Wembley Arena, London, 15/4/2007
published: 15 /
At the Wembley Arena in London, Ben Howarth watches Bob Dylan play with excellent effect a by now typically random and unpeedictable set
When I was last at Wembley Arena, I was watching Bob Dylan. In the intervening four years, I have seen him in two other British venues, while the great man has become a multimedia icon. First, there was the book. Then came the movie. And, then, most surprisingly of all, the widely admired radio show - a recent review of which referred to him solely by his pseudonymous surname, a sign of respect if ever there was one.
Its easy to forget that during that time, Bob has made 4 trips to the UK, where he sticks to a formulae that has, by and large, served his live show well for the past 20 years - a random and unpredictable selection from his songbook, barely a word to the audience and a crack band of portly pros providing bluesy licks, and a bit of peddle steel.
Bob is a legend, but he makes no attempt to recreate the stuff of that legend. The style of the music - even when he does sing songs from the 60's -is largely in tune with the music on his last two albums (both of which are magical, mind.) It is probably true to say that if he wasn’t the man who made ‘Blonde On Blonde’ he wouldn’t be selling out Wembley. But he would have a devoted fanbase, and I would still be part of it.
So, no, you don’t get a light show. Or A big screen. Or get to hear anything from him until the encores, when he introduces the aforementioned band. But so what? Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones have plenty of 60's nostalgia for everyone, and I hear the Hollies are still touring…
Tonight’s show is, even by the standards of the previous evenings I have spent with him, a cracker. I wouldn’t want to speculate - oh, alright, I will - but he may simply be healthier. He still smokes like a 50's film star, but he is back playing guitar and his singing is noticeably more powerful.
Of course, he plays ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. And, of course, it is brilliant. As is ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe'. And, 'It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)'. Classic songs, all, and even in an amended form, their power shines through. But, what the Dylan geeks really want is unpredictableness, and there’s a bit of that too. Opener, 'Cat’s In The Well', the closing track on one of his worst albums, is an odd choice as opener, but his version of 'Blind Willie McTell', which he rejected as an album track, is stately and sublime.
The most pleasant surprise is that his new songs go down well. I’ve become used to puzzled and bored expressions when Dylan played songs from 'Love And Theft', which might be my own favourite Dylan album. But 'Modern Times' seems to have caught people’s hearts. In fact, the biggest cheer of the night, by a mile, came for the beautiful ballad, 'Nettie Moore'. The band seemed to add something more to their recorded versions of these songs, and these are songs which deserve attention in their own right. Perhaps HIS Band just being able to play their own songs to huge crowds, rather than standing in THE Band’s shadow!
The iconic Dylan exists in the pages of various Q, Mojo and Uncut special editions. But the aging Dylan is right in front of us, a true enthusiast, a credible modern songwriter, an engaging live act and an artist like no other.
Go and see him for yourself next time he’s here. You’ll love it.