I’ve been going to Bob Dylan London shows since 2002, and watching with grim fascination as he’s struggled to reinterpret his back catalogue for what has become an undeniably mangled voice. Some of his more ardent followers mourn the loss of the Appalachian subtleties brought to his touring band by guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, but thinking back to those shows, they seem more memorable for utterly garbled renditions of ‘Blowing In The Wind’ (with Sexton and Campbell struggling to harmonise with a wayward Dylan) or ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’, most of the lyrics rendered incomprehensible with an ambivalent mumble or growl. The softer, delicate arrangements of those days also did little to mask Dylan’s obvious deficiencies.
Not so the Bob Dylan and Band of 2007. Something has undoubtedly been revived in Dylan’s performance since the recording of ‘Modern Times’. Whilst the voice is hardly likely to make a magical recovery, the significant qualities of Dylan’s artistry were always crisp, playful phrasing and a skill for manipulating language and rhythm, rather than the conventions of pitch or timbre. For the first time in what must be many years, these qualities were evident consistently in his shows at Wembley this week. Sunday’s performance came as such a surprise to me that I picked up a ticket for Monday’s show at the last minute from the Wembley box office – an excellent move as it turned out, for Monday’s show was even better. Dylan has, at least temporarily, rediscovered the ability to communicate, and with it, the capacity to move an audience, as was obvious from the rapturous reception from Monday’s crowd particularly.
Although some commentators seem perplexed by it, part of the reason for the increased consistency surely lies in the emphasis on uptempo traditional rhythm and blues over melodic acoustic songs. The hillbilly meets swing and R&B stylings of ‘Modern Times’ provide a much more suitable context for Dylan’s singing (almost like preaching during many of the songs), and also gives his remarkable touring band a chance to spar ferociously, with enviable spontaneity and vigour. Dylan has surely been wise to play six songs from ‘Modern Times’ at each of these shows – he’s clearly committed delivering the material clearly and with feeling, and it allows him to make more judicious forays into his back catalogue.
From the opening lines of ‘Cat’s In The Well’ on Sunday (a slightly perverse opener, but one that actually works well as a curtain-raiser for these shows given its 12 bar form), there’s power and control in Dylan’s delivery. It’s not one of his best songs, but many might opt to read new prescience in its apocalyptic howl (‘Cat’s in the well, and grief is showing its face/The world’s been slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace….Cat’s in the well and the leaves are starting to fall/Goodnight my love and may the lord have mercy on us all’). It sounded propulsive and furious.
What’s proved interesting for many is that Dylan is back on guitar again, for the first time since 2002. He plays four songs on electric Stratocaster, following ‘Cat’s In The Well’ with a chugging, desperate version of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. It’s a song to which he might well have been indifferent on previous tours, now spat out with a newfound confidence and sense of purpose. It’s clear that this is going to be a great show when ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ proves recognisable from its opening lines – there’s no game of ‘guess which song he’s actually singing’ this time round. He ends his four songs on guitar with a blisteringly relentless take on ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, singing the melody entirely on one note, almost rapping, but brilliantly intense. Last time I saw this song performed, the only comprehensible line was ‘even the president of the United States sometimes has to stand naked’, which got a giant cheer, perhaps because the audience had had to wait a good three minutes to work out which song it was. There’s no need for that tonight. Nobody knows exactly why Dylan stopped playing guitar (although the onset of arthritis would seem as likely an explanation as any), but regardless of the superfluity of adding a fourth guitar to the group, returning to the instrument has clearly revitalised him.
He’s then on to keyboards for a snarly, prophetic delivery of ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ and a tender and compassionate reading of ‘Spirit on the Water’ (one of the best of his recent batch of songs). Oddly, it has even more space than the album version, and Denny Freeman (unfairly maligned on Dylan web forums as a poor guitarist for his preference for languid, melodic lines) plays two inspired solos as a result. It swings with a delicate lilt. Dylan’s keyboard playing remains caustic, unorthodox and defiantly off-kilter, and whilst this often works well, I wasn’t quite convinced by the preference for a cheesy Bontempi organ sound over the electric piano used on previous keyboard tours. It did rather make ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ sound like the soundtrack to a fairground carousel ride, perhaps undermining the convincing and affecting vocal performance.
This might just be a retrospective view following Monday’s more intense performance, but there was some degree of deterioration following a crackling ‘Rolling and Tumbling’. A groovy version of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, still relatively rarely performed, and bolstered by multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron’s banjo, enlivened proceedings but, whilst it was a pleasure to hear ‘Chimes of Freedom’ (one of Dylan’s greatest and most complex ‘protest’ songs), he occasionally resorted to the cursed upsinging device at this point. Luckily, an astounding, brilliantly controlled ‘Nettie Moore’, with Herron’s violin adding to the mournful mood, rescued proceedings but things slipped again with a perfunctory ‘Summer Days’ (perhaps surprisingly the only ‘Love and Theft’ song in the set), Dylan forgetting the opening lines to two of the verses (and, if anything, his greater clarity elsewhere made this all the more obvious). ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ provided the standard conclusion, with a rollicking ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ and ‘All Along The Watchtower’ as encores.
At Dylan’s 2005 Brixton show, I was astounded by versions of ‘Shelter From The Storm’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s-A-Gonna Fall’ where all the lines were crisp and clear. The entirety of Monday’s show was performed at this level. It also had the edge of the two shows for the considered judgement of the set list, with a little more variety in pace and dynamic. Whilst there was nothing out of the ordinary for this tour, it was great to get ‘Watching The River Flow’ and a superb ‘John Brown’ (a war song slightly reminiscent of the Irish ballad ‘Mrs. McGrath’, which Springsteen recorded for his Seeger Sessions project last year). I also enjoyed a fiery and almost funky rendition of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ (which replaced ‘Nettie Moore’), with the band sounding particularly tight and inspired.
There was also real interplay and chemistry on display – with Dylan visibly directing the band, seemingly calling on Herron and rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball to play more. This reached its apotheosis with a magnificent, moving version of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. Dylan delivered much of the last verse in drawn-out triplets, and the band followed suit in a moment of wonderfully spontaneous group improvisation.
Perhaps it’s because the more animated crowd contributed to the show, inevitably responding ‘Nooooooo!’ when Dylan crooned ‘you think I’m over the hiiiiiillll?’ on ‘Spirit on the Water’, but both singer and band seemed more alive to creative possibilities in this show. Also, Dylan’s posture was less static, and at the keyboards he appeared far less rigid, instead moving in time with the music.
The only real flaw in an otherwise outstanding show was his confusing the lyrics to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (‘you used to be…so amused….by the mystery tramp...’ oops!), but again, this simply served to highlight his increased commitment and clarity elsewhere. These were two great shows, delivered with apocalyptic fervour, and constituting a major creative reawakening in the live arena at last. He sang, he even had a little dance.