Bob Dylan’s return to the UK was met with the same enthusiasm mixed with trepidation as the past few years. Time after time, the Dylanologists of Britain have promised themselves a tumult of newly furbished oldies when he returned it’s never worked out that way. Instead Italy got the enviable greatest hits show while the UK was gifted Dylan’s ironwork sculptures and the newest fruits of his revisionist series, the artist’s newest poke at his latest enemies, the gutter press.
Although his visit was kept brief, the journey through England was enticingly rich. Trips to Blackpool Opera House – the seaside venue more famous for guesting variety acts rather than ageing troubadours of folk rock’s royalty – and then three nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall, scene of that famous act of bravery nearly 50 years ago as Dylan showed up, plugged in, rocked out all to the dismay of his followers.
The RAH, as we’ll call it for the respect of brevity today is the main feature of the Godfathers latest boxed set. These packages and parcels kicking back again the disillusionment felt by a lot of collectors in these downloadin’, torrentin’, file sharein’ times bringing back a craft that we almost lost when the other big names in bootlegging ran out of multiple sources to offer us and turned back to single, double, triple disk releases all of which fill a need but for the asthetite in us, we’re sated by this multi-disk, extra laden sets.
But what good would they be if they looked great but sounded awful or promised the earth and delivered nothing new? No fear here, the Don has done us proud with six disks of entertainment. Stage close quality from this grand venue and while the merest of shades away from soundboard, sounding pretty damn fantastic. These is very little of the haranguing that usually happens at Dylan’s concerts, no bellowing from the crowd for “Highway 51” or “Old Willie McTell”, instead a respectful merriment. The sound of Dylan and his band very close to exceptional, painfully so sometimes as Dylan amuses his whims by playing with the piano chords with experimental glee, not quite hitting the right notes at the right time but the, when he does, it’s great.
True, the shows didn’t show as much variance as Rome but for Bob’s homage to John Lennon, the song that was unveiled in Blackpool a few nights before. It’s still exceptionally captured, easily as good a recording as the Godfathers leading competitor, Crystal Cat, and as beautiful a presentation as Rattlesnake, the Don’s regular 6 1/2” x 6 1/2” glossy boxed set, each night given it’s own digipack, noted as a ‘lesson’, crammed with colour or B&W photos, usually of the highest quality, a small booklet with notes from Ian Iachamoe, a double sided poster and 4 textured art cards featuring shots of Dylan through the years at the venue and the varied promotional posters used for the events in 1966 and 2013.
As a capsule of the nights at the RAH it’s exemplary, a fantastic souvenir of Dylan’s stay in London to end his 2013 tour, as for the tour itself, all you need is this set and the Don’s Atlantico 2 CD set coving the Rome shows and there’s 2013 in 8 CDs. Another must have and winning result from the Godfather.
Tuesday, November 26th, November 2013. Royal Albert Hall, London, England
Disk 1; Things Have Changed / She Belongs To Me / Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ / What Good Am I? / Duquesne Whistle / Waiting For You / Pay In Blood / Tangled Up In Blue / Love Sick (47:58)
Disk 2; High Water (For Charley Patton) / Simple Twist Of Fate / Early Roman Kings / Forgetful Heart / Spirit On The Water / Scarlet Town / Soon After Midnight / Long And Wasted Years / All Along The Watchtower / Roll On John (57:29)
Night One started with the customary “Things have Changed”, a gentle acoustic prelude begins the song, via which Dylan steps on to the stage in toa barn storming shudder of might. It’s a great way in which to start the night. His retaliation to the cat calls for more or proud stance in the face of lives adversaries? Either way, theres no mistaking the belligerence in his voice, he’s out for himself, and no one else. Running at over 6 minutes, it’s also just about the right length to tease out an entrance.
“She Belongs To Me”’s grand, hushed, imperial standing is a wonderful reinvention of the song, paying due respect to the woman whom Dylan is singing of. It also leads on the first of the night’s harp action, theres not one foot put wrong there. Reflections too of 1966. A canny reference by Dylan but, of course, not played acoustically this time.
Another slower paced song is in, “What Good Am I”, regretfully toned, introspective but still sprinkled with a little hope. This though, is one of those moments when Dylan lets his fingers do the walking and itching to try something new, played around with the piano notes, landing at the right notes and wrong notes in equal bursts.
“Duquesne Whistle” brought the groove level back up though and not one foot would have stood still in the room at that time, it sounds like Dylan’s having fun, and the single minded jamming towards the end of the rendition certainly shows this off. The simple jazz patter of George Recile’s drums brings a smile to the face.
More menace in place within, “Pay In Blood”. Dylan had stepped forward to the front of the stage, stared back in to the crowd and given them his bill.
Taking us back in time again, “Tangled Up In Blue” was played, maybe to little surprise as it’s appearance is almost a given in Dylan’s set list. The only fault with it might be that both Charlie Sexton’s and Donnie Herron’s guitars are mixed lower than Dylan’s diddling on the piano – it’s more of a sound-man’s fault, rather than a producing flaw but at least Bob has the mind not to drop in his atonal, tinkling solos in to this blend as he has done previously, and the overall accomplishment is nigh on perfect.
Taking us to the end of the first set, “Love Sick”, gets a rousing cheer as it begins, and that clicking riff marches on. Dylan’s voice perfectly matching the weary quality of the song. The band then take their leave as is becoming customary on these shows with Dylan taking his first chance to talk to the crowd, muttering, in the best meaning of the sense, that they’ll be taking an intermission and will be returning in around 15 minutes.
Upon their return, the band slide wordlessly in to, “High Water (For Charly Patton)”, fixing the crowd up to guess just they might play with a heavy rockish chug before Donnie’s banjo picking sneaks in from behind. The insistent, doomish thump congeals with the pluck of the bluegrass backing while Bob stipples this with a wailing harp until the song races to it’s conclusion.
The breezily slow, “Simple Twist Of Fate”, a swooning, warmstanding drift has Bob singing his softest, as he’s warmed up enough to chill out while reading from his poem.
As a catchment to this, “Early Roman Kings” throws up the dust again, rocking back and forth, Dylan has stones in his throat again but his gravelly curse befits the song fantastically.
One of the highlights tonight, “Spirit On The Water”, a hand back to a more simple time, glides along effortlessly, warmly, Dylan teasing the crowd and almost expecting the audience retort to his “You think I’m past my prime” line before the band move in to a jam that revolves around the songs main theme towards the end.
“Long And Wasted Years” gets a little more animation, Dylan’s scathing shrugs, vocal tics and devilish sneers are very close to the heart, he throws himself in to the drama of the song even more than he has done previously tonight.
To the encore, “All Along The Watchtower”, winds up quickly, the soft drift of the guitar creating a spectral wind around the intro before the songs riff falls in behind and the clattering drums edge the force along.
“Long Lost John” bemuses everyone. They weren’t expecting to hear this again tonight, was Bob really going to throw this one out again? Like a trembling pause, those bewildering few seconds before the realisation that, yes, we ARE going to hear that track, that one moment when you’re blessed with that exclusive – that’s why you broke the pact, that’s why you bought tonights ticket – The first mention of John’s name sends the audience in to raptures. The elegant chime of this tribute filling the walls of the Albert Hall.
The show closes without a word, no band introductions, no salutes, the audience fades down quickly as if it’s understood that there would be no return and that the show was complete.
Wednesday, November 27th, November 2013. Royal Albert Hall, London, England
Disk 1; Things Have Changed / She Belongs To Me / Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ / What Good Am I? / Duquesne Whistle / Waiting For You / Pay In Blood / Tangled Up In Blue / Love Sick (47:32)
Disk 2; High Water (For Charley Patton) / Simple Twist Of Fate / Early Roman Kings / Forgetful Heart / Spirit On The Water / Scarlet Town / Soon After Midnight / Long And Wasted Years / All Along The Watchtower / Blowin’ In The Wind (55:00)
As the rest of the set lists were apt to very little change over the following two nights, there are few changes to report but it’s still a stoically great show. Songs almost seem to start long before they do, there are loose chords hanging in the air as If Charlie is pre-mediating over Bob’s next move, he knows instinctively what’s coming next but just has to wait to see that flash of recognition to proceed.
“She Belongs To Me” is suggestibly better than the first night, clearer in speech, Dylan really rolls out the words, explaining his moods, “Duquesne Whistle” flashes up almost immediately after “What Good Am I” like a shock, the dabby, shuffling beat as fussy and as wild as last night, Charlie’s soloing a little more excitedly pronounced.
“Tangled Up In Blue”’s lyrics are given the odd change around, Dylan trails round his words almost like he’s writing them anew, rummaging around in his mind for the phrase that’s to follow.
A long steady warm up proceeds “High Water ..” and the tone of the banjo seems to have changed ever so slightly, it’s a little more circular, a little more jumpy. Dylan’s zippy hard playing is a little more buzzy, waspish even. “Simple Twist Of Fate” comes in the same as “Tangled ..”, mixed up phrases abound, chiming piano. An almost maudlin resignation to it’s tone. It’s one for the swinging lovers tonight.
One of the biggest cheers is reserved for “Forgetful Heart”, Bob, in turn, gives a beautifully sanguine performance, as sold as a feather pillow, as light as a paper bag full of air. It’s achingly tender to hear and if listened to through headphones, could easily make you forget that the world outside of his exists.
“Spirit On The Water” doesn’t crash you out of this fugue either, as softly rousing as a sparrows call, it’s simple jazz infusion, a lovely balance.
The main set wraps up with “Long And Wasted Years”, a shade less powered than last night, there is still an amount of pleading in there, certainly enough to send the audience in to fields of rapture.
Then, either through judicious editing or the fact the band never left the stage, “All Along The Watchtower” appears soon afterwards. With a few more instrumental passages than last night, the songs standard solo never really takes off, instead it seems that no one seems sure what to do with it’s unfairly dropped from it’s position. What it lacks in soloing muscle, it makes up for in ruthless backbone and the musical punch that is needed.
Much to the pleasure or chagrin of the attended tonight, anyone who came to hear “Long Lost John” would find their choice withdrawn for “Blowin’ In The Wind” instead. A last minute change of heart or defiance over playing the epic so much, the choice to fillip to the standard obviously goes down well with the crowd as protracted adulation can be heard nearly through out. This was obviously where the money was.
Thursday, November 28th, November 2013. Royal Albert Hall, London, England
Disk 1; Things Have Changed / She Belongs To Me / Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ / What Good Am I? / Duquesne Whistle / Waiting For You / Pay In Blood / Tangled Up In Blue / Love Sick (47:50)
Disk 2; High Water (For Charley Patton) / Simple Twist Of Fate / Early Roman Kings / Forgetful Heart / Spirit On The Water / Scarlet Town / Soon After Midnight / Long And Wasted Years / All Along The Watchtower / Blowin’ in The Wind (58:48)
And then the 3rd night .. Was anyone brave / rich enough to face so many nights at the RAH, it’s safe to say, they would have been richly rewarded, as the final night of any residency is usually valued as THE night, the chance of the artist letting their hair down, their inhibitions spill a little, this being the end of the tour too, Dylan’s last blast before hanging up his hat for the years end, there was every chance that Dylan in a fit of pique, might let us on to something special.
It wasn’t to be that anything was pulled from the back catalogue, that Dylan read a few pages from Chronicles 2 or painted a new masterpiece on stage but in his own way, he delivered. And delivered well. “Things Have Changed” still rode on at a truculent pace, those chosen elements that spiked from behind the mood were still apparent, a chilled quiver behind that charging beat.
The rhumba pop of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”, has a definitive sparkle of romance and bedevilment behind it. A sublime, quicksilver solo wakes at the centre of it all, snapping against the beat.
“Waiting For You”’s woozy waltz entices a pleasant enough feel but Dylan’s piano skills fall around a little underneath, lazily stepping out of line sometimes, while “Pay In Blood” sounds a little more streamlined, a little thinner, lithe and pared down as it starts, before the ballast of the song drops.
A little more essence is scattered throughout “Tangled Up In Blue”, Dylan follows each line with a graze of the piano’s keys and again, recounts the songs lyrics, pruning and differing where he seems fit.
There’s a tired feel to the first half of “Love Sick” tonight. A slower tempo but this is offset by Stu’s guitar lines flexing between sentences. Bob also plays a mean harp, short, mean bursts, these raise his ire towards the end as he seems to catch his own drift again and begins to grasp the nettle again, pushing his back in to the weight of the words.
In the second part of the set, theres a fission of excitement prior to “Simple Twist Of Fate”, the excitement does nothing to push this rendition any faster and at a tidy pace, it strolls along. No pressure, no fuss, leaving us to drink in the words.
“Early Roman Kings” rolls in with rust on. A deeply, grungy, militerial march, like a rabbits kick or a flat tyre lumps it along. It suits it very well, capturing the choppy stage of the lines. Joined by an electric whip of a solo that almost seems uncontrollable, it’s a brilliant rendition.
It’s the same feel that lays along “Scarlet Town”, slow and pondering, chiming and gritty all at the same time, rather than jump in to a groove in the last night, Dylan and his band have taien the chance to extend songs, take their time and amble.
The night ends with an incendiary “All Along The Watchtower”, Bob has found more new ways to stretch out or bunch up his lyrics, pulling and pushing them together like a squeeze box. It takes a mis-amalgamation on the solos to throw things slightly askew as Dylan’s piano jars against Stu’s soloing. This might just be mis-timed excitement judging by the calls from the crowd but it does seem that that white-eye-balling comes perilously close between majesty and mistake.
“Blowin’ In The Wind” is that closer that everybody wanted – A rousing applause fades in periodically reaffirming the audiences trust in the night and again, taken by the crowds pleasure, the music unfolds like velvet curtains.
It would be at the end of the night that Dylan would stride to the front of the stage and take his time to shake a few hands – Who’d pass up an opportunity like that? – A great gesture to the fans, a surprise to the attended – lets hope we get a few more surprises this year when Dylan continues on the NET.