Saturday, July 3, 2010
Here's a bit of a feature about my six hours spent at the Hop Farm Festival yesterday. There's some stuff about Ray Davies, Mumford & Sons and Seasick Steve, but the accent is on Bob Dylan. If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, I'm sunk.
In a fug of weed smoke, in the baking heat, where water was like gold dust, festival bonhomie was in short supply. But some of the music was sensational.
We came down for the day, skipping the early acts to catch up on sleep and fill up on water. Delicious, delicious water.
To us, this is a Bob Dylan gig, with a couple of support acts. Our shuttle bus from Paddock Wood station zooms into Hop Farm just as promoter Vince Power is welcoming Seasick Steve to the stage. Clip – fluorescent wristband on. And in we go...
On our right is a massive stage, watched by 15,000 people – stood, sprawled or else sunbathing on tatty-looking blankets. Almost everyone is stripped down to the bare essentials. Nearby, a village of portable toilets start to quietly hum. The periphery of the field is wall-to-wall stalls. We go to investigate and to get veggie burgers, soundtracked by Seasick Steve’s boogieing, fast-fingered blues – a fun intro.
Then the crowd parts and we get in, 25 rows back for Mumford & Sons. The rest of the newsdesk has been raving about them, but I’ve gone under-prepared, having heard just two of their songs.
They’re pretty good: nice tunes, odd syncopations and an air of ecstasy that they are on this bill at all. “Does anyone else think this is the best line-up of the summer?” enquires singer Marcus Mumford. Naturally, it’s got Bob Dylan on it, and some other people. Keyboardist Ben Lovett is similarly wide-eyed: “What have we done to deserve this?” he asks. “We’ve fooled them all.” Their 'slow sensitive bit/fast with odd rhythms' formula never gets tired – at least in this hour-long set – even if they’re ultimately upstaged by a pair of boobs. That big-screen flasher elicits laughs and applause, and temporarily throws the band off their stride. During the same song, Seasick Steve distracts the sun-addled crowd by poking his head out from the wings. “What were you laughing at?” asks Lovett. “Steve!” shout some people. “Cheese?” he asks. “Titties!” yell some others. “Everybody likes those,” Lovett acknowledges. It's a good set, with Marcus a compelling, impassioned frontman and the four-strong band displaying strong interplay and chemistry, lined up as they are across the stage. The title-track of their 2009 record, Sigh No More, goes down particularly well.
A few people disappear and we edge forward. A loo break takes half-an-hour, when you factor in the queues and having to negotiate the labyrinthine, tightly-packed crowd. I’ve just about given up hope of finding my girlfriend or ever seeing my home or family again when I hear shouts from my left. Ah, there's the girl I came with, in a white sun hat. Hurray.
Seconds later, Ray Davies takes to the stage and a guy in front of me threatens to punch out an equally bad-tempered chap, who’s been trying to shove in. That epitomises the easy-going atmosphere, not dissimilar to a pressure-cooker. “Welcome to Hop Farm Festival. Peace and love. Now get your head out of the way, or I'll thump you, I’m trying to see Ray.”
The former Kinks frontman and songwriter delivers a varied set that ignores the previously-maligned Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur – now being reappraised as his masterpieces – providing instead a mixture of ‘60s and '70s hits (You Really Got Me - as great as ever - backed up by Dedicated Follower of Fashion, All Day and All of the Night, Sunny Afternoon, Low Budget and the cod-Caribbean Apeman) and recent tracks (The Tourist and the anti-American Vietnam Cowboys), along with the odd nondescript rocker. I like the fey, headily-English Ray Davies, who didn’t seem to care what anybody thought of him as he peddled an idiosyncratic, individualistic furrow. Conversely, the Ray Davies we get here tells us he’s “sex-crazed, ha ha ha” before spraying beer all over the stage. Well good for him.
He also delivers an apparent broadside at Dylan, suggesting the headliner lives in a “gated community” and starts slagging off Vince Power for being “rude” – after he’s asked to leave the stage early. Davies quickly backtracks in sheepish fashion, dedicating a song to the organisers of the festival and saying that he hopes it will “go on forever”, a theme he returns to later. He adds that he used to pick hops as a boy, prompting some 18-year-old girl in the audience to start patronising the 66-year-old borderline genius. “Aaaaah,” she coos.
His (shortened) set is good, with one moment of utter greatness, a near-definitive version of the wistful, wonderful Days that carries us all away. Davies ends with Lola, though the contention that he’s “not the world’s most physical guy” is at odds with his pumped, surprisingly muscular performance.
A 20-minute wait (including more screenings of the most typo-ridden Powerpoint presentation in living memory: “AFTER BOB’S BE ON WHATS THE HURRY”, “ITS HOT IS SUNNY ITS FUNNY”…), then the main attraction appears.
Dressed in white cowboy hat, grey suit, sparkly pink shirt and pink bow-tie, trailing his smartly-dressed band, the titular wizard Bob Dylan strolls onto the stage. This is the fifth time I’ve seen him over the past eight years and every one - to differing degrees - has been a joy, with the two Sheffield shows (2007 and 2009) standing out as being among the most memorable concerts I’ve attended. If this gig can’t consistently scale those heights – and is three or four songs lighter than a standard Dylan show – it has some glorious moments, and it’s great fun to see Bob outdoors, singing direct to the crowd and grinning as – despite his best efforts - Like a Rolling Stone becomes a mass sing-along.
Before we begin, let’s first acknowledge a fact and explode a myth. The fact: Dylan doesn’t talk to the crowd, except to introduce the band. Don’t like it? Then go see someone else, or affect a Dylan voice and talk to yourself. As for the myth: I heard a festival-goer on the train back saying the guy can’t sing, or never could. Well there isn’t anyone one earth who can sing a Dylan song like Dylan, and from his eponymous 1962 record to Modern Times, taking in such differing material as The Times They Are A-Changin’, Blonde on Blonde and Good As I Been to You, his back catalogue is littered with stunning vocal performances. He has a one-of-a-kind voice and it’s among the most distinctive, singular and important within the whole spectrum of popular music. He doesn't sound as he did in 1966, but his changing musical style, along with chain-smoking, playing around 100 gigs a year and the fact he's now 69 (rather than 25) will have that effect. Following four stages that we can roughly classify as folk/rock/post-'accident'/bleating, he has entered a weathered fifth that I think's pretty damn great, defined by economical phrasing and the odd broken growl. That's how he's sounded for a good 10 years now.
He kicks off with a knowing Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35, its central refrain of “everybody must get stoned” serving to further encourage that guy with messy auburn hair who’s chain-smoking weed directly into my face. Dylan strung the song out (pun intended) to 25 minutes in Manchester in 2002. Here it’s done in seven. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – is given a faithful (albeit electric) reading, as is Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, the vocals somewhat drowned out by the band. Three of the first four numbers are from Blonde on Blonde and Bob seems to enjoy everyone joining in with Just Like a Woman, though they give it a touch more welly than he does, before he marches through a fairly functional Honest With Me.
It isn’t until Dylan delves into his seminal break-up album, 1974’s Blood on the Tracks, that the concert really catches fire. His touching take on Simple Twist of Fate signals – perhaps a little belatedly – that Bob has brought his A-game, though it’s what happens next that’s truly exciting. High Water (For Charley Patton), perhaps the key track on Love and Theft, is simply breathtaking – approaching the classic live version on Tell Tale Signs. It’s punchy, despairing and comical in turn, like a monochrome Depression-era disaster movie, its diverse vignettes playing out as the flood levels rise. It comes complete with Dylan mugging to his band as he implores a boat’s passengers to throw their panties overboard.
It's the highlight of the gig, along with the follow-up track, Blind Willie McTell. The version left off 1983’s Infidels and finally released eight years later on The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 is a peerlessly atmospheric, dystopian fusion of nostalgia and bitter observation as Dylan wanders the haunts of the old bluesman, imagining plantations on fire as the spectre of slavery tempers the crumbling grandeur and sensory overload of the Deep South. He said the song hadn’t turned out as he wanted. It turns out that what he wanted was the simpler blues the song has now evolved (devolved?) into, its chorus of “And I know no-one/Can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell’ adapted into the less poetic though admittedly rhyming: “And I’ll tell you one thing/Nobody can sing/The blues like/Blind Willie McTell”. It sounds fantastic: regretful, respectful, tender; justifying that howl of delight I let loose as the opening line rang out.
It’s followed by a decent Highway 61 Revisited – not the ebullient, organ-led stomper that even Dylan began dancing to at Sheffield ’09, but pretty fun. After that there’s a fine, plaintive reading of Workingman’s Blues #2, a song presumably inspired by Dylan’s upbringing in a mining town featuring the memorable pay-off line “some people never worked a day in their lives”, which I’ve always considered might be self-critical. Thunder on the Mountain, formerly a staple of the singer’s encores, is now a feature of the main set. It’s an unexceptional version, though lit – as ever – by the lyric’s amusing preoccupation with Alicia Keys. He follows it with a blast from the past, a laid-back reading of the excoriating Highway 61 Revisited album track Ballad of a Thin Man, memorable as the penultimate howl of his 1966 tour, a warm-up for the paint-stripping Like a Rolling Stone. It leads into that song here too – albeit with a brief pause – as Dylan exits, then returns almost immediately for a two-song encore.
Despite Bob’s staccato singing of his most popular song, which borders on the conversational, the crowd – fingers pointing stagewards – stick doggedly, loudly to the original version, adamant that this is going to be the defining moment of the festival. I’d go for that guy threatening to deck that other guy, but it’s a close one. There’s time for an introduction to the band, followed by just one more song, and it isn’t the one with which he finishes every gig, All Along the Watchtower. Instead, it’s Forever Young. “May God bless and keep you always...,” Dylan begins. “Oh no way,” says a guy a short distance away, shaking his head in awe. A few people who’ve apparently wandered in from an Elton John gig get their lighters out, as Bob opts for a timeless reading of the set-closer, written for his son Jakob. It’s a bit of a mawkish song, but no matter how much I tell myself that, it still speaks to me – and to just about everyone else here. A Chinese lantern sails through the sky and Bob comes to stage front, taking a bow with the band. “More,” we humbly suggest, but the great man has gone - and the mis-spelt Power Po!nt be returnd.
We all file out, walking along the main road in the pitch black to Paddock Wood station. And I go home, tucked up in a hotel bed by 1.30am. I'm not really the festival type.
Setlist for Bob Dylan:
1. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
3. Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
4. Just Like a Woman
5. Honest With Me
6. Simple Twist of Fate
7. High Water (For Charley Patton)
8. Blind Willie McTell
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Workingman's Blues #2
11. Thunder on the Mountain
12. Ballad of a Thin Man
13. Like a Rolling Stone
14. Forever Young
To read about the definitive Dylan documentary, directed by Martin Scorsese, please clicky here.