Wednesday, June 28, 2006
First Night: Bob Dylan, The Arena, Cardiff
Dylan gives an awe-inspiring process to witness
By Andy Gill
Published: 28 June 2006
There were probably a few among tonight's audience holding out the vain hope that Dylan might premiere a few numbers from his forthcoming album, Modern Times, but Bob's wariness about bootleggers has long since put paid to such fancies: these days, he doesn't play a song live until it's shipped and stocked on the shelves.
Still, tonight's show offered just about everything a Dylan fan of any standing might want, even if we had to wait for the customary encores of "Like A Rolling Stone" and "All Along The Watchtower".
Okay, there may not have been a "Blowing In The Wind", but there was compensation aplenty in a "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" fitted out with a closing guitar duet in fluid Les Paul style, and a "Girl From The North Country" rendered in a stately descending chord structure that served to emphasise its poignancy. There was even a rare outing for "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again", featuring one of Bob's best vocal deliveries, sly and conspiratorial, as if recounting an absurd secret.
The set-up was familiar from recent years' shows: Dylan in stylish black at his electric organ, side on to the audience, whilst his grey-suited band spread across the stage, with the new pedal steel guitarist just behind Bob on a dais. All save the pedal steel guy are wearing hats - maybe he's on hat probation? They ease into the show with an easy-rolling version of "Maggie's Farm", Dylan shaking the hoarseness out of his pipes but still managing to infuse the line "They say sing while you save, but ... I get BORED!" with a certain fire.
Boredom is what drives him, of course: the fear that things may stay the same, that there may not be a new wrinkle to add to his old material, that there may come a time when it has no resonance with the present.
Dylan's organ technique is just as fitful and quixotic as his lead guitar stylings used to be, and never more so than on "Positively 4th Street", where it verges on the utterly random. As a result, the song morphs out of shape, tugged one way by his organ, and another way by his equally bizarre vocal. By contrast, his delivery of the excoriating "Ballad Of A Thin Man" is superb, recalling blues extemporiser Lightnin' Hopkins in the way he hangs the hapless "Mistah ... Jones" off the end of the chorus, running it into the next verse like a schoolmaster tugging a wayward pupil by the ear: "See! This is what it is, Jones minor!"
The newer material is, as a rule, less subject to Dylan's alterations than his old standards. Both "Love Sick" and "Summer Days" are crisp and slick, and "Cold Irons Bound" is quite stunning, with a hypnotic, stealthy tread that, in the show's most expertly wielded dynamic, becomes predatory and, finally, darkly majestic.
Something similar happens with the set-closing "All Along The Watchtower", which bulges with barely reined-in power as Dylan bites off the staccato syllables two by two - "ALLa-LONGthe-WATCHtow'r ... PRINces-KEPTthe-VIEW...", like a sculptor chipping away doggedly, trying to find exact form. It's an awe-inspiring process to witness, one of the few surviving wonders of the Great American Experiment, as enduring in its own way as Mount Rushmore, Citizen Kane or Charlie Chaplin. Catch him while you can.