Bob Dylan, 14 April 2007
Sheffield Hallam FM Arena
Saturday the fourteenth of April marked the second time I saw Bob in concert. It was blatantly really good, but with conditions here and there. Because I like to think about the context of gigs as much as the sets themselves, I’m going to spend a little while on what preceded the show proper.
While last time I got a lift to the venue, we went to pubs and excellent Italian restaurants (Leoni’s in Manchester: lovely calzones), this trip was less luxurious, though it certainly had defining moments of its own. For the most part, this was the trip in which Lady Luck was smiling on our trio of Dylan fans. We got a train to Sheffield, but the views were nice (when not travelling through Barnsley) and I got my friend to call in a favour after he availed fellow travellers with the football scores; a near-pensionable couple on our side, we got off a stop early – Meadowhall – and got a tram to the arena.
We figured this would come in handy for the post-gig rush; we did not want to miss the scandalously early last train to Leeds (given that it was due to depart at 2220, there was an outside chance I could hop on the last train home from Leeds). We made great time: not sure which tram platform to stand on, we went for the nearest. The tram came in a minute or so, and we were asked by a smarmy man in shades how to get to the arena. We grudgingly helped him, but were amused greatly when he failed to leave the tram at the right stop. Maybe he thought we were working him. Maybe we should have.
With plenty of time before doors were due to open, we went to a tacky theme ‘restaurant’ for watering and big screen football (sadly, Manchester United won). The place itself, I think it was called the Broadway Roadhouse or something equally ridiculous, was a veritable Aladdin’s cave for those who were searching for stuff to be facetious about. The uniforms were a source of near-constant amusement (although I did suggest that I’d dress everyone in pink chaps if I was in charge), and the menu was out of sight. For some reason, Chinese food was under the ‘San Francisco’ category, and Italian was ‘Chicago’. Yes. America is the only place in the world, even in Sheffield.
I also didn’t have to pay for my round, which was a definite boon. The ginger idiot behind the bar seemed amused (certainly confused) that I ordered a chocolate milkshake. So amused, evidently, that he laughed all thoughts of money out of his student head.
Anyway, we found the arena easily enough: the door we needed was nearest to us, as was the entry gate in the arena. After getting hot dogs in (without a doubt very suspicious, but about a thousand pounds cheaper than those in the Roadsteak Broadhouse), we found our seats. Those seats weren’t quite the ‘on the floor, nearer the front than the back’ golden boys of the last time I saw Dylan. They weren’t bad though. We were sitting in the permanent seats round the side and closer to the stage than not; he was about ten o’clock from our view.
I don’t think I’ve had a seat for a gig since the last time I was at Sheffield Arena: for Metallica in October 1996. Actually, I technically had a seat for the last Dylan gig, but that was just on the floor anyway. I ended up standing for both of those anyway. This would be different, though, as our vertigo-inducing situation rendered the idea of getting up and dancing quite impractical.
Making good time, we were seated by the time that bizarre biography opening tape came on. Shortly afterward, Bob Dylan and his band entered the stage. We actually had binoculars for this gig, so I was able to view the band up close at certain points, albeit through the wobble-emphasising zoom. Decked out in a grey-blue jacket and smart black trousers (as well as his cowboy hat, natch), Dylan alternated between playing guitar (the first part of the set) and keyboard (latter part, essentially).
Pre-gig (as with last time, there was no opening act), I was told that slight tardiness would matter little, as he had apparently been opening with rather a rubbish song. ‘Cat’s in the Well’, from Under the Red Sky (1990). I can safely say I have never heard that album, even if it was released the year after the really rather good Oh Mercy.
It was quite fortuitous that we were punctual, then, as he opened not with ‘Cat’s in the Well’, but the infinitely more promising ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’. The latter is off my personal favourite Dylan album (I like Blonde on Blonde? The world reels in surprise), and was enjoyable enough, if rather far from life changing.
The set overall was not something I was overly familiar with. The last time I saw him, being between albums, was something of a ‘greatest hits’ set, and was awesome for it. This, being less than a year after the release of Modern Times, was obviously in support of that record. Having not heard that record, this wasn’t quite a sing-along experience. In a way that was pretty cool, as it meant I’d be judging the performance on its own merits, rather than the wonderment that he’s playing my favourites.
With that in mind, this set was something of a mixed bag. There was a period about halfway through where it dragged a bit, as they played ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ and ‘Spirit on the Water’. The former was a memorable performance, though it settled comfortably into the Dylan boogie-blues template like an old man into a warm bath. This passage, while entertaining enough, was a bit creaky, and the songs a bit longer than ideal.
By this point, six songs into the set, the placement here of ‘Highway 61’ was a masterstroke. Not only should it have been instantly familiar to anybody present, but it rattled along at such a pace that, if the band was an old train, the screws would be gradually shuddering out of their holdings. This aged band was rocking out at a fair whack, and they did justice to a classic.
The next group of songs was a nice mix of eras, and admittedly largely new to me. For some reason I have never heard Another Side of Bob Dylan, so the re-jigged ‘My Back Pages’ fit in well with the likes of ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ or ‘High Water (for Charlie Patton)’. As I said earlier, the last time I saw Bob was a treasure trove of favourites, so my wants for this show were little. It was boon beyond boon, then, that the twelfth song was my all-time favourite Bob song: ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’.
He played this magnificent composition when I saw him in Manchester, and I enjoyed it far more this time around. That can partially be explained by the changes the song has undergone in the forty years since it was first released. The primary change is the new descending motif the song has been given as punctuation, to telegraph the start of the song and to bridge to new verses. Not knowing the changes made when I saw him in 2005 (and the fact that Bob obviously sings with different delivery to how he did in 1966), it took a while to even recognise the song. It was somewhere just before the first chorus that it finally twigged.
Thankfully, the conditioning that was the first time I heard this played had worked, and I recognised the classic immediately this time around. I was jazzed once more and, again, that joy of repetition built within me through verse after verse, one stanza after another. That new bridge worked well, now that it was expected, and the whole thing was a triumph of bristling kinetic energy, momentum building until it destroyed everything in its path.
Bob didn’t even try following this with another upbeat song; surely he realised that literally no rock ‘n’ roll Dylan song could follow it. Instead he reached into his modern day song book (or at least his Modern Times song book) and bestowed a gorgeous performance of ‘Nettie Moore’ onto the gathered appreciators.
I obviously didn’t know this one before it aired on this night, but that mattered little due to the beauty on display. Indeed, one of my companions remarked that I would be severely disappointed now with the studio version of the song, given that it was so vastly inferior to the live arrangement. Dylan tempted slight, subtle chords out of his keyboard, while the rest of the band restrained their rocking tendencies. This was this sets equivalent of Manchester’s ‘Girl from the North Country’, then.
‘Summer Days’ gave way to another excellent performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and that was it for the set proper. When he returned, two encore songs were played once more. While I do have a problem with the encore in general, I’ll allow it for Dylan: he probably needs the rest. The first of this final brace was ‘Thunder on the Mountain’, another new one to me. It was pretty good, and the first time I heard that Alicia Keys reference.
Thankfully, he finished once more with the beyond excellent ‘All Along the Watchtower’. To be quite honest, I have said all I am willing to say about this particular generation of the song in my last review of Bob. Rest assured it was just as good this time, if not better, and my elevated position led to a lesser degree of rocking out, but that was compensated by a greater level of awareness of the arrangement, and just how much Bob was pouring into it.
Overall, the Sheffield set was, by its very nature as a record-supporting set, inferior to the Manchester gig. I wasn’t expecting the world from this one, though (as the last set had almost everything I could have asked for). With the pressure off and anything enjoyable being a bonus, I was very pleased. The set was perhaps a tad Modern Times-heavy, but it is refreshing to see such an established and revered musical figure have such faith in a new album. Perhaps more importantly, those classics he did play were arguably better than when he had played them last time round.
The journey home was quite something. In brief, we got on a tram that turned out to be going away from Meadowhall. We got off at the next possible stop (no mean feat, given how packed our carriage was with ugly Sheffield men) only to rush back on upon realising we might as well stick with the tram to Sheffield and get our last train from there. Cue a sprint to the railway station, and onto the platform, only to find out that our train was going to be delayed by three quarters of an hour. Gutted, but not to the level we would have been if our waiting had been carried out in the grounds of the closed Meadowhall shopping centre. Still, this was slight inconvenience given how enjoyable, and lucky, our day was overall.