Thursday, November 24, 2005

There's Life In The Old Dog Yet...

Bob Dylan – Brixton Academy 23/11/05

Maybe it’s just that the Brixton Academy is a much more suitable venue for the current Bob Dylan band’s mix of blues and roots music than the cavernous hell-holes of the Docklands or Wembley Arenas, but this show was by some considerable distance the best of the four Dylan shows I’ve seen (all of them post-‘Love and Theft’). Dylan is now a notoriously inconsistent performer. All sorts of theories abound – the voice degenerates towards the end of each tour, sometimes he just can’t be bothered, some, such as Andy Kershaw, believe that he just shouldn’t be doing it anymore. Well, nonsense. Dylan concerts still offer myriad pleasures – not least the chance to hear classic songs deconstructed and rebuilt to fit that decaying but still determined voice. So, when the familiar tones of the ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ and that subdued announcement ring out (‘Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll….Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan’) there’s still anticipation and apprehension in equal measure.

There’s no doubt that Dylan seems more engaged than usual tonight. He’s still playing keyboards throughout (is it arthritis or a back problem that now prevents him playing guitar?), but the keyboards are positioned centre stage this time round, rather than hidden at the back as on the previous couple of UK tours. He plays the role of bandleader tonight, ushering in inspired shifts in dynamics and tone with a series of bizarre gestures and signals. His keyboard playing, although sometimes buried in the mix, is actually brilliant, and tonight he trades motifs with the guitarists, and uses the keyboard to punctuate the vocal lines. He plays excellent accompaniment for the soloists too.

Not only this, but on a handful of the songs tonight, he sounded vocally controlled and in real command of the material. There’s a sublime reading of ‘Shelter From The Storm’ where the phrasing is crystal clear and even the melody is handled adroitly. It’s a far more subtle, graceful and sensitive performance than we have come to expect in recent years. I have been a little fearful of hearing the ‘Blood On The Tracks’-era material being delivered in the wayward growl, but this was a version that retained the beauty of the original. ‘She Belongs To Me’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s-A-Gonna-Fall’ are also delivered in powerful, controlled renditions which suggest that, despite his obvious vocal deficiencies, Dylan can still sound committed. The latter is re-arranged, perhaps a little too smoothly for the apocalyptic prophecies of the lyric, as a light country shuffle that is very pleasing to the ear.

More intriguing still is a mesmerising ‘Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’, very similar to the miraculous version performed at Wembley in 2003, where he intones the lyric in sharp, caustic phrasing that actually adds weight to an already emphatic song. There’s no real attempt to deal with the song’s original melody, but the different delivery entirely suits the song’s mood of righteous indignation. Where Dylan’s outrageously gifted musicians sometimes threaten to render him anonymous in live concerts, band and singer integrated effectively and intelligently here.

He can’t sustain the vocal quality for an entire show however. There are still some wayward moments. ‘Positively 4th Street’ suffers from phrasing which is hurried and pinched, while ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’ is a little half-hearted. The dreaded ‘upsinging’ (a bizarre device whereby Dylan mumbles most of the line in a low monotone and then leaps an entire octave for the final word of each line) is mostly kept to a minimum, and even used surprisingly effectively on ‘Hard Rain’. Most perfunctory are the obligatory encores of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘All Along The Watchtower’, where verses are repeated and most phrases rendered completely indecipherable. The audience lap it up of course, and the band’s playing on both is so outstanding as to ensure that it doesn’t really matter.

The band has had a major line-up shift since the last UK tour, with only the confidently groovy rhythm section of Tony Garnier (bass, now Dylan’s longest serving sideman) and George Recile (drums) remaining in place. Gone are guitarists Freddy Koella (who only lasted just over a year) and the exquisitely gifted Larry Campbell. The hole left by Campbell might well have proved fatal were it not for the addition of the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, who divides his time between two steel guitars, mandolin and banjo. Completing the ranks are the near-motionless Denny Freeman and the more exuberant Stu Kimbell on electric and acoustic guitars. They are more conventional soloists than Campbell, Charlie Sexton or even Koella, but they play expressively and frequently with real subtlety.

They open with a few bars of legendary guitarist Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ (Wray died last week) before segueing straight into a riveting ‘Maggie’s Farm’, which appears to have become a staple set opener. Although Dylan professes to be apolitical, it’s hard to believe that the political resonances of the lyric in post-Thatcher Britain are entirely lost on him.

The band are arguably at their best for the ‘Love and Theft’ material. ‘High Water’ is particularly impressive, with Donnie Herron’s nimble-fingered banjo playing contrasting with the tempestuous punctuations of guitars and rhythm section. The section where Dylan brings the band right down in volume before letting them explode again is absolutely electric. The inventive shift between straight and shuffle grooves in ‘Cry A While’ is handled masterfully, whilst ‘Summer Days’ remains a dependably thrilling closer for the main set. The latter, with a knowingly comic touch, provides a canny snapshot of Dylan’s current predicament (‘Riding along in my Cadillac car/The girls all say “you’re a worn out star”’ or, even better ‘you say you can’t repeat the past/ Whaddya mean you can’t, of course you can!’).

The show ends, as ever, with the entire band gathered around the drum kit in hilariously motionless poses, Dylan holding his trusty harmonica. They come back for the predictable aforementioned encores, but also find time for a surprise version of Fats Domino’s ‘Blue Monday’, although I can’t say I actually recognised it at the time as anything other than a blues standard.

The whole show is a carefully balanced mix of fiery blues and steel-guitar dominated roots country. It’s all a little more conservative than the ‘thin wild mercury sound’ that Dylan patented in going electric in 1966, but it makes for a refreshingly old-fashioned, anti-modernist combination. Even after the departure of Campbell, Dylan’s band may well still be the best blues band in the world.
Dylan continues to transform himself in ways that are wilfully perverse and frequently contrary to the expectations of his followers. Yet, it is this that has kept him relevant for over forty years. It is this that means he can get away without introducing the frequently unrecognisable versions of his songs, or even with a conscious failure to address his audience. If his interaction with his musicians and commitment to the finest moments of his back catalogue remain this strong, he’s not likely to quit for a while yet. Until next year, then….

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