Uncut Editor's Diary

Bob Dylan - London 02 Arena, Saturday April 25, 2009/London Roundhouse, Sunday April 26, 2009

Allan Jones

The last time I was on a boat on the Thames, The Sex Pistols were playing “Pretty Vacant” as we sailed downriver past the Houses Of Parliament. It was Jubilee Day, 1977, and the cruiser we were on had just been surrounded by police launches, their searchlights raking the upper deck of our craft, dozens of their baton-wielding colleagues lined up in sinister ranks on Westminster Pier, waiting for us to dock so they could storm aboard and crack heads, which they eventually did with painful abandon.

Tonight is altogether more sedate and I am heading downriver towards the 02, standing on deck of a Thames Clipper like Washington crossing the Delaware, no tube service this weekend to the Greenwich Peninsular, a pain for many, but not quite the cataclysmic inconvenience claimed elsewhere by some disgruntled individuals for whom it is all a bit of a palaver.

The 02 is the biggest London venue Dylan’s played in years - apart from a two night residency at Wembley Arena in April 2007, Dylan often preferring the funky surroundings of Brixton Academy and in November 2003 even fetching up for one memorable show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. That’s the kind of place you’d love to see him play more often, which even as the boat I’m on approaches the site of the former Millennium Dome, makes the prospect of tomorrow night’s gig at the Roundhouse so thrilling.

As fearsomely large and invariably inhospitable indoor arenas go, the 02 is better than most, not unlike the venues I saw Dylan play on the opening North American dates of the Modern Times tour in late 2006. Usually, of course, when people play places like this, there is an inclination toward pyrotechnics, flamboyant stage sets, huge video screens to bring the audience closer to what’s happening on stage, which from the furthermost seats doubtless will seem remote.

Dylan, though, has no time for such fripperies, that kind of showiness simply not his style, the music everything to him and who he is, the point of him – and us – being where we are tonight.

It’s amazing, though, that what he does is so often continually misinterpreted – and that his recasting in often unexpected musical styles of various acknowledged classics from his vast back catalogue is still seen as wilful tampering, evidence in the disparaging opinion of some of a wilful tampering with and heedless butchering of his musical legacy, Dylan in their view not giving a toss about he plays or the way he plays it, which is rarely the way some of the songs originally sounded.

This sad perspective is in opposition to others among us for whom Dylan’s unpredictability - his willingness to re-address his songbook typical of his creative restlessness than some woebegone indifference - is what makes, year after year, the narrative of the Never-Ending Tour so uniquely compelling.

It’s an approach that doesn’t always work, admittedly. There is for instance a version at the 02 of “Chimes Of Freedom” that struggles in this particular incarnation to clearly match the potency of the song’s poetic imagery, the result somewhat muffled, not to mention unrecognisable at first to a lot of people (there’s an amusing cheer a few minutes in from one part of the crowd when they realise what it is he’s playing). Similarly, a version of “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” as a fatalistic waltz slightly spurns the song’s bitter anger.

When it does work, which is more often than not, the results can be spectacular – witness here “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, newly-minted as a serrated waltz, and the show’s possible highlight, a suitably dark and harrowing “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” played with the kind of nightmarish venom latterly reserved for the overhauled “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, a similar highlight of recent tours, Donnie Herron’s spectral banjo plucking set against lead guitarist Denny Freeman’s ghostly twanging.

And it’s not as if everything Dylan plays is wholly re-imagined from the original blueprint. Songs from “Love And Theft” and Modern Times like “Po’ Boy”, “Honest With Me”, “When The Deal Goes Down”, “Thunder On The Mountain” and, best of all, “Workingman’s Blues # 2” are all fairly faithfully - and in the case of the latter quite beautifully – rendered. And of course the by now standard set closers, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower” exert an indefatigable magic.

If the 02 show was in most respects great, the Roundhouse show was just as often astonishing – despite Dylan’s reluctance to mark the occasion by giving debut live airings to anything from the new Together Through Life, as many of the Uncut readers I spoke to were hoping.

Not that there wasn’t much to absolutely relish, the Roundhouse the kind of venue where you’d ideally love to see Dylan more often and Sunday’s set afire with many tremendous moments, from rowdy opener “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” to the closing “Blowin’ In The Wind”, which has in the last few years sometimes been played as a wonderful bluegrass ballad and is in its current, similarly unexpected, setting a woozy soulful blues.

Elsewhere and in between, there’s a rasping, staccato “Don’t Think Twice”, a gripping “Tangled Up In Blue”, and a take on “Million Miles” that recalls “Ballad Of A Thin Man”. There’s also a sulphuric all guns-blazing “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, a lovely “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, a dark and ominous “High Water” – as much a highlight as “Hollis Brown” the night before – a stately “Ain’t Talkin’”. A version meanwhile of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” in the rollicking style of The Faces, as Uncut’s Gavin Martin sharply observed on this morning’s Today Programme on Radio 4.

All in all, unmissable.

The set list for Bob Dylan's 02 show was:

Maggie's Farm
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Things Have Changed
Chimes Of Freedom
Rollin' And Tumblin'
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
'Til I Fell In Love With You
Workingman's Blues #2
Highway 61 Revisited
Ballad Of Hollis Brown
Po' Boy
Honest With Me
When The Deal Goes Down
Thunder On The Mountain
Like A Rolling Stone

(encores)

All Along The Watchtower
Spirit On The Water
Blowin' In The Wind

The set list for Dylan's Roundhouse show was:

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Tangled Up In Blue
Million Miles
Rollin' And Tumblin'
Tryin' To Get To Heaven
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Sugar Baby
High Water (For Charley Patton)
I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
Po' Boy
Highway 61 Revisited
Ain't Talkin'
Summer Days
Like A Rolling Stone

(encores)

All Along The Watchtower
Spirit On The Water
Blowin' In The Wind


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