North London gets an audience with a living legend who's found a brand new lease of life

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Forever Young

Bob Dylan

Fleadh 2004, London Finsbury Park Sunday June 20, 2004

When you’ve got something like 500 songs in your repertoire, it just gets too complicated to make set-lists. Between numbers?sometimes even halfway through the previous song?Bob Dylan shuffles across the stage and lets his band know what he fancies playing next. A check on one of the many Dylan websites, expectingrain.com, prior to his appearance at this year’s Fleadh reveals that Dylan’s previous five concerts have featured 50 different songs, including such surprises as “If Dogs Run Free” (from 1970’s New Morning) and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty”. In the event, at Finsbury Park, he plays neither. But every night is a new Bob experience, and he has plenty of other surprises up his sleeve.

The first is the presence of Ronnie Wood throughout the set. With Dylan to the left of stage on keyboards, as during last autumn’s tour, Wood?the only one of the band not dressed in black?forms a crunching three-pronged guitar line-up with Larry Campbell and recent recruit Stu Kimball, who has replaced Charlie Sexton. It lends the sound real attack, a rich, churning, blues-laden noise, like a cross between Highway 61 Revisited and Exile On Main St.

The second surprise is the dominance of songs from 2001’s Love & Theft, with “Lonesome Day Blues”, “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”, “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, “Honest With Me” and “Summer Days” constituting a third of the set.

This is fitting because?although few seem to have noticed?Love & Theft is the most fun record Dylan has ever made, a riot of hilarious throwaway lines and neat tricks. And up on stage tonight, Bob is out to enjoy himself. He clearly likes having Woody around, and the mood is almost frolicsome. Last autumn, he was moving so stiffly you had to keep wondering if he was going to fall over. Yet here he is at the end of a two-hour set, skipping across the stage as he joins the band to take his final bow. I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now, indeed.

A spritely “Down Along The Cove” is a great opener that gives notice of his intent. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is at first barely recognisable in a countryish arrangement, but lovely. “Desolation Row” finds Dylan toying with the lyrics (“you’re in the wrong ROOM my friend, you’d better HURRY UP AND leave”). But he’s in total command. Around the fourth verse, Woody takes the song off in the direction of some cod reggae rhythm. Bob waits to see where it will go?and then when it’s gone far enough pulls it back into shape with a few stabs of his keyboard. This is not one of his perfunctory, heads-down-and-see-you-at-the-end shows. The voice is passionate and urgent without ever sounding strident, and 40 minutes in he’s still only completed five numbers.

“Positively Fourth Street” is a revelation, slowed down so that all the anger is turned to disappointment and the viciousness to regret as Woody graces the song with an elegiac solo. Then, as twilight falls, Dylan walks across to the band and instructs them to play “Not Dark Yet”. The crowd instantly recognises it, and the song raises one of the biggest cheers of the night. Of all the great songs on his last two albums, this is the one that has become a centrepiece of his canon, ranking alongside his finest compositions. He concludes with a storming rockabilly romp on “Summer Days”, before encoring with “Like A Rolling Stone”.

There’s been no “Mr Tambourine Man” or “All Along The Watchtower” or “Don’t Think Twice”. But he’s got several hundred more where they came from, and nobody leaves Finsbury Park disappointed.

Earlier, both Fleadh stages had hosted a troop of Dylan disciples. Tim Burgess could hardly contain his excitement and was maybe a little overawed, for The Charlatans’ set failed to ignite in the wet conditions, until Woody joined them to crank out the familiar riff of The Faces’ “Stay With Me”. Counting Crows fared better with the weather, and their rootsy blend of classic American rock raised spirits, while John Prine entranced with his wit and a voice that sounded almost as deliciously cracked as Bob’s own.