Seeing Bob, part one.

Set List

Bob Dylan, 16th November 2005
Manchester Evening News Arena

I finally got to see Bob, and what a show it was. My journey of getting into Bob was a long and awkward one, but has ultimately led to enlightenment and much enjoyment. When I started university was when I first decided to buy some Bob. My best friend thought he was the best thing ever, so I’m surprised I didn’t make the attempt sooner. I suppose I’m just stubborn. So I went into the student union CD shop and walked out with a copy of Blonde on Blonde.

I didn’t get it. I appreciated it, but didn’t actually like it. One song I warmed to before others, which was the masterful ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. I ended up sticking it on a ‘Sunday Morning Chill’ compilation for those lazy student days, and my love for that song grew.

Time passed, and university finished. I was of the opinion that Dylan was really good (I had copied the Bootleg series, Biographs and the Free Trade Hall concert off the friend from paragraph two, but rarely listened to them), and also that he wasn’t one of my favourites.

The intention to get into more Dylan was there, though. I would buy special Dylan issues of magazines, and for one birthday received a copy of Blood on the Tracks. Listened to it, and my appreciation grew, though to be honest ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ was always a song that stuck out to me as great. I was warming to the man.

* * *

Everything then seemed to happen quite quickly. One of my Dylanite friends asked me if I was interested in seeing Dylan in Manchester. Not being an idiot, I agreed, on the basis that it would at least be a good night out. I did love the mythology of Dylan at this point, and seeing him would be quite the event.

The Scorsese documentary was screened on BBC2 and while I caught only the final forty minutes, I was sufficiently hyped for the gig. I then decided to pick up as much Dylan as I could, to make the most of the event. I tracked down the golden era of albums from the 1960s, and already had copies of Time Out Of Mind and Desire, so went with 1979s Slow Train Coming and the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy, from 1989.

From here, I carried out some research and compiled what seemed to be standout tracks from ’lesser’ albums and immersed myself. Listened to CDs, MDs, and logged over two-hundred-and-fifty plays on the computer.

Of course, one can never truly be ready for a Bob Dylan concert. Seeing the Pixies, for example, involves listening to their four albums and the knowledge that there are certain ‘hit’ songs they will definitely play. No such luxury with Bob, who has many more albums, and is prone to play just about anything from his biggest hits to obscure bluegrass songs.

There is also the legendary warning that is proffered to any Bob virgin: ‘Even if he plays a famous song, you won’t recognise it’. Described variously as ‘evolving his songs over time to suit the Bob performing them’ to ‘butchering the classics’, there was a definite trepidation as it pertained to the thought of knowing what he’s playing. However, I figured I was as ready as I could be.

* * *

Anyway, the day arrived, I met up with my crew, and we went to the arena following some pub time and a rather nice Italian meal. Finding the arena was a cinch – I had spent some years in Manchester after all. However, finding the seats was an altogether different matter. We got pointed to our seats; well, we were shown a dark corridor. My associate and I wandered down some stairs, and the arena was plunged into darkness. Lost in concentration trying to find the seats, I nevertheless heard a voice-over recount Bob’s various successes and, lo and behold, the man himself was on stage and flying through an energetic version of ‘Maggie’s Farm’.

Quickly, we sidled to the edge of a seating block on the floor and not too far from the stage. Well, I could make out which one Bob was, and what his suit was like – good enough for me. The song itself was grand, and a positive start to what would be a ‘best of’ set, what with his last album being released some four years previously.

It seemed as though the majority of his songs had been dropped into an upbeat twelve-bar-blues blender and come out somewhat homogenised, but as long as the songs were largely recognisable I didn’t mind. I say that because there were some issues with recognition throughout the set. Amusingly, the intro and first verse of a lot of songs were periods of doubt, wherein the audience attempted to discern what was being played. The ovations, erupting a couple of minutes into a song, as opposed to right at the start, were amusing – almost reminiscent of the delayed applause that characterised Stars in their Eyes performances back in the day.

The other big change to songs was the vocal delivery. However songs had been sung in the past, they were all now delivered in Bob’s inimitable, short of breath, croak. Some people complain about this, but it’s not as though he was the most classically brilliant singer in the first place. Also: the man is in his sixties – he is bound to sound aged. The litmus test, rather than ‘does it sound like the album?’ should be ‘does it work in its new arrangement?’ And it does. Besides, I’ve always been of the opinion that if people want to hear something identical to a studio album, that they should listen to the studio album.

So a song like ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’s vocal is changed totally. Rather than a relatively smooth delivery, informed by Dylan’s years of listening to country and bluegrass, the romance is strained and awkward, as indeed a sixty-four year old Dylan would be likely to in real life. Rather than the classic song being besmirched by this old man on a stage, it works perfectly as a microcosm of the changes Dylan has been through in the decades since the song was released. The songs age with the man, which would be compelling in itself, even if the songs weren’t as well performed as they were.

Shortly after this, we were treated to something of a Blonde on Blonde section: ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’ and ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, two awesome songs with awesome titles, separated only by ‘Million Miles’ (itself taken from Bob’s best album since the seventies, so it’s all good). ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile…’ was the crowning moment of the set proper for me. While my favourite Dylan song for a good half decade prior to this, recognition took shamefully long. There was a newly-composed riff to introduce the song as a whole and each stanza specifically, it was all slightly sped up, and of course the clarity of enunciation that is so important to the song was rather modified.

I’ll be delving deeper into the song in Part 2 of me seeing Dylan, but rest assured I loved it to an absolutely mighty degree. While it took a couple of minutes for me to recognise, this was an occasion in which a songs sorta-epic length was fortunate. The length, and the rolling format of the song, means that whenever you listen to the song it’s a treat. In the live arena, with the atmosphere all abuzz and the players providing their own personal ignition, this tune is something else entirely. Contrary to a bizarrely widely-held belief, seeing Bob is not some lethargic nostalgia trip in which all concerned take it easy. This was as sufficient evidence as any to refute that error. While perfunctory seating was provided, we were positioned on the floor, and seating was far from our minds. Already on my feet, I was rocking out massively for the duration of this song. I was literally rocking out.

Also rocking was his performance of ‘Highway 61’, but the show wasn’t just about turning up the tempo and boogieing away. The night’s rendition of ‘Girl of the North Country’ was a thing of beauty, shimmering in the night in a manner more spectacular than the Freewheelin’ original. The song tonight rested gently on a glittering arpeggio while the night sky was suggested by the dark blue stage lightning. A triumph of atmosphere and emotion, the song brought the mood down gently before ‘Highway 61’ exploded into action.

The encore consisted of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The latter was a truly great moment in my concert-attending life. The performance was great (more in a bit), but the thinking I did while it was playing blew my mind. Jimi Hendrix is one of those near constants in my life: he was pivotal in that time when you’re fifteen and the music you discover is a portal to an unknown world, a world of excitement, fear and limitless possibilities. And drugs. When you’re fifteen and ‘old music’ suddenly starts sounding really good – timeless – the window in your cultural mind wakes up and the spectrum of art shines in.

Hendrix – way more than The Doors, Marley or even Dylan at that time – was the most important figure in that phase of my life. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was the most significant of his songs to me, too. This was partly because of the effortless genius of the whole thing, but partly because, as track one on The Ultimate Experience, it was the signifier of a new day; the moment of clarity.

Jimi is an eternal figure to me, inordinately brilliant, and dead a decade before I was born. ‘…Watchtower’ is the epitome of his genius. And here I was, watching the man who actually wrote the song, performing it live in front of me. It was such a moment of realisation, of music history being represented on the stage, but living and breathing. Mind-blowing as that was, the musical time tunnel opening up in front of my very eyes and chronology blurring into the abstract, this history was also rocking massively.

As mythology has it, Dylan said the song belonged to Jimi after hearing the cover. Be that as it may (and the song is arguably the best cover of anything ever), it’s not as if Bob decided to lift the Hendrix arrangement. The crashing, scintillating riff that opens the song has not augmented the Dylan version, nor has the mid-song tripped out ‘tuning bit’. The pension-age Dylan certainly doesn’t scream how the hour! Is getting late! No, this performance is the original John Wesley Harding arrangement, but electrified to the point of frying, the songs fizzling eyeballs popping out of their sockets.

Again I rocked out massively, and it’s not as though ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ wasn’t a brilliant lead-in song. What an encore that was. And, Bob being Bob, the night was over by half past nine and I got home in record time. Bonus! This wasn’t the greatest gig I ever attended, and of course Bob is almost ancient, but there were moments of true brilliance that I am never likely to forget.

* * *

Next up: the Bob gig I attended this weekend! Most of it’s already written, so it should be pretty soon…

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