When Bob Dylan dances onstage - and he does seem to dance, after a fashion - at 9.15, it is easier than usual to draw battlelines in the crowd. Mostly, they have been at this Feis festival in Finsbury Park (very much a pack-em-in and get-em-pissed throwback to the pre-boutique era) all day, have had a selection of rain, mud, corporate beverages and Cranberries thrown at them, and in some cases are probably expecting The Saw Doctors to headline the main stage.
When Bob Dylan dances onstage – and he does seem to dance, after a fashion – at 9.15, it is easier than usual to draw battlelines in the crowd. Mostly, they have been at this Feis festival in Finsbury Park (very much a pack-em-in and get-em-pissed throwback to the pre-boutique era) all day, have had a selection of rain, mud, corporate beverages and Cranberries thrown at them, and in some cases are probably expecting The Saw Doctors to headline the main stage.
A few, though, have strategically timed their arrival to coincide with that of Dylan, and are consequently drier, warier and much more sober. It is alcohol, perhaps, which contributes to one of the evening’s more interesting paradoxes: the more likely you are to recognise, say, “Summer Days”, the less likely you are to dance to it.
Less than a month into his 71st year, Dylan shows no sign of changing the course of the endless tour, or of making much allowance for a festival crowd over a more select and obsessive gathering. “Summer Days”, “Thunder On The Mountain” and the like go down rather well, as it happens, generally rollicking boogies that allow the festival hardcore a chance to jive, of sorts, however ignorant they may be of what the songs are. These may be relatively unfamiliar tracks, but they’re far from forbidding.
Speaking as someone who hasn’t seen Dylan for close on two decades, in fact, tonight it feels like rumours of his awkwardness have been somewhat overstated. Most of the songs are more or less instantly identifiable, and while arrangements may certainly vary, in the great scheme of things they amount to gentle tinkering rather than perverse heresies. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is not reinvented as electropop, say; Dylan continues to work within clearly-defined and entirely logical parameters, without any neurotic desire to change his fundamental style.
He appears much less capricious than reputation suggests, too. There is no hiding in the shadows, or attempting to wrongfoot either band or audience (a varispeed “Things Have Changed” is the closest he comes to self-sabotage), and the notorious voice has more elegance than expected: “Simple Twist Of Fate”, in particular, is nuanced and quite lovely, as is “Tangled Up In Blue”. Some of his organ playing has a slight air of a roadhouse Sun Ra, but you can’t fault his enthusiasm.
It’s all, really, good fun, decently performed, and perhaps that’s the weirdest thing. Rather than some apocalyptic travesty, Dylan’s determination to play the hardworking road musician – to an almost mystical degree – means that his show does not feel remotely like that of a legend. One thinks of Neil Young‘s forensic sentimentality and energy as he grapples with his past, or Leonard Cohen‘s profound dignity, or even the Rolling Stones‘ bizarre and in some ways grotesque celebrations of the rock’n’roll they helped invent. And then you see Dylan playing scrupulously without gravity. These astonishing songs aren’t being disrespected or mistreated in any way, but they aren’t perhaps being given quite the heft they deserve, either. The lack of bombast is fair enough, but while “Highway 61 Revisited” works perfectly well as a rollicking bar band boogie (like a track from “Together Through Life”, perhaps), it’s hard not to wish for a little more drama and intensity.
A fraught “Cold Irons Bound” and, especially, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, its stalking, withering malice intact, point some way to what might have been. But it seems Dylan has found the best way possible of escaping the burden of being the voice of a generation: by becoming the good-time entertainer, allbeit a somewhat gnomic one, ideal for county fairs and festivals like this one, with a bunch of good dance tunes and a few familiar and surprisingly uncomplicated old standards. An easier life, perhaps, but an interesting and strangely self-effacing one, too.
1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
3. Things Have Changed
4. Tangled Up In Blue
5. Summer Days
6. Simple Twist Of Fate
7. Cold Irons Bound
8. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Forgetful Heart
11. Thunder On The Mountain
12. Ballad Of A Thin Man
13. Like A Rolling Stone
14. All Along The Watchtower
15. Blowin’ In The Wind