Brixton Carling Academy, London, 21/11/2005
published: 30 /
At a gig at the Brixton Academy in London, Ben Howarth watches Bob Dylan play a passionate set which, far from sticking to nostalgia, reveals several real surprises
Outside Brixton tube station, more ticket touts than I think I’ve ever seen before abound, as those of us with tickets and none to sell walk smugly past. The touts operate freely in amazingly close proximity to the police. Do they know something we don’t about a change of government attitudes to touting? I didn’t see anyone buy one though.
In a rush we made our way to the concert hall, a wise move because Dylan was on as soon as we’d squeezed into the hall. Just as he did when I last saw him two years ago, Bob positioned himself stage right behind a piano. Apparently, so the rumours say, arthritis means he is no longer able to play guitar, but it hasn’t stopped him working a lighter, and, based on this evening, Bob is fighting a one man battle to keep the tobacco giants in business.
The show started well, even if there was a lot of surprise at the early stage time. A strong version of ‘The Times They Are A Changin’ got the crowd excited early on, especially when Dylan walked out to the middle of the stage with his harmonica. But it was during ‘Million Dollar Bash’ when this show began to run on top gear. No song better demonstrated why Dylan was still worth seeing, and why he is worth seeing on every single tour. His huge back catalogue is routinely raided for gems, and this is likely to be one of the only times he has played the song live. What’s more, he looked and sounded like he was putting everything into the song, and that he was enjoying playing it.
Yet he isn’t ashamed to play the ‘hits’ either, and the next song was a passionate rendition of ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. Predictably there was a huge cheer from the crowd on the "even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked" line. He has played this song both times I have seen him, and it is still a superb example of his unique skill at twisting his tongue around words. A violin accompaniment was a nice touch too.
Dylan’s most recent album, ‘Love and Theft’ really is one of his best and next up we were treated to ‘Moonlight’, which sounds just like its title suggests it will. The band killed on this number, and it was a pleasure to see them play it. The same applied when they broke into two rockier numbers from that album, the electrifying ‘Honest With Me’ and the jubilant ‘Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee’. On these less familiar songs I was glad to be well acquainted with the Dylan catalogue, because they were as good as most of the well known songs tonight.
Another surprise was ‘Down Along The Cove’, a pretty tune from the underrated ‘John Wesley Harding’ album. ‘Cold Irons Bound’ is a good song, and was given a decent but unspectacular run through. A gorgeous, completely reworked version of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ was sublime. Dylan really should commit this version to tape. It is as good as most of his back catalogue and would put a lot of modern alt.country bands out of business.
The rest of the main set constituted ‘famous’ songs. The best of these was a stunning version of ‘Visions of Johanna’, treated with real care by Dylan, every word emphasised and the full potential of the song realised. I really didn’t expect to hear it. Unfortunately, the popinjays next to me insisted on talking loudly all the way through it and spoiled this for me somewhat. Never mind, because we also got the revamped version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. Dylan’s vocals on this go up at the end of every line, and some people hate it, but I think it sounds cool. This version would have slotted neatly onto ‘Love and Theft’. The final song was ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, an iconic song, and a pleasure to hear played by such a stunning band.
My thoughts as I joined in the applause and the calls for an encore were that the show shouldn’t be billed as ‘Bob Dylan and his band’, but as ‘The Bob Dylan Band’, because his fellow performers were as important to the sound as Dylan, even if is the great man that my eyes were drawn to. It was nice to see Dylan and the guitarist with their arms round each other sharing a joke when they left the stage.
I would never have imagined what the joke would be, not in a million years. And yet I and the rest of the audience were in for a real shock.
As the band came back for an encore, my brother and I contemplated a little wager on what it would be. I guessed 'Don’t Think Twice, It's Alright’… he hasn’t been playing 'Like A Rolling Stone' much recently and I wasn’t expecting to hear it. Thankfully, I didn’t put any money down.
Some familiar guitar chords came out of the amps. “It can’t be”, I thought. Then a familiar bass line and I turned to my brother, “Oh my God! He can’t be!” The rest of crowd sussed it too, and the atmosphere was electric. “He’s doing London Calling! He’s doing London Calling!”
It may only have been a verse, but it made an already astounding gig into an ‘Event’. Then he DID play ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and the crowd went crazy. Finally, ‘All Along The Watchtower’ slayed everyone, with the guitarists both doing their best Jimi Hendrix impressions.
As we filed out of the hall, I did hear some people saying it was a bit flat until the encores because he didn‘t act the crowd pleaser. This isn’t like watching nostalgia shows with the Stones or Paul McCartney. Bob Dylan is very much a current artist, and this is his current set. Casual fans are probably better off staying at home, because you simply won’t like it. But, open minded listeners will get a great show by a crack band, some real surprises and some of the very best songs ever written.
And he played ‘London Calling’. Wow.
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Million Dollar Bash
It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
Down Along The Cove
Boots Of Spanish Leather
Cold Irons Bound
Mr. Tambourine Man
Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
Visions Of Johanna
Honest With Me
Waiting For You
Highway 61 Revisited
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
169 Posted By: Ant, London on 25 Mar 2009
I was one of the suckers who bought off touts, but it was totally worth it! Just managed to get a pair for Roundhouse as well, so am very happy!