Thursday, 28 November 2013

Review: Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Every Dylan gig seems to bring something new: a reggae version of A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall (Manchester, 2005), a bit where Bob does a little dance to Highway 61 Revisited (Sheffield, 2009), or an engaging spot of mugging to his band as he sings about pants (Hop Farm, 2010). This time he's back at the Albert Hall - a relief to those of us who've turned up, as his legendary, much-bootlegged "Royal Albert Hall" gig of 1966 was actually recorded at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, and I had visions of him pitching up there to find it's now a hotel - and he has three innovations to share with us.

A mesmerising reimagining of Tangled Up in Blue, both jaunty and poignant, complete with new words, a new sound and a melody that he may well be making up as he goes along. A bit where he touches - like, actually goes towards and then touches - the hands of people in front row, as if he likes them. And a wild white Jewfro. There's also an interval, so Bob can go and have a cigarette, a nap and a cup of Horlicks, because he's 72.

The setlist will be familiar to anyone who keeps tabs on such things, as (give or take a song or two) it's the same one he's been playing throughout this European tour: 19 songs, including six from before Time Out of Mind and six off his slightly underwhelming latest, Tempest. Resplendent in a slightly crap black and white waistcoat - and spats! - he kicks off promisingly with a clipped, forceful version of Things Have Changed and a spirited She Belongs to Me, moves through a functional Beyond Here Lies Nothin' - playing a grand piano tonight rather than his usual keyboards - then breaks out that plaintive piece of self-examination, What Good Am I?, from 1989's Oh Mercy, here given the tender treatment.

I was hearing a few of these songs for the first time live, and the sprightly Duquesne Whistle - armed with one of those simplistic riffs to which Dylan has become latterly addicted - was a bit of a treat; lyrically unambitious but eminently danceable. After the sweet if minor Waiting for You (a conventional love song from, err, the soundtrack of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), we get four tracks of solid greatness, the kind of mid-concert run that is becoming a leitmotif of the modern Dylan gig-going experience. And, as usual, High Water is involved.

He begins it with Pay in Blood, the closest Dylan is ever going to get to writing a gangsta rap song (you imagine). Or Wise Guy by Joe Pesci. I wasn't that wowed by the album version, but live it's transformed into a beast: a nasty, violent and unrepentant bad guy's boast-athon, with Dylan spitting the words from centre stage. Tangled Up in Blue, nowadays generally sung in the third person (as it was on the first, "acetate" attempt at Blood on the Tracks) is showered with a heap of new lyrics - including a neat verse about the importance of trust - and a committed vocal. Not bad considering that it's his 1,358th crack at doing the song live (I feel for the person charged with uploading that information).

I think something is lost from Love Sick when Dylan isn't being surrounded by women in their underwear like in that ad (I don't, I think that was one of the stupidest things Dylan ever did - and he used to duet with Joan Baez), but he atones with a pounding, jarring reading of this anti-love anthem, the first song on arguably his greatest record. And that was the first half over, Dylan leaning in to the mic to announce a 15 or 20 minute interval. My wife translated. What I heard was: "Aye-hay, aheehuhhurrhurr inaboutafifteeeenortwennymuhhurr." (I hope this was some salve to that large section of the audience who invariably complain that Dylan doesn't chat much, has gone a bit growly since 1963 and won't project his grizzled fizzog onto a succession of big screens.)

After disappearing for more than a half-hour (I presume it was a big cup of Horlicks, or he'd got trapped under his blanket), Dylan leads off the second half - and caps that unmissable four-song run - with High Water, the key track off his 2001 album, Love and Theft, which lacks the breathless urgency and wry humour with which Dylan invested it at Hop Farm, but still sounds utterly fantastic. Then he's into a lovely take on Simple Twist of Fate - after Tangled Up in Blue, the second of the night's songs from his seminal 1974 break-up album, Blood on the Tracks - before for some reason playing Early Roman Kings, which is one of the worst things he's written in years and fills the "interminable blues" slot previously populated by Summer Days, which he finally retired last year. I'm all with a band jamming, especially one as good as Dylan's, and the places they go with many of these songs are remarkable. But Early Roman Kings is just one thing repeated, apparently forever, and it was the only point during the gig when I thought: "OK, enough of that one, do something else."

Thankfully that something else was Forgetful Heart, a beautiful ballad from Together Through Life, and comfortably the second best song on that record (after I Feel a Change Comin' On), featuring that perfect couple: "The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door", which destroys me every time. With a quiet, violin-led accompaniment, Dylan can sing without straining to compete with the volume (why not just turn him up in the mix?), proving beyond doubt that the low spots of Tempest were a blip, rather than the sound of his voice finally giving out. On a few of tonight's songs, it can be a struggle to make out what he's actually singing about, unless it is indeed "Ahurrhurr, a hurrheehurr".

Dylan has played Spirit on the Water, a delightful number stuffed with great lines, every time I've seen him since 2007, but - to paraphrase that Albert Hall bootleg, "it used to go like that, and now it goes like this..." - less gentle, less delicate, but still just as transfixing, and with the same scope for audience interaction ("You think I'm over the hill?" "Noooooooooo!"). Then he ends the main set with a trio of songs from Tempest, all given the same lolloping, reflective treatment: Scarlet Town, the rather good Soon After Midnight, and Long and Wasted Years, which draws a prolonged standing ovation.

The hollers of the crowd bring the usual response: a two-song encore comprising an explosive All Along the Watchtower - one of the best I've heard him do, with a quiet-loud-very quiet-boom template that the Pixies would have been proud of - and a solid Blowin' in the Wind: not the magnificent rock-out we've had in more recent years, but a heartfelt if somewhat overly throaty reading. And then he's gone, back to his Horlicks before the houselights are switched on. "Must Be Santa!" we cry, ignoring the fact that he's not coming back and he has a pre-determined setlist anyway. "Judas!" we shout, as the realisation dawns. But it's been another great night: my seventh Dylan gig and the best since 2009, those magical nights studded through my life, each happily coinciding with some special, personal reason to remember, along with the sheer glory of the music. And the wonder of Dylan's thin, wild mercury hair.



1. Things Have Changed
2. She Belongs To Me
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
4. What Good Am I?
5. Duquesne Whistle
6. Waiting For You
7. Pay In Blood
8. Tangled Up In Blue
9. Love Sick
10. High Water (For Charley Patton)
11. Simple Twist Of Fate
12. Early Roman Kings
13. Forgetful Heart
14. Spirit On The Water
15. Scarlet Town
16. Soon After Midnight
17. Long And Wasted Years
18. All Along The Watchtower
19. Blowin' In The Wind


  1. My favorite song on Tempest (a grand album) is Early Roman Kings, a blast from the radical past and pure perfection in these times of big money and bigger bullshit. Dylan at his absolute best, in my humble opinion.

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  2. Thanks for the comment: very nicely put, and I know the song has a big following, I just can't see in it the things that others do - at least so far. I think Tempest is a decent enough record, with a handful of very good songs, but in the context of that '97-'06 run, it can't help but disappoint. Its main shortcomings, I think, are that Dylan's vocals aren't particularly strong and the production is curiously flat and one-note. One can only imagine what Lanois might have done with the same material.

  3. So glad he did Spirit on the Water - as done so beautifully at Hop Farm 2012, and also Padua, Italy earlier in November, tho i wish I had gone all the way to Rome - did you see the set list for that one? - jealous as he did Don't Think Twice there.
    I love his eternal returns; they are a living embodiment of his own line: You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way...I love Bob and I love my love of him, I believe in him and I believe in my belief. Thank you for this review.

    1. Great comment Daisy, I love that line as well,
      "You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way"
      I agree Tempest is an absolute Masterpiece, I think maybe shunned by the mainly Leftist PC correct media, cause it's typical brilliant Dylan, he takes no prisoners and tells it, like it is!
      'He wrote down on paper what was in his mind'

  4. Great review: totaly agree with comment on Early Roman Kings: worst track on Tempest by far.

  5. @Daisy - Such a lovely comment, thank you. Spirit on the Water is a classic, isn't it? I think I've seen him do Don't Think Twice three times in seven shows, so hopefully he'll do it for you next time!

    @Anon - Many thanks, and nice to get a bit of support on that, as I think we're in the minority!

  6. I think the thing to concentrate on here is the music.Other musicians, if they're lucky, may raise some kind of an edifice. Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall has raised a cathedral.The music was transcendent. Its foundation, one can feel, had that dark unfathomable depth that is pure powerful Dylan.To me the man has rediscovered himself, albeit through a tortuous route, but by God he has never made better music.I think we may have some magical albums coming, maybe the long awaited successor to Blonde on Blonde.

  7. I went on 27 Nov and the show was very much as described in this very perceptive review. I think Early Roman Kings is magnificent. The riff is Mannish Boy and the lyrics are mannish boy. The single weak track on Tempest, which for me is Dylan's greatest album since Blood on the Tracks, is Pay in Blood, but as mentioned it was far better live. I was lucky to be in row 12 on the floor by the stage, not close enough to touch but wonderfully close. I've seen Dylan 20 times since 1987 and this was one of the three best shows.

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