Uncut Editor's Diary
Bob Dylan: The Hop Farm Festival, July 3 2010
This sounds familiar. It’s a blast of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown”, a loud orchestral stirring the faithful many here tonight recognise immediately as the taped introduction to his shows he’s been using now for at least the last 10 years that still never fails to thrill and make you also laugh out loud. The voice of his long-time tour manager, Al Santos, follows, mock-serious.
“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll, the voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to 'find Jesus,' who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan."
The cheer from the crowd that greets his name virtually drowns out what happens next, which is the sound of Dylan and his band kicking into “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35”, almost before the introductory tape has finished, in a hurry clearly to get this show underway. It’s rambunctious, loose, full of funky mischief and rollicking good humour. Dylan’s stage right for the moment, impeccably cool in white Cordobes hat and natty black gambler’s suit, a riverboat charmer.
And even though what’s being shown on the video screens flanking the stage is a static wide-angle shot of the stage and the people on it, with no close-ups, from what you can see, but perhaps more importantly hear, you’re inclined to believe Dylan tonight is in notably good humour.
And no wonder. The band is already playing up a storm, a wholly jubilant racket. “Everybody must get stoned,” the audience sings along in ragged harmony and there’s a feeling already that this could be one of those special shows, the kind that for those of us who are inclined to think that The Never Ending Tour – which we have latterly been discouraged to call it, but do anyway - is the most compelling of all rock narratives makes our attendance almost mandatory whenever Dylan plays somewhere we can get to without having to sell the house and everything in it, a field in Kent, for instance.
Much of this anticipation and early rapture is in great part due to the return to the ranks of Dylan’s formidable touring band of guitarist Charlie Sexton as a replacement for the departed Denny Freeman. Sexton’s more emphatic personality as much as his singularly exciting playing turns out as the evening unfolds to have had a galvanising effect on everyone we’re listening to, including Dylan.
Whatever staleness Dylan might have felt a need to address by Sexton’s welcome re-enlistment is nowhere in evidence, a sense of reinvigoration and freshness of purpose coursing like an electric current through everything that now follows, starting with a version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” cast in the bluesy light of Together Through Life and a bruisingly good “Stick Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” – with Dylan on guitar, standing shoulder to shoulder with Sexton, grinning beneath the wide brim of his hat.
There’s a lot going on around him at this point, most of it exclamatory, the peerless rhythm section of George Recile and stalwart bassist Tony Garnier giving the thing a demonstrably funky foundation for Sexton’s guitar excursions and Dylan’s own trebly guitar flourishes. What seems to be at first a long coda to what would therefore be an abbreviated version of the song now turns out to be an unusually long instrumental break, a build up to a storming finale, Dylan coming back into the mix with an emphatic vocal, his voice tonight especially strong, despite the obvious degradations of age and a fair amount of hard living.
Bob’s back at the keyboards for one of the best versions in years of “Just Like A Woman”, which in parts sounds like a Tex-Mex waltz, Dylan acknowledging the crowd’s full-throated participation with a little pause before every chorus. Evidently, he can’t keep away from the guitar tonight, and is next back alongside Sexton for a particularly raucous “Honest With Me”, from Love And Theft.
“I’m not sorry for nothin’ I done,” he sings. “I’m glad I fought, I just wish we’d won.” The song’s momentum is such that at one point things, hilariously, seem to get out of hand, excitably shapeless, a rare loss of recognisable form. But Sexton and Donnie Herron on pedal steel bring it back into ferocious focus.
Dylan’s on guitar again for a sublimely done “Simple Twist Of Fate”, pretty faithful to its Blood On The Tracks incarnation, his voice curling like smoke above the measured beauty of the band’s accompaniment. It’s a hugely poignant preface to the thundering thing that follows, which is the most powerful reading many of us have yet heard of “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, dramatically punctuated by Recile’s concussive drum fills and Herron’s hammering banjo lines. Dylan delivers the song standing in front of the drum-riser, shoulders hunched, singing into a hand held microphone, adding harmonica blasts that further add to the song’s anticipation of calamities to come.
“See them big plantations burning, hear the cracking of the whips/Smell that sweet magnolia blooming, see the ghosts of slavery’s ships,” Dylan’s now singing and while you may have recognised the words, it’s unlikely you would have heard a version of “Blind Willie McTell” quite like this sulphurous overhaul of one of his greatest songs, the band’s smouldering heat something you can feel as keenly as you could this afternoon’s sun.
“Highway 61” is just wild, a venerable warhorse, which by now you might think had been ridden to death, suddenly revitalised, played with a raw abandon that contrasts beautifully with the sombre elegance of “Workingman’s Blues # 2”, which follows. It cues up in turn a feverish “Thunder On The Mountain” and an awesome “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, the urgency of Dylan’s vocal matched by Sexton’s guitar, Dylan moving from piano to centre stage again, where he blows mean and savage harmonica breaks.
Thanks to Ray Davies’ earlier stubborn petulance, and the over-running of his set, Dylan’s own performance is now consequently abbreviated, with time for only two encores: “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young”, both glorious.
The band then line up with Dylan at the front of the stage, take their bows and are off then to wherever it is they are appearing next, where they will doubtless again illuminate the lives of whoever comes to see them play.