They came, they drank, they talked. And off in the distance, the other side of a 'Golden Circle' sparsely populated with affluent boomers, Bob Dylan delivered what must be the best performance I've seen him give in 10 years*. At a time when seeing Bob had begun to feel more like a duty than a treat, he came roaring back.
Dylan doesn't really do crowdpleasing shows: at least, not for the casual gig-goer ticking another legend off their bucket list. It may be that he simply won't − after all, such popular staples as 'saying hello to the audience' are relatively easy to execute − but I've begun to think that he simply doesn't know how.
Seeing Dylan is purely about the music, those songs are in permanent flux ("It used to go like that and now it goes like this," he barks on Live 1966, before launching into a paranoid, gasping 'I Don't Believe You'), and such personality as you can glean and harvest comes from his treatment of five decades of material, some increasingly peculiar physical posturing − is he a self-satisfied cowboy courting adulation or a man with a bad back? − and the intrusion of his crooked grin, which on bad nights is kept within the crusty exterior, but flashed across Hyde Park for half the damn show.
That approach has its virtues and its vices. His shows are erratic: I've seen great ones, weak ones, and everything in between. And there's something to be said for an artist who can turn up on time, display a certain basic level of gratitude towards their fans, and play what the masses want to hear. But there's also something cheering, and instinctively hilarious, about a performer who is ornery enough to neglect the pallid norms of stadium rock − be it punctuality, platitudes or sing-along set-pieces − and charged with the creative inspiration to make every night different, even if sometimes that appears to be merely because he's in a bad mood.
I'll tell you something, though. For those leaving the fields of South Kensington uttering those tritest of generalities, now worn so threadbare they're practically transparent − "His voice has gone", "You can't tell which song it is till halfway through", "He could at least speak to the crowd" − know this: Friday night was the closest to a straight hits show that I've ever seen Dylan play. Who knows why, I can offer only tinpot psychology: he wanted to best Neil Young, he wants to impress Neil Young, he was just in the right mood… whatever, he kicked off with three cast-iron '60s behemoths, and seemed almost eager to please, committed to every last song, though with that indelible caveat that he's Bob Dylan and if we're going to do this, we're still going to do it his way.
Before we get onto the main business, here's a quick word on the support:
A picture of Cat Power owned by a fairly non-litigious photographer.
I was most excited about seeing Cat Power, the scuzzily brilliant vocalist whose unhappy, often half-murmured laments seem almost singularly ill-suited to a big field in which people won't shut up. Time and again, she got the techs to turn up her mic, but despite throwing in a Dylan cover ('He Was a Friend of Mine', a fantastically if self-sabotagingly abstruse choice), it was only during a clutch of grungier numbers that her spellbinding set cut through to an audience waiting − for reasons unknown − for Neil Young. The songs from her current record, Wanderer, had a sensitive, beguiling if sometimes inaudible quality, coupled to a strutting stage style I hadn't anticipated, though the knock-out highlight was the title track from The Greatest, half-shorn of the anomalous shoo-wop style that defined that extraordinary record. It was weird, and oddly moving, to watch such life-stopping brilliance in a vacuum of complete disinterest.
Up next was Laura Marling, who has junked her treading-on-eggshells style for a more Carly Simon-ish approach (or was it just the wind buffeting her hair, like in that 'You're So Vain' video?). I have infinitesimal amounts of patience for British folkies who go all American, but Marling has some nice hooks and a flair for digging out a killingly sad line just when you think she's slipping into broad-brush mundanity.
Kermit the Frog's let himself go.
And then there was Neil Young. Imagine Neil Young being your favourite artist, it's like your favourite food being a packet of ham. There's a bit in Peep Show where Jez tells Mark that he loves Nancy, and Mark says: "You love her? What do you love about her?" That's me trying to understood people who love Neil Young. What do you love about him? His guitar? Still, the first CD we had in my house growing up was Live Rust and I seem to have absorbed most of his other stuff through cultural osmosis. Either way, I didn't expect to enjoy his set half as much as I did. A blistering 'Over and Over' was squeezed between the woozy 'Mansion on the Hill' and the appealingly corny 'Country Home' at the start of the set, and that was the perfect beginning, with what on record becomes an interminable jam session working just right in a live situation. And for an hour Young struck just the right balance, the set reaching its climax with a lovely 'Heart of Gold'.
Then his self-indulgence fuse blew, and every song started going on for four minutes too long, following the same format: song, jam, attempted audience ovation, Young fiddling frantically with the tremolo, drum solo, another jam, more tremolo... The apparent aim was to continue the song until everybody had stopped clapping. As a final insult, he then broke into 'Rockin' in the Free World', which is fun but also highly embarrassing, the Kissification of Neil Young. Is there anything more excruciating than saying 'rockin''? Except, that is, for the song's muscular Reaganism. Twice we thought the track was over, only for Young and co to burst into another chorus, which is a great idea for a comedy sketch, if not for a set of live guitar music.
I'd hoped for 'Like a Hurricane', but by the time it came along, I'd had about enough Neil Young for one year. This was partly due to him and partly due to me, as I'd been stood in one place for over four hours and was anxious to set off for my wee so I'd be back in time for Bob.
The screens were blank. And for a moment, it seemed like Dylan's recent but noted aversion to having anybody see his face close-up (at Hop Farm he was shown from a distance; his stage lights have been getting dimmer; in the recent Rolling Thunder Revue doc, he is painted a most curious shade of auburn) was going to result in the funniest audience-baiting of modern times**, but as he wandered on stage in a muted fit of anti-climax, the vast panels crackled into life. Young had shared screen-time with his band, but there was no such egality here: the camera fixed on Dylan's small, stooping frame for the next 105 minutes.
'Ballad of a Thin Man', 1966.
With a justifiably self-satisfied grin, Dylan launched into 'Ballad of a Thin Man', the 1965 track irrevocably associated with his reinvention as a braying individualist with great hair who was enthusiastically kicking apart his legacy as a protest singer, and sneering at anybody who asked him not to. It's an absolute monster of a song, with a fantastically snide and direct central refrain: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr Jones?", the name typically squawked amid a squall of noise as "Jooooahhhhhrrrrnnnns". It's a perfect choice to kick off this type of show, as at this point several members of the audience who've never seen Dylan before, and are confronted with a jowly, wire-haired, tactiturn little man in a rhinestone jacket jabbering 54-year-old words in a half-swallowed 80-a-day rasp as he happily plinky-plonks on his piano will indeed be wondering what is happening here. Perhaps you have to have Dylan in your blood to react to this with a rush of utter euphoria, but I don't know any other way. Dylan will spend the rest of the evening reshaping his songs in the most exhilarating manner, but with this one, it's enough to just deliver your statement of intent, and give it both fucking barrels.
'It Ain't Me, Babe' is up second, and one of the highlights of the night, its hero now not so much nobly apologetic as cheekily elusive, a quality one more associates with the fantastically unfaithful 20-something Bob. The word "babe" is intoned with such gleefully dismissive malevolence that you really do begin to suspect the protagonist is avoiding this lovesick woman more for his own sake than hers. James Taylor may appear to genuinely like his own audience, and Paul Simon's voice may be in better nick, but no-one but Dylan would excavate a song from 1964 and then warp it out of all recognition: not just its tune or its style, but its actual theme.
He follows that with an explosive 'Highway 61 Revisited', the closest you'll get to him acknowledging that now and then people would like to hear the hits, perhaps with one of them sounding similar to the record. This song's a great gauge, incidentally, for how good a Dylan show is going to be (though unfortunately by the time this litmus test can be performed, you have bought your ticket, train pass and accommodation, and are midway through the show): whenever I've seen Dylan at his best, he has spent it grooving, grinning and very occasionally (Sheffield 2009) genuinely dancing. And it's such a great song: the best organ-driven Biblical comedy record of psychedelic '60s rock. After that 'Simple Twist of Fate', from 1975's Blood on the Tracks, feels slightly bland: it's a wonderful song: small, sad, wry and lyrical, but it feels swallowed up in this space, the reading almost perfunctory.
I've written about Dylan before and said in 2013 that, while you rarely get unequivocally great Dylan shows any more, you can usually rely on a run of three or four songs where he's really cooking, where he cares enough to make it count. I did wonder, as 'Simple Twist of Fate' meandered meekly out from the vast speakers strapped around Hyde Park, whether perhaps we might have had our three-song run.
So sometimes you worry. And then sometimes you can only laugh, in slack-jawed amazement, at this maddening, occasionally ridiculous genius, who takes absurd risks with his material, even in front of 70,000 people. On record, 'Can't Wait' is a stinging, ominous, Tom Waits-ish lament, a hymn to utter isolation, a paean to pain near the close of Dylan's saddest album, Time Out of Mind, recorded as his health dwindled, en route to a brush with death. On Friday, it's not. On Friday, it's a fantastically funky James Brown number, with Dylan a white-suited ringmaster, holding the mic-stand at a jaunty angle as he defiantly raps the lyrics from out front, turning one of his most heartbreaking lyrics ("It doesn't matter where I go anymore, I just go") into nothing short of a punchline.
'When I Paint My Masterpiece', which follows, is fine, but the song's main virtue is how its rapturous but yearning melody lends harmony and power to some rather trite lyrics, so when you junk that tune in favour of something pleasant but basically unmemorable, you're neutering it. And then we're into a stompy, somewhat impenetrable 'Honest with Me', from 2001's Love and Theft, which I'm sure Dylan would be proud to learn (and I'm only mildly ashamed to confess) I didn't recognise until at least two minutes in, and I know that album back-to-front.
We get four from Time Out of Mind in total, and the second is the best of the lot. The album is, I think, and after everything, my favourite of all Dylan's records: a wintry, introspective retrospective. It sounds like the last testament of a dying man, and it nearly was. 'Trying to Get to Heaven' is probably the single greatest thing on it: essentially an update of 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door', his earlier defiance and desperation replaced by a wry and weary yearning pockmarked with pain ("You broke a heart that loved you/Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore"). Dylan is never content to trade on 22-year-old emotions, though, and last night the song became more like a whimsical quest, lines of alienation rendered playful, until the hammer-blow of its protagonist's essential pointlessness. "I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down," he sighs, "now I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door."
At the end of the song, as at the end of many of these songs, he stands up for the final few bars, then begins to wander off, as if he's remembered that the remote is in the other room, and the screens cut to black.
'Make You Feel My Love' is a song that was stolen from us by Adele, and some absolute roasters near us insisted on singing her version over the top of it, but just as Dylan never wrote sadder, starker words than on Time Out of My Mind, he never wrote a more direct love song than this one***. At Hyde Park, it's an effectively conventional reading, and while we'll never get a better reading of the unexpectedly and breathtakingly seductive line that closes the penultimate verse ("You ain’t seen nothing like me yet") than the one on the album, I suppose he can keep trying.
You can certainly never accuse Dylan of not backing himself, and he continues to display a vaguely misguided loyalty to 'Pay In Blood' and 'Early Roman Kings', two of the more didactic tracks from his last album of original songs, Tempest, Both are rather long-winded, both benefit from his full-blooded investment in their mixture of threats and fantasy, and both are barked in the same unflinching but essentially unchanging tone. Unfortunately, both are also heard in direct comparison to 'Like a Rolling Stone', which he stretches out languorously between them.
2012, the time of Tempest.
The first seven or eight times I saw Dylan, he played 'Like a Rolling Stone' fairly straight, usually as an encore with a familiarly cacophonous organ part. He's stopped doing that now. If you want to sing along, you really have to be on your toes. At first, it seemed like Bob was actively trying to prevent this, then you realised it was more like delayed gratification: a piano-led rap; a jazzy, dialled-down and almost painfully slow lead-in to the chorus; then this ferocious burst of rock; and finally the potential for a fists-in-the-air resolution with the beats of a football chant. By the final two choruses, he was almost egging the audience on, through some flamboyant embellishments to the words.
After 'Early Roman Kings' comes the best five minutes of the whole show: a heartstoppingly beautiful version of 'Girl from the North Country', with Bob singing: like, really singing, exposing himself not just through the emotional vulnerability of his performance, but the vulnerability of his voice. It's not what it was in 1963, it's not even what it was in 2005, and for the most part his live vocals are nowadays snapped out or throatily hollered. So a stripped-down country-folk ballad, accompanied only by a piano line and the aching strains of a pedal steel, is a hell of a thing to try. What results is simply one of the most moving experiences I've had at a concert. Incredibly, Dylan wrote the song at 21, but it is an old man's song: reflective, regretful, nostalgic in the most acutely painful way. He sings it here with his heart on display; the vocal wistful, even desolate, negotiating the loss of innocence, love and youth. He sings it like it has only just become true. And like telling someone may make it hurt a little less.
That he can mine such pathos from a simple old song, then continue hammering his most elegiac record, Time Out of Mind into baffling new shapes is the mark of a man for whom reinvention is everything. Isn't that better than a greatest hits show? The fourth and final track from his 1997 record is 'Love Sick', which Dylan famously leased to Victoria's Secret, due to his long and enduring commitment to underpants. It's an enduringly fascinating collision of dystopian imagery coupled to a doth-protest-too-much renunciation of love itself, all because some bird has apparently put him through the wringer. Live, it runs the gamut from unrepentant to vulnerable, needy and ultimately knowing.
Alicia Keys (more of whom below).
For the best part of 10 years, 'Thunder on the Mountain' was one of the two main blues jams in Dylan's set, along with 'Summer Days', which I don't like nearly as much, though it's more interesting live than listening to it in your front room. Both dropped out for a while, but now 'Thunder on the Mountain' is back. The album it opens − Modern Times, the final part of a loose career-revival trilogy − came out during a happy period of my life, and Dylan did it at the two best shows I've seen him play: in Sheffield in 2007 and 2009, so it means a lot to me for those reasons. Having said that, I think he mostly wrote it to try to get Alicia Keys to kiss him, an endeavour that I believe was unfortunately unsuccessful. He has recently changed the wording around her birthplace on the track, though whether this will do the trick, I'm not sure. It's a rumbling, suitably thundering blues adventure that runs appropriately up and down the scales as Dylan mixes the unapologetic doom-mongering of Time Out of Mind with the absurdism and cheery punning of Love and Theft, and while it lacks the emotional sensitivity, freewheelin' poetry or acidic, steel-shelled mythology-shredding that constitutes Dylan's most enduring work, it's a lot of fun.
'Soon After Midnight' is something else entirely: Dylan's stab at a Great American Songbook standard, before he decided to go and record a load of fucking terrible versions of other people's. It has a lovely, yearning feel to it, half-familiar, as if overheard from someone else's wood-fronted '30s radio unit, and it has some of those wonderful pay-offs that mark Dylan's best work post-Time Out of Mind: when he sings, "I'm in no great hurry/I'm not afraid of your fury", you doubt his resilience, then he nails your fucking feet to the floor with the saddest of clinchers: "I've faced stronger walls than yours." And you wonder whether fighting the expectations of the 1960s almost broke him in two, and doubt that anything else would be half as hard. With all due respect (which actually isn't all that much), if you think Neil Young doing 18 songs that sound broadly the same is as interesting as Dylan segueing from heartbroken country to epic blues and then what appears to be a depressive Bing Crosby record, I think it unlikely that we will ultimately get on.
The main set ends with 'Gotta Serve Somebody', one of the handful of great songs to come out of Dylan's dalliance with evangelical Christianity. I've been going to see Dylan as regularly as money and geography can permit since 2002, and this is the first time I've seen him play it. The lead single from his first Christian album, 1979's Slow Train Coming, it's essentially a strident list song about people who are, at some stage, gonna have to serve somebody. I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that he means God. The studio version (a favourite of Sinéad O'Connor) is funky as hell − a bass-driven track that neatly mixes simple encouragement, finger-wagging and what sounds suspiciously like a series of threats − but since Dylan had already given us our serving of funk in the singularly improbably shape of 'Can't Wait', he does this as a simple rock number, one of the most confounding creative decisions of the night. I say 'one of', as at the end of the song he comes and stands at the front of the stage with his hand in one pocket, and just sort of lightly sways, in what I presume is his weird attempt at some straightforward rock-star posturing.
Would you trust this man with your revolution?
The encore begins in familiar fashion: 'Blowin' in the Wind' as it's generally played nowadays, its polemical power lost somewhere between now and then, presumably because its author doesn't seem to care about its questions, only the cynicism that greets them. He follows that in the only way a committed crowdpleasing people person can: with
In Hyde Park, the song becomes the night's second legit blues jam, not as expansive (or lengthy) as 'Thunder on the Mountain', but with a relentless, lolloping beat that meshes astonishingly well with the song's hip, flip pronouncements: the mythos of Depression-era train-hopping filtered through the wired mind of a man busily shedding his hairshirt. In this bluesy guise, you could imagine it nestling between 'Workingman's Blues #2' and 'Beyond the Horizon' on Modern Times.
And that's your lot. It's the best I've seen Dylan for a decade. If you disagree, then I can only chastise you for your rank ingratitude.
Thanks for reading.
* "I dread to think what the others must be like, then!" is not good banter.
** pun intended
*** I suppose a rival would be the (somewhat risible and madly popular) 'Lay Lady Lay', the hit single from 1969's Nashville Skyline
Ballad of a Thin Man
It Ain't Me, Babe
Highway 61 Revisited
Simple Twist of Fate
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Honest With Me
Tryin' to Get to Heaven
Make You Feel My Love
Pay in Blood
Like a Rolling Stone
Early Roman Kings
Girl From the North Country
Thunder on the Mountain
Soon After Midnight
Gotta Serve Somebody
Blowin' in the Wind
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry