Wembley Arena, London, 15/11/2003
published: 23 /
Stopping off to play a date at London Wembley Arena on his Never Ending Tour, Ben Howarth watches Bob Dylan prove himself to be, regardless of what he already achieved, far from anostalgia act. but "an artist that is still challenging himself" now
Wembley Arena is an odd place to watch music, but there is a funny part of me that quite likes it. I saw my first ever gig here, back in 1999, with the Stereophonics (back when they were really good!) and even though it was seated and we were miles away from the band I still loved it. Then I was back at the beginning of 2002 for Incubus, which was possibly the best show I’ve seen anywhere, just an impeccable performance from a much underrated band, and now I’ve been back to see Bob Dylan, who is certainly one of my favourite ever artists, right up there with the Beatles.
So I’ll ignore the ridiculous amount it costs to park your car, the traffic, the advertising everywhere and just say that there is an atmosphere about the place. Wembley Arena is the sort of place you come to when you love the band that is playing, I think, and it's filled with people who may not go to many gigs, and they may not really care about whichever poxy indie band is the current flavour of the month, but when they do go to a gig, they make damned sure that they really enjoy it. So when Bob Dylan walked on stage this evening, the atmosphere was electric.
This was a special performance. Bob Dylan is such a magnificent songwriter it is therefore easy sometimes to forget just how fine a performer he also is. As a singer, he may well not have the power of his younger days, but his vocals have still got that magnificent phrasing and he can still manage to be both an arch cynic and a true romantic, a very hard feat to pull off so often. The band behind him has been touring for years now, and has got to be very tight. In fact, they downright rock! This was no nostalgia show, but a passionate affirmation of all 5 of the performer’s relevance within music right now!
It’s hard to pick highpoints from what was a consistently good show. I was especially pleased when Bob started singing “they’re selling postcards of the hanging”. 'Desolation Row' is perhaps not the most famous Dylan song, nor even the best, but it is the greatest affirmation of how utterly unique he was and how untouchable he became in the mid sixties. From his less heralded period, after he became a Christian in 1979, “Every Grain Of Sand” was simply magnificent, the amount of passion Bob put into the song suggests the fervour with which it was written has not dimmed. Hearing it stripped back to a performance with a piano/two guitars/bass/drums combo, rather than the slightly over the top recorded version was also an immense pleasure.
Even better was a completely reworked version of 'The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll', which was boosted with a lovely pedal steel and a new melody that could have been written by Lambchop. Bob’s vocals on this were lovely, full of warmth and yet not overly sweet, and had this reading of the song been recorded it would surely enter the cannon as one of the truly outstanding Bob Dylan compositions. It was also nice to hear the newer songs from the wonderful 2001 album 'Love & Theft' album, none of which sounded out of place in the company of some of the anthems of the previous century, making it quite apparent that Bob Dylan – regardless of how long he has been playing for or what he has achieved – is an artist that is still challenging himself, and that is still exciting.
One thing is for sure, when you watch Bob Dylan play on his 'Never Ending Tour', you are not just seeing someone who has made some great music, but you see someone who is still creative and still stands tall as one of the greatest contemporary artists.