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Bob Dylan - O2, London, 25/4/2009

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 19 / 4 / 2009

Bob Dylan - O2, London, 25/4/2009


Ben Howarth watches Bob Dylan at his latest London date play a beautiful and against-the-odds sensitive set against the vast backdrop and surroundings of the O2 Arena

What the hell is it, this strange desire to see Bob Dylan play live again and again ? It is the same kind of vague, pointless desperation that compels me to watch Kent County Cricket Club, season after season, despite the almost-certain prospect of bad weather, bad results and bad commuting experiences. Except it has now been two years since I last saw the man in person, and, on previous occasions, I have enjoyed every last second. When the editor of Pennyblackmusic e-mailed sometime last year to ask if I had my Dylan ticket yet, I could think only two things. “No, not yet, I didn’t even know he was playing the 02” and “I must have one”. But, unfortunately these things are expensive, and ladled as I am with a voluminous debt acquired during an idiotic year as a postgraduate student that doesn’t seem to have gone away even after three years of crippling payments to Barclay’s, I couldn’t afford it. Thank God for my dad, who’d bought himself one, but also needed my brother and I as someone to go with. So I had my ticket, but the £50 I didn’t have, I still didn’t have, instead of having £50 less. In fact, I still almost ended up not going. It was only as I made my way up to the bus stop that a vague thought entered my head, that my ticket had been given to me by dad the last time I popped home for a visit, and was. therefore, in my flat. A heartbreaking and embarrassing cock-up was thus avoided, by a whisker. One run, and a sweaty bus ride later, and I’m standing outside the venue never again to be known as the Millennium Dome. As the credit crunch meanders on, and the workload of insolvency agents swells, this rebranded arena is the last remaining monument to the boom times. The 02 itself is scarily reminiscent of Bluewater shopping centre. Having arrived only moments before I was obliged to take to my seat and watch the start of the gig, I didn’t have the time many Dylan watchers had reserved to queue for forty minutes for a pint at the chain pub, eat at the chain restaurant or replace my mobile phone at the 02 shop. I felt at any moment as if I was going to be pounced upon by one of the many people milling around in uniforms, “what can you possibly mean, you only came here to listen to the music? Order some food now and Enjoy. The. 02 Experience”, I was certain they’d demand. Thus, I kept my head down and full-steamed my way to entrance H. Clearly, the organisers want you to know that they care about You, and have spared no effort to say so. Mr Tannoy welcomes you to tonight’s performance by Bob Dylan, hopes you’ll take your seats in time for your show starting in 15 minutes, notes the refreshments available to you and warns you not to take any photos, especially not on the 02 five megapixel camera phone you just bought. I’ve become so used to rudeness and idiocy at gigs I’ve come to depend on it. Indeed, once at the Forum in Kentish Town, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to take a banana I had left over from my work lunch inside the venue with me, for no discernable reason. Here, though, they are unfailingly polite. “Hi there, welcome to the 02. Looking forward to the gig? Come far?” I’m touched, but only momentarily, as I then hear the man taking tickets at the neighbouring entrance using the same greetings, word perfect. How much did the all day session training the door staff to act like Americans add to the cost of my ticket, I can but wonder ? Luckily, (sortof) the machine that was to scan my ticket malfunctioned, and I was kept hanging around, wondering why it couldn’t just be scanned in by the machine a man half a metre away from me was holding, so I wasn’t traduced into believing bureaucratic competence was possible at this grand a scale. My cynicism was intact as I mounted the stairs to row 162. Of course, the stage is miles away. The musicians could be computer game avatars, for all I can discern of their personal features, and Bob himself looks stick thin and tiny, although he is sporting a rather natty hat (he must have bought the live album of Leonard Cohen’s 02 shows, too). The UK media have been determined to build up Dylan’s 02 appearance into a Big Event. But I’ve seen him play five times since 2003, and the performance actually doesn’t change much - and, for the hardcore Dylan maniac (I know of one who keeps the homepage of a Dylan web-group loaded permanently at work, just to be sure he doesn’t miss anything) this is far less exciting than his appearances at the much smaller Brixton Academy in 2005. Just as it always does, the show always begins with a pre-recorded into, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan,” and the backing is a now familiar, if still eerily strange, biker logo. Just to make the audience absolutely sure that this is not the grand occasion they read about in 'The Times', Bob won’t say a word until before the final song, when he introduces his band. As the band break into the first number, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, the volume seems too quiet. Then my ears adjust to the non-deafening volume, and I realise it makes perfect sense. The sound quality is astonishing, and thus it doesn’t have to be loud. I soon realise I can tell one guitarist’s work from the other, and can’t quite believe it. And, Dylan’s band are quite something. Lead guitarist Denny Freeman is finesse in a suit, but he and his fellow players never grandstand. They solo from time to time (and so, for that matter, does Dylan, perched behind his electric keyboard) but the songs are always served by the fretwork, never aced by them. There would be an amazing live album created from all this, if only Bob would deign to have one recorded. The selection of songs tonight is sublime - focussing as it does mostly on his more recent albums. Frankly, Dylan sings his recent work with far more sensitivity than the anthems. ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ is as good as any song in his reservoir, and tonight, it is majestic. Is that the sound of Dylan being sentimental, I detect? It seems so. Equally sentimental, and an exception to the new-stuff-better rule, is ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’. On this, as on 'Chimes Of Freedom' - through which, in a rare concession to showmanship, we are bathed in the glow of hundreds of fairy lights - the band add real melodic invention to the plain folk of the recorded versions. The same is true when Dylan performs his delightful menagerie of bad jokes, 'Po’ Boy', where multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron has his chance to shine. But Dylan still doesn’t shy away from the harder stuff, and 'Honest With Me' genuinely rocks. On this George Recile (who it has to be said puts plenty of care into the flourishes he is obliged to add to Dylan’s jazzy blues ballads) gets his chance to shine with a thunderous drum part that almost, but not quite, steals the whole show. Such is the quality of the songs I haven’t heard him sing before that the show’s traditional climax points don’t quite raise the heartbeat as expected. That said, 'Like A Rolling Stone', 'All Along The Watchtower' (on which Freeman uses the Hendrix arrangement, leaving us with the effect of Dylan covering his own song) and 'Blowin’ In The Wind' are genuine classics, and always worth hearing one more time. But the best encore? ‘Spirit On The Water’, a 1930s New Orleans style jazz show tune, sounds fresh and alive in 2009. Still, even after two hours of escape in Dylan’s parallel world, reality is never too far away. I notice a group of 20-something ladies after the show, who - and I don’t want to sound like a snob, here, but the next observation is coming and I can’t seem to find a way around it - would seem to me to be more likely to enjoy the forthcoming Michael Jackson concerts. “Well, at least we can say we’ve seen him,” one of them reasons. That’s sadly the way things are with Dylan gigs.It was one of the highlights of my year so far, and, if I’m being honest, my life. But I’m a bit of weirdo. There is, as Nick Hornby once observed wisely, a difference between liking Bob Dylan and LIKING Bob Dylan. These concerts, in which not one nanosecond sounds anything vaguely like the 1965 recording of 'Like a Rolling Stone', are strictly for the latter group, unfortunately too small in number to fill the 02 on their own. I’d estimate at least a third of crowd, possibly many more, left wondering what the hell had just happened to their £50. Oh, and as for the new album, released just two days after the gig, Dylan and his band didn’t play us a note of it. Maybe all the pictures of him on the cover has stopped Bob reading the papers recently, and he just doesn’t know its coming out…

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Bob Dylan - O2, London, 25/4/2009

Bob Dylan - O2, London, 25/4/2009

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