Oh dear. As this was the first date of Dylan’s UK tour, and as the concert finished less than two hours ago, I might very well be in the awkward position of Scooping The World with this little report. Never have I felt so ill-equipped for the task in hand.
Because, you see (and random Googlers might want to stop reading right here), I’ve never been what you might call a Dylan fan. Oh, I fully respect his position in the iconography of popular music, and I recognise his vast contribution to blah-di-blah-di-blah… but, well, I’ve just never been able to form any sort of meaningful emotional connection to his oeuvre. It’s the voice, you see. And what I perceive as an unfathomable aloofness. His work kind of intimidates me, what with its Immense Cultural Significance etc etc… and the sheer reverence in which he is held doesn’t help much, either.
Maybe it’s because I’m a child of Punk, forever kicking over the statues.
Or maybe it’s because I’m just too damned shallow. Where’s the fun, the wit, the sexiness? By rights, I should stick to being waspish and flippant about the new Madonna album. Hey, I know my place.
Also, I’ve had a few.
But here goes, anyway. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
I had primed myself for two possibilities. Based on what I had been told about his past form, either Dylan was going to be electrifying, incandescent, converting me in an instant… or else he was going to be an embarrassing sloppy mess. And I was ready for both. Hey, at least embarrassing and sloppy could be interesting, right? Heroic failures often can be. I’ve seen enough past-it wrecks in my time to know that.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was polite, efficient, bloodless blandness. Bar-room boogie. Pub rock. The sort of stuff that might have been all right down the Hope & Anchor in 1975. Think Eric Clapton. Think Dire Straits. Well, quite.
It wasn’t just me, either. Everywhere I looked in the Arena, people just seemed to be sitting there, slightly absent half-smiles on faces, occasionally popping out for pints from upstairs. No-one looked engaged, ignited, transported. Even the nostalgia factor wasn’t really kicking in. Lukewarm applause, even at the end.
(A predictably bitchy word about the audience, because I can’t help myself. Never in the past half decade have I seen so much high-waisted denim gathered together in one place. And I swear that every teacher and social worker within a fifty mile radius was in there tonight. If they had dropped a bomb on the venue, then all Pastoral Care in the East Midlands would have been wiped out in a trice. I know, I know. The comments box is that-away, folks.)
He’d started well enough: a rousing, rocking Maggie’s Farm (Thatcher Out! Say No to the Poll Tax! Ah bless, he knows what country he’s in!), followed by a stirring The Times They Are A-Changin’ – the latter bringing tears to my eyes, as I connected with the collective shared histories in the room, and remembered the song’s profound and enduring generational significance.
Oh, but then, but then. Was it just unfamiliarity with the material (quite possible, I fully admit), or did dull album track really follow dull album track, in a stodgy wash of “tasty licks” and snooze-inducing noodling? By the time we got to the interminable “jam session” that was Highway 61 Revisited, my eyelids (and those of my merchandising manager Rob) were drooping.
At which point, admittedly, things did start to pick up, as the band expanded their repertoire to include some more delicately worked country blues, playing around with the basic template at long last. At the same time, there was a discernable intensifying of emotional focus – a shift in the dynamics, which lifted me out of the Land of Nod and even got me vaguely twitching, so far as the unpleasantly cramped seating would allow.
I should do my duty, and furnish you with some specifics. Dylan played the entire set seated sideways on at his keyboard, in a black suit with red trimmings and a wide-brimmed black gaucho hat. He didn’t play guitar at all, and I think he only used his harmonica the once (mercifully, I must confess). His five-piece backing band wore matching beige suits, not terribly well fitted, with some of them sporting similar headgear to Bob. The drummer was the weakest link, we thought: too perfunctory, too mild.
Dylan’s voice sounded great, though. Never a fan of his 1960s folky whine, I like the cracked quality that age has bestowed; it lends a expressive range (well, comparatively speaking). Diction: good. Not excessively drawled, but surprisingly clearly enunciated, and delivered with a pleasing intensity. Why, I could even make out whole phrases at a time. This helped.
About ninety minutes in, after an unexceptional mid-set filler (I was miles away), the music abruptly stopped. Blackout, silence. Then the lights came back on, revealing Bob and the band lined up at the front of the stage. Huh, that’s it? Interval time maybe? (Rightly or wrongly, I had expected a marathon.) Comprehensively wrong-footed, the crowd were slow to cotton on that this was in fact Encore Time.
Encore Time, then. Like A Rolling Stone had us on our feet, but still the atmosphere fell several yards short of Exultant Mass Communion. (Of course, Dylan had long since ceased to sing anything so predictable as the actual melody line, preferring instead to deliver virtually the whole song in the same low-to-high interval, like an obscure Anglican psalm.) Ooh, All Along The Watchtower, MUCH more like it! This was genuinely great. I beamed, I wiggled, I bobbed, in the zone at last.
Blackout, bow, exit, applause, house lights still down, expectations high.
House lights up. Oh well, that’s that. Another icon to be ticked off the list. Glad I went, honestly. Because now I know. Dylan’s just not for me, never has been, never will be.
OK Googlers, do your worst. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Diva?” My shoulders are broad.
Update: Some other reviews of the Nottingham concert:
1. Tim Anderson, a serious Dylan fan, offers up a considered, detailed, respectful song-by-song breakdown. True “Bobheads” should head there immediately.
2. Tony Roe from BBC Nottingham was far from impressed… and the same goes for the bulk of his commenters.
3. Quick, before the article disappears behind pay-per-view: Andy Gill at The Independent thought he was OK. Four stars.