The cards are no good which you’re holding, unless they’re from another world.

Date: 25 & 26 April 2009
Artist: Bob Dylan
Venue(s): The O2, Greenwich, London & The Roundhouse, Camden, London

Immediately following Bob Dylan’s shows in London this weekend I read droves of reviews complaining. Now I would have expected them to complain about some things – the engineering works that meant there was no tube service heading in or out of North Greenwich on Saturday, the hours of queuing outside of the Roundhouse on Sunday and the insensitivity of the door staff in closing off the toilets, hours before the concert, to those who were having to wait outside, perhaps. But whilst these matters got their own fair share of deserved criticism, it was the artist’s performance which took the lion’s share of negativity – a verdict which left me rather bemused.
One member of the public posted on a messageboard that it was a good thing that Dylan insisted on not using the large screens at the o2 and that he couldn’t work out which one of the distant figures on the stage was Mr Dylan – because if he couldn’t have figured that out, he would have marched down the front and punched poor Bob on the nose.
Now I’ve been a Dylan fan for over thirty years and I know all about the variable quality of his live shows and his periodic apparent disinterest in what the show amounts to and all the rest – but these shows were Dylan at his idiosyncratic best. Sunday night the O2 was the host to that other giant of popular music "Girls Aloud" and if you want to hear crystal clear versions of all the hits just as they were originally recorded, bright colours and dance routines then perhaps that was the show you should have been at. But if you’re going to see Bob Dylan at least judge him on his ability to reach his apparent goals. He will trawl through all his catalogue of songwriting and redesign the melodies on a whim. He won’t talk to the audience much if at all (let’s be fair when he has done this – for example, at his gospel shows in the early 80s, nobody wanted to listen). He won’t pick up his guitar and pretend this is 1962 just because you want him to. But if you want to hear an artist recreating songs from his best known to his most obscure, then perhaps this is the place for you.
The fans are apparently quite happy with his current tour. The band isn’t the most adventurous. He changes the bulk of his setlist most every night – although some of those who watch closest tell me that they can guess what he is going to play according to what night of the week it is. The opener changes each night – The Wicked Messenger, Rainy Day Women, Maggie’s Farm, Gotta Serve Somebody but often according to which day the calendar shows. For example, Sunday night seems most likely to be gospel night. One audience was recently treated to Gotta Serve Somebody, I Believe in You, Every Grain of Sand and Tryin’ to Get to Heaven. Monday night had none of these. There is a kind of perverse logic to all this.

The two nights, then, were very different affairs with the Roundhouse proving the better show partially because of the increased intimacy and better atmosphere of the smaller venue.

Highlights? Saturday had an excellent version of "Things Have Changed" with Donnie Herron echoing the riff on violin. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was all bent out of shape but still has power to make you think about humanity’s inability to treat all of society like human beings. There was a powerful and echo-ey version of "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" which was driven by Tony Garnier on double bass. "Po’ Boy" and "When the Deal Goes Down" were full of all that is best about Dylan’s current work and were drawn close to the versions that you would be familiar with from the albums. For me, the best was "Workingman’s Blues #2" with Dylan cherishing each line and obviously enjoying himself. Saturday also produced indistinct, poor versions of "Rollin’ and Tumblin’" and "Honest with Me" so this was far from a flawless show – but it was good.

Sunday was better. Nothing here was fumbled just different degrees of high quality. The older songs "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right", "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat", "Tangled Up in Blue", "Like A Rolling Stone" were straightforward enough renditions and kept the crowd on board when perhaps the attention of the casual visitor might be tempted to drift. "Million Miles" and "High water (for Charley Patton)" were rumbling, threatening and apocalyptic. The peaks were "Ain’t Talkin’" and "Tryin’ to get to Heaven" where the lyrics were biting and heartfelt.

So Dylan in London wasn’t quite a triumph but this was a very good weekend indeed for music . He will always divide opinion (for what it counts for, I think it’s probably part of his intention) but for those who get it, these were shows we should be talking about for years to come.

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