O2 Arena London // 25th April 2009 (Silent Sea Records SS 250409)
O2 Arena, London, England – April 25th, 2009
(75:14): Maggie’s Farm, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Things Have Changed, Chimes Of Freedom, Rollin’ & Tumblin’, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll, ‘Till I Fell In Love With You, Highway 61 Revisited, When The Deal Goes Down, Thunder On The Mountain, Spirit On The Water / beginning cut, Blowin’ In The Wind
It is expected that, when Bob Dylan tours, an excellent quality audience recording will soon surface documenting the show. It is much more rare for a soundboard tape to surface. Silent Sea Records press such a soundboard from Dylan’s O2 Arena show in London from April 25th. It captures over an hour of the show and has significant cuts throughout. The spoken intro isn’t captures, there is a cut after “‘Till I Fell In Love With You” eliminating “Workingman’s Blues #2,” a cut after “Highway 61 Revisited” which cuts out “Ballad Of Hollis Brown,” “Po’ Boy,” and “Honest With Me.” Finally, there is a big cut after “Thunder On The Mountain” which eliminates “Like A Rolling Stone”, the first encore “All Along The Watchtower” and the beginning of “Spirit On The Water.”
The music and vocals are pushed towards the front of the mix with the audience buried deep and sounding far away. Distortion is present, especially in the louder parts, and there is a strange flutter on the tape during “‘Till I Fell In Love With You” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” It is a tape worth having despite its limitations because it picks up details in the performance that even the best audience recordings are unable to. There are a few, very slight stage directions by Dylan to the band and it is good evidence of how well this ensemble works together.
Allan Jones observes in a review in Uncut magazine: “The 02 is the biggest London venue Dylan’s played in years – apart from a two night residency at Wembley Arena in April 2007, Dylan often preferring the funky surroundings of Brixton Academy and in November 2003 even fetching up for one memorable show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. That’s the kind of place you’d love to see him play more often…As fearsomely large and invariably inhospitable indoor arenas go, the 02 is better than most, not unlike the venues I saw Dylan play on the opening North American dates of the Modern Times tour in late 2006.
“It’s amazing, though, that what he does is so often continually misinterpreted – and that his recasting in often unexpected musical styles of various acknowledged classics from his vast back catalogue is still seen as wilful tampering, evidence in the disparaging opinion of some of a wilful tampering with and heedless butchering of his musical legacy, Dylan in their view not giving a toss about he plays or the way he plays it, which is rarely the way some of the songs originally sounded.
“This sad perspective is in opposition to others among us for whom Dylan’s unpredictability – his willingness to re-address his songbook typical of his creative restlessness than some woebegone indifference – is what makes, year after year, the narrative of the Never-Ending Tour so uniquely compelling.
It’s an approach that doesn’t always work, admittedly. There is for instance a version at the 02 of ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ that struggles in this particular incarnation to clearly match the potency of the song’s poetic imagery, the result somewhat muffled, not to mention unrecognisable at first to a lot of people (there’s an amusing cheer a few minutes in from one part of the crowd when they realise what it is he’s playing). Similarly, a version of ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ as a fatalistic waltz slightly spurns the song’s bitter anger.
“When it does work, which is more often than not, the results can be spectacular – witness here ‘The Times They Are A-Changin”, newly-minted as a serrated waltz, and the show’s possible highlight, a suitably dark and harrowing ‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown’ played with the kind of nightmarish venom latterly reserved for the overhauled ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, a similar highlight of recent tours, Donnie Herron’s spectral banjo plucking set against lead guitarist Denny Freeman’s ghostly twanging.
“And it’s not as if everything Dylan plays is wholly re-imagined from the original blueprint. Songs from “Love And Theft” and Modern Times like ‘Po’ Boy’, ‘Honest With Me’, ‘When The Deal Goes Down’, ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ and, best of all, ‘Workingman’s Blues # 2’ are all fairly faithfully – and in the case of the latter quite beautifully – rendered. And of course the by now standard set closers, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘All Along The Watchtower’ exert an indefatigable magic. [It’s a shame most of these songs are not on the tape.]
O2 Arena London // 25th April 2009 is packaged in a tri-fold cardboard gatefold sleeve with several tour pictures used as artwork. Even though there are faults and the best songs (according to Jones) are left off, just having a Dylan soundboard from so recent a tour is reason enough to seek this one out.