BOB DYLAN IN LONDON
In July this year, I read about Bob Dylan’s European tour (after his American shows) that would support his album Rough and Rowdy Ways, that he had released in 2020 at the age of 79. It was the first time he had supported an album on this scale in his career, and I was intrigued if current-day fans would be interested in it, since there would be very few of his classic tracks performed. I was stunned to discover the tour had sold out in hours — across about a dozen cities (at the time). As a huge fan of this album (which appears to also be the best-reviewed album of his career, which is beyond potty), suddenly I was intrigued if I could maybe get a ticket in London (my favourite city in the world, and perhaps one of his too) — he was playing four shows there after all. Checking online, I traced obscenely overpriced tickets via scalper sites and so gave up on what really was just half-a-thought at the time.
But I couldn’t get it out of my head. Dylan is 81 years old; he’s not going to tour forever. About 18 months before, I had connected with his manager — Jeff Rosen — with an original take on the music that had emerged after his creative burnout in the late-1980s (for me, one of the most interesting stories in music history, certainly my favourite) and pitched it as a possible film project. To my surprise, he’d not only replied, but also called it a “well-considered proposal” but expressed his regret at Dylan “not being interested in a film exploring those years at the present time”. I was sure he wouldn’t remember this exchange, and so also linked my published piece on the album Rough and Rowdy Ways (to establish my bonafides, I guess) in an email asking him if he could please guide me to a decently-priced ticket to one of the London shows. It was still really just a half-hearted expression of an obstinate itch; I didn’t expect him to reply. But again, to my surprise, he wrote back — offering me a VIP ticket. Talk about a pleasant electric shock.
Obviously I went. The buzz around the tour was euphoric, the reviews were almost unanimously glowing. The media was covering him sumptuously. It was all very heady.
Unfortunately, a couple of days before the show, while walking through Kensington Gardens/ Hyde Park (one of my very favourite things to do in this city), a nippy breeze seemed to go straight through me, and left me with a congested chest and a bad cough almost instantly. On the day of the show (October 24th), I thought I had it under control, so I attended a gathering of Edlis Cafe in the afternoon, a 50-plus year-old club dedicated to Dylan and met knowledgeable, erudite fans from around the world (at an Indian restaurant of all places), which was hugely interesting.
However, to my horror and embarrassment, my throat chose exactly that moment to touch its nadir — I could barely speak a sentence without coughing. It understandably made some people uncomfortable (any attempts to reassure them that this was not Covid would have just been superfluous). I was considerably inhibited, as were people around me, which will stay a regret.
Terrified of having a coughing fit during the show, I had filled two of my jacket pockets with cough lozenges. But oddly, I didn’t cough even once during the show, not even once.
I was too self-conscious to enjoy the lounge or the drinks (there were no hot drinks — is there no demand for them in London theatres, just because they’re not alcoholic?) and nervously got into my seat more than an hour before, as if to settle into some kind of normality. Before that, I was asked at the door if I was carrying a mobile phone, so I handed it over. It was put in a pouch and sealed (which would only be opened while leaving). I was actually grateful for this, given what I had experienced at the U2 show back home in Mumbai in 2019.
The element of trust was also interesting in this whole exercise; no one checked you if you said you did not have a phone. Obviously, if someone took out his or her phone out during the show, someone would probably come and eject them, so nobody did. But some people clearly did not declare their phone, going by the photos that came up in social media or the bootleg sound files that have been consistently showing up on YouTube.
Gradually, I noticed people around me, as the theatre began to fill up. Chrissie Hynde and Helen Mirren are two faces I thought I recognised near me, two seats from me was Laura Tenschert who runs a well-known Dylan podcast in the US. There were people from all over — multiple nationalities, different races, mostly over forty, but quite a few younger people too. There was a palpable buzz of anticipation.
And suddenly, the lights dimmed, and six men in black took their places behind the instruments on stage, and began to play. The man who sat behind the piano, who couldn’t really be seen, started proceedings with an instrumental prelude as the band gradually got into a groove, unhurried and elegant. Finally, his head bobbed up as he stood up, as the lights brightened, and the most recognisable voice in popular music began to sing his relatively lesser-known song “Watching The River Flow” from 1971 to thunderous applause.
At the beginning of this century, around the age of sixty, Dylan’s declining voice had made him rethink his musical direction and reinvent himself as a singer. He compensated for his age-weakened vocals with a musical expansion of the spirit of his songs, letting the band around him express that dimension in live shows (he does about a hundred every year, a sequence recently broken by the pandemic — one of the most remarkable stories in popular music in its own right). This was, and is, a living, breathing organism, and it expanded the vocabulary of modern song in a way that will be perhaps be more properly appreciated in the future. But it also led to radical versions of his older songs, the classics that fans come to shows to hear. Many of them, who yearned for more faithful versions, often felt disconnected as it sometimes took up to a minute to even figure out which famous song he was performing.
But here, there were no such issues; this was specifically designed around his last album — 9 of its 10 tracks featured here. Along with seven songs from his past (curiously not among his most celebrated, except a couple) and a cover song from 1942 — all seamlessly part of the same soundscape. Given that the tour itself is named after his last album, expectations were perfectly managed. These people were not looking for the hits; this varied audience had come to hear this 81-year-old sing mostly his new songs in 2022 — this kind of relevance is without precedent, defies imagination and takes inspiration to a new level.
Now, leading most of the songs on piano (he apparently cannot play guitar in a sustained way anymore), Dylan’s growly voice was enhanced by a crisp Blues-Rock band, effortlessly incorporating varied musical elements and forms — jangly Mariachi, Country fiddle, slow-burn Blues, free Jazz, staccato Rock, pedal steel guitar, mandolin, all somehow still invoking the unifying aesthetics of the Rough and Rowdy Ways album. Dylan’s unique phrasing, the kind that clears the head and occupies the heart, still defining the legendary intensity of his songs. Words meant to be heard, not seen on paper. Words as navigation points to an altered consciousness, significant for their feel, not their meaning.
Perhaps it was the impact of a smaller theatre, a 2000-seater with great acoustics. Maybe it was the immediacy of mostly new songs, where he sang his age, or perhaps it was something else. I knew more or less what to expect, and yet it blew me away with a power I still cannot fully comprehend. This wasn’t my first Dylan concert. I had listened to bootleg audios of previous shows on this same tour; I even knew the exact sequence in which the songs would unfold. And yet, the sheer freshness and force was utterly unexpected. Literally like a spell that fell. Time stood still, and yet it flew, with these mostly elegiac songs.
The band just ran though the songs in a no-nonsense way, without any frills, unhurried yet urgent. Dylan himself stepped out between songs from behind the piano three times during the entire show. He was bent, frail, even unstable on his feet. And then he would go back to his place behind the piano and that astonishingly vital voice would emanate again, snarling with rasping Blues, enigmatic Rock, holding notes, accomplishing irony, tenderness and ethereal clarity in what seemed to be back-to-back breaths.
The only time he spoke was when he introduced the band, just before the last song, with a pronounced lilt as the band kept a background going, as cheers and claps merged. It was at this point during the first London show when he had permitted himself a crack — “Is this the place where you’re supposed to rattle your jewellery?” he’d called out in this old-school West End theatre, referencing a legendary John Lennon moment during the Royal Variety Show performance in 1963, in front of Royalty. “Well, rattle your jewellery!” Dylan added, and the loudest standing ovation of the evening had followed. But for someone who doesn’t even play the same song exactly the same way twice (not even on this tour), he obviously wasn’t going to say that this time.
He ended with “Every Grain of Sand” — a 1980 classic, his finest musical moment from the fag end of his Christian period, a song on par with the greatest hymns for many, that played at Johnny Cash’s and Steve Jobs’ funerals. This band took it to a place its younger version could not have imagined itself in. A different sense of wonder from how it existed before, but as sure as sunset.
In the same no-nonsense way, the band and its leader took a bow and walked out. Everybody stood up and clapped, and clapped, and clapped. Everybody knew there would be no encore — there hadn’t been in any of the shows, but still our hands kept trying to generate hope. Maybe something different for the last London show? It seemed to work as they came out and the lights went up again, to rapturous howls and whistles, and frenzied clapping. But they just bowed and went back in. Some people started to now get into the aisles now but the majority stayed put, still clapping, and clapping, and clapping. Out they came again, to even louder cheers, the ones cynical that he would give an encore, the loudest. But it was bows again, and a gesture of perhaps embrace from Dylan with an expression that seemed to say — really, honestly, we can’t do more than this. And then they vanished.
That little gesture reminded me of one of my favourite Dylan stories — drummer David Kemper got into a car with Dylan after a London performance years ago but while leaving the theatre, a bunch of youngsters had jumped up on the automobile, making it to the roof and stamping in enthusiasm. Dylan had looked at the terrified Kemper, patted his hand and said reassuringly, “David, it’s only love. It’s only love.”
Before the show, I had overheard a couple of people saying they were attending the second or third show of this tour. There was a seemingly surly man in his sixties sitting two rows in front of me who had come for the previous show as well (I gathered this from the exchange he had with the usher). It had intrigued me because the set list was exactly the same in these shows — not a single song changed. Why would someone repeat shows, especially so close to each other? When the concert ended, I understood. I instantly felt a great urge for something that was missing, and I needed that fix again. Like a great album that you’ve just heard, and compelled to re-start.
Later, I wrote to Jeff Rosen, thanking him again, and enquiring if there were any plans to release a video or audio edit of these shows. Again, to my pleasant surprise, he replied, but disappointingly saying — “There are no plans to film the live show. We believe in the ephemeral nature of live performance — it’s best experienced when you’re there, not on film.”
I do wonder though if the second-best or even third-best experience don’t have immense value. The audio files (recorded on not-submitted mobile phones, most probably) of each of these concerts are on YouTube (this was my show’s recording, as I discovered)— but they’re really like low-res prints of a masterpiece painting. And yet, there are many immensely enjoying the music on them, some greatly moved. How can the opportunity of reliving this moment again and again, with pristine sound, not be invaluable? Even if a quarter of that original power is conveyed, surely that is worthwhile?
There is nothing remotely ephemeral about Bob Dylan of course. The greatest creator of songs in human history. Who has had more of his songs covered by others than anyone else (326 of them thus far, it would seem). The artist who moved the idea of beauty away from the notion of prettiness more than any other in history, in any medium. But on the evidence of his body of work, influence and ongoing output, and the impact he has had outside even his field, he is the world’s greatest living artist.
Whenever he passes on (hopefully more than a few years to go for that), he will be the most mourned individual ever in human history (not just in the Arts) at the time of passing, in terms of pure numbers (a position currently held by John Lennon in my rudimentary estimation). Such is Bob Dylan’s worldwide presence and relevance. Some of which was in evidence even in this tiny sample of a concert I caught, and the small events around it, 4500 miles away from home.
Bob Dylan — piano, harp
Tony Garnier — bass
Charley Drayton — drums
Bob Britt — guitar
Doug Lancio — guitar
Donnie Herron — violin, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel.
1. ‘Watching The River Flow’ (from 1971)
2. ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine’ (from 1966)
3. ‘I Contain Multitudes’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
4. ‘False Prophet’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
5. ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ (from 1971)
6. ‘Black Rider’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
7. ‘My Own Version Of You’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
8. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ (from 1967)
9. ‘Crossing The Rubicon’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
10. ‘To Be Alone With You’ (from 1969)
11. ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
12. ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ (from 1979)
13. ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
14. ‘That Old Black Magic’ (Johnny Mercer cover, from 1942)
15. ‘Mother Of Muses’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
16. ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ (from Rough and Rowdy Ways)
17. ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ (from 1980)