Dylan is tired, then the band are tired, it’s as simple as that.

However, the concert started off with plenty of energy. ‘She Belongs to Me’ was one of those tender songs that only Dylan can write. It was an amazing rearrangement of one of my favourite songs. ‘Cry A While’ which followed was great, with a new stop-start arrangement, with Dylan holding back the groove until his piano keys kicked in at the right time. Here he was in complete control. Then followed, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ another favourite of mine and another pleasant surprise (how many is that over the days now?). From there on the energy went downhill somewhat but ‘Million Miles’ and ‘Hard Rain’ were both sung brilliantly by Dylan. ‘Blue Monday’ started the encore (another world premiere!). Fats Domino’s song was lost on the majority of the crowd however, I feel. Overall, Wednesday was the weakest gig of the five, but it still contained moments of beauty and was littered with personal highlights.

Wednesday Setlist
Rumble (incomplete)
Maggie’s Farm
She Belongs To Me
Cry A While
Shelter From The Storm
Down Along The Cove
Positively 4th Street
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)
Million Miles
Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Honest With Me
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll (acoustic)
Summer Days
(encore)
Blue Monday
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower

Thursday
Thursday’s show had more energy that Wednesday’s, Dylan obviously wanted to leave on a high. By this point I was actually a bit sad, realising that my Dylan adventure was soon coming to an end. But I was determined to keep those thoughts at the back of my mind and go out on a high with him.

Highlights tonight included ‘Just Like a Woman’, a crowd favourite with much singing along during the chorus. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ was another tender song with Dylan’s vocals portraying the moving lyrics in a new and interesting way. ‘Sugar Baby’ was another highlight, with the line “Some of these bootleggers make pretty good stuff” receiving applause from the front rows (a homage to the bootleggers of Dylan’s shows perhaps?). Tonight, the slower songs were highlights. He came out to ‘London Calling’ again after the encore although I’m not sure that the reaction was as wild as on Monday night. The two blokes stood behind me, shook their heads in disbelief that he was covering the song, which was most amusing.

As ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ came around, I took the chance to look around at the crowd. A bloke with a smile on his face as wide as the Thames Estuary caught my eye. He could not contain his joy at hearing this song. When I listen to bootlegs of Dylan shows, I often skip the last two tracks (his encores of choice since 2003). It is only in the live context that I remember how great these songs really are. The power of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ has not been lost over the years. This is truly one of the greatest rock songs ever written. The final song, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, starts with a crescendo of noise. The bloke with the big smile is in tears and I’m finding it hard not to wipe away a tear myself. The concert finished, Dylan and the band stand in ‘formation’ (stand in line, to the front of the stage – no bow or movement, absorbing the applause). Dylan is in the centre, holding up his harmonicas in a v-shape for victory. Dylan has come and conquered Brixton. In five nights he has stormed the venue, singing both some of his greatest and rarest songs with style and panache. He has every right to be standing there in his cowboy outfit claiming victory.

Thursday Setlist
Maggie’s Farm
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
Positively 4th Street
Down Along The Cove
Girl Of The North Country (acoustic)
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Just Like A Woman
Highway 61 Revisited
Every Grain Of Sand
Honest With Me
Sugar Baby (acoustic)
Summer Days
(encore)
London Calling (incomplete)
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower

Conclusion
Walking back from the pub on Thursday, an old man saw my T-shirt and started to sing ‘Like a Rolling Stone…’ I laughed, he laughed and said, “I was listening to music before you were born”. Dylan may have been releasing songs before I was a glint in my father’s eye but on stage he was much younger than many a band I have seen at the Academy. Bob does for me what many a modern, flavour of the month band just cannot do. He is more relevant than ever, a mysterious man who says little but delivers a lot on stage. He reinvents his songs, brings them to life and is constantly seeking new ways to deliver them which makes him more alive than any of his 60s contemporaries. For five nights in Brixton, I lived and breathed for the concerts and I am lucky to have witnessed these performances. These memories will remain close to heart for the rest of my life. Thank you Mr Dylan.

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