Bob Dylan Live: Birmingham NEC

This show is from September 2000 when I went on the road in the UK to attend 5 shows by Colombia recording artist Bob Dylan who by that point was over 10 years into his Never Ending Tour.

The doors to NEC finally opened at 6 pm, but all they led to was a carpeted area inside the arena with another set of doors at the end of it which were also still firmly closed. We all rushed to the marked off area where we once again had to queue and since it was a question of speed I was able to overtake quite a few people who up until a few seconds ago had been further up the original queue than me! It brought an idiotic smile to my face and made me think that Bob would probably have had a good laugh about it as well if he could have seen us scrambling around trying to manoeuvre ourselves into position just so we could get as close as possible to him. Everyone now faced a further 20 minute wait until the second set of doors were finally opened and people were allowed to stream through and into the main concert hall of the NEC. We handed in our tickets which we were told would be returned to us when the show was over if we wanted them as souvenirs and considering the kind of Dylan fan I was currently with there were a few panic stricken requests for confirmation from the security people that this would indeed be the case. After that was sorted it was now a simple sprint to the front of the arena to get the best spot possible standing position in front of the stage. Security people kept shouting at us all not to run which meant it was a kind of stop start fast jog which we all had to make under their watchful eyes. It was difficult not to smile, not to feel exceedingly stupid at being told off in such an abrupt manner by a bunch of mean looking shaven headed guys in yellow high visibility jackets talking into their phones and throwing their weight around. All the same, everyone was now in final sight of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and no one was going to stop us from reaching it, that coveted place at the front of the crowd with a direct line of sight to Bob Dylan when he came on stage.

I was very glad I was wearing my recently acquired cushion soled pair of shoes as when I got to my spot I knew I was in for another wait of well over an hour, with there being very little room for manoeuvre within a packed crowd where the temperature was going to be steadily rising. My heart was racing already, I was inside the NEC, pretty damn close to the front of the stage, just four or five rows back from the front barrier maximum. That meant with my height I was on for an uninterrupted line of vision, so things were looking good, very good indeed! Now it was just a question of waiting all over again. The main discomfort was that I still really did feel incredibly thirsty and when a woman a few feet away from me starting downing a small bottle of mineral water I was filled with an intense yearning to snatch it out of her hand and glug it down right in front of her before handing it back empty. I could only partly offset such a desire by mustering all the saliva I could find in my mouth, having a few deep swallows and making do with that. Not really an adequate solution I know, pathetic really, but under the circumstances it was the best I could come up with. The physical penance was going to be worth it though I was sure, no pain no gain and all that, or maybe just rank stupidity I really wasn’t quite sure.

A couple of guys behind me were talking about all the times they had seen Dylan before, their trips to cities like Hannover and Dusseldorf and their drunken adventures on the coaches they travelled on. Pretty depressing stuff really, seemed to me they might just as well have been talking about seeing Whitesnake or Black Sabbath instead of Bob and I had to distract my mind from them by way of doing a bit of breathing meditation. Observing the in breath, observing the out breath, counting the pull of the in and counting the push of the out. I decided to do a 108 cycle, counting each in breath and out breath as one and doing it 108 times. It would be a chance to get my mind away from my physical discomfort, the inane conversations of the people around me and also to alleviate a strange mixture of excitement and panic which was flowing through me at the same time. Excitement over soon seeing Bob, but panic over the fact my mouth was so dry and that I could have killed for a nice swig of water to stop me from possibly fainting. I was impressed with myself at how easily I was able to keep count, mentally I patted myself on the back because it seemed to me that my attention must have been pretty damn sharp considering the circumstances. The first 108 count cycle went by with no problem, taking I guess around 25 minutes to complete, so much so that I immediately decided to do another one. Well this time I got up to 60 or so before totally and utterly losing count, getting seriously distracted as my mind wandered all over the place like a jack in the box. So that was the end of that! Enlightenment deferred, again.

There was a good number of women in the crowd, more so than when I last saw Bob three years ago and judging by the languages which were being spoken it seemed like they were from all over Europe. Italian, French, Spanish, dark eyed beautiful women, all of them there to see Bob and just to think he could have had his pick of them. How great it must have been to live the life of a god! I got into a conversation with a friendly Irish guy who had caught both of Bob’s concerts in Dublin before flying over and joining his UK tour in Newcastle which was last night and where he reckoned Bob had played a pretty good show. The best of the three he had seen however had been the second show in Dublin which he said was fantastic. A sell out at The Point, Bob knocking 8,000 Irish punters stone dead. Naturally it sounded magic and naturally I only wish that I could have been there as well!

By now the time was getting on, the NEC was feeling to me like it was pretty full and when I turned my head all I could see was a sea of people around me to the back and sides. The noise level of the hall had risen considerably, there was an excited buzz about the place, a sense of intense anticipation. Up on the stage the road crew were making the final checks to the equipment, to make sure all was as it should be. There was the young Oriental guy who always tuned the guitars and who then carefully placed them in the racks stacked up to the side of the stage. The huge guy with the beard and the pony tail, who got to make the announcement of introduction, hovered around the stage looking busy, going round lighting sticks of incense in big bunches so that perfumed clouds of smoke wafted over the front rows of the crowd from the stage. It was that familiar smell again, Bob was still using the same incense which he had been into in 1995 and in 1997 when I had last seem him, just after the release of Time Out of Mind, that album which had changed the game for him.

At 7.40 the house lights were hit and a huge roar went up from the crowd. Everyone knew that it would not be long now before show time. The lights from the amps flickered in the darkness, clouds of incense smoke hung heavy in the air and my heart was racing fast. For me, these moments were some of the sweetest in life; standing in the middle of an excited crowd, taking in the human electricity, drinking down the buzz of pure anticipation as everyone waited for the appearance right before their eyes of Bob Dylan, greatest performing artist of the 20th century. Period. No question!

All of a sudden I saw a bunch of figures appear from out of the shadows at the back of the stage; Larry Campbell, Charlie Sexton, Tony Garnier, Dave Kemper and last of all, Bob Dylan. The noise from the crowd was tremendous, the noise from my extremely dry throat was also tremendous as I stood there in the middle of the floor with my arms raised in the air as a form of welcome along with everyone else. While Bob and the boys strapped their guitars on, got settled, there was the simple announcement from the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail: “Ladies and Gentlemen would you please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”

Things started with I Am the Man Thomas one of a number of non original Bob Dylan songs which always begun the sets at this point in the Never Ending Tour. Effectively it served as a warm up number, both for the band and the crowd. My first impression on seeing Bob again in the flesh after a gap of three years was that he looked pretty out of it, in fact both Bob and Larry appeared to have stepped on the stage from another planet. Did they know what city they were now in? Maybe, maybe not. All of the group apart from Dave Kemper the drummer were wearing suits, Bob looked like he was 19 years old one minute and 59,000 years old the next. It was weird! As usual with Bob it was nothing short of intense, I couldn’t help switching from looking at Bob and Larry for the whole of the first song as Larry stood there on the stage to the right of Bob; a tall figure with dark eyes staring out into the audience as he strummed his acoustic guitar.

All the physical discomfort I had been feeling during the wait had begun to ease and when Bob went into the second song of the set Times They Are a Changin’I was feeling pretty good. It was a great version! The way Bob had been playing it over the last few years was miles better than the original and I loved the way his voice sounded, sung with the authority of a priest within his own self made temple who knew exactly where the times were changin’ to. Third up was It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding which might have fell short, say, of the awesome version found on 1974’s Down in the Flood , a live version from the time when Bob’s popularity had never been greater, but this one was perfectly satisfactory nevertheless. More than satisfactory came next in One Too Many Mornings, also all the way from 1963’s Times They Are a Changin’ album and on this occasion it was a version which boasted an absolutely dynamite harmonica solo which had Bob dancing and jigging across the stage, by the end of which had simply brought the house down. The cheers were deafening but Bob barely deigned to look at us. It was business as usual as far as he was concerned.

Tangled up in Blue occupied the fifth slot in the set as it did on every night I was to see Bob and the boys, as indeed it has done now for a good number of years on the Never Ending Tour. Seems that currently Bob really enjoys playing it, I have to say the version played this time around was just about the best I had yet heard from him. It kicked in all the right places and also boasted some pretty cool lighting effects which I was to appreciate more fully in the nights to come when I wasn’t always so close to the front. The acoustic part of the set finished with Searching for a Soldiers Grave another non-original song, one which has also recently become a permanent feature at that point in the set. It had Bob and the boys lined up like a small company from out of the American Civil War, like shadows in the time machine distance, hiking through the misty swamps of history to step once more into the present. There was an ominous ghost-like quality to the performance which had me mesmerized but saw some of the the audience get fidgety and caused the energy levels to drop a bit.

The sense of restlessness which rippled through the crowd during the unfamiliar Searching for a Soldiers Grave was immediately dissipated by a slice of Country Pie the opening song of the electric part of the set, a thoroughly excellent number for Bob and the boys to loosen up their fingers and begin to pick out some chops with their electric guitars.  It was also a good example of a late 60s Bob song which had now gone through a fairly radical transformation, far edgier now, far more rock and roll and I loved it. I had been reading reports of it all summer on the Internet reviews of the US shows and this was the first time I got to hear it in the flesh. The rumour was that it was being played as tribute to the recent passing away of his mother. Whether that was true or not I just didn’t know, however there was no doubt the atmosphere in the NEC immediately perked up and the crowd responded when it was over with a tremendous cheer.

Ballad of a Thin Man came next, I have to admit to not remembering too much about this one, apart from the fact it was a good version of one of my least favourite well known Dylan songs from his mid 60s Golden Trilogy period comprising of the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. I most certainly remember the next song he played though, an absolutely killer version of Crash on the Levee with Larry, Bob and Charlie all on duelling electric guitars; it rocked from out of that late 60s shadow zone in which it was originally created, rocked like hell as a matter of fact. Crash on the Levee, the water’s gonna flow, Oh mama who’s gonna be your best friend now? It was a dark roaring stream, taking the timber from the old north woods and washing it away down the deep dark waters in the style of a hooligan grandfather on a hot night in Birmingham.

It was quite an experience being so close to the front. I think it is fair to say that Bob if he had so wished would have been able to completely intimidate everyone who was up there with me. We were encroaching on his territory after all, this was his space, he knew it so well, at times he looked at us as if to say “Well, what have you got to show me?” It was quite disconcerting, I couldn’t shake the feeling that as he looked us over he was very disappointed in what he saw as there was no trace of a smile on his face throughout the whole show. He wasn’t bothered with us, he had seen it all so many times before, we had nothing new to present to him, just more blind adoration which probably none of us would be able to properly explain. It almost got to the point where I felt embarrassed as there were no doubt some faces in the crowd, those of the real fanatics, who Bob must have been sick of the sight of, seeing them again and again, show after show, as he made his way around the country on his Never Ending Tour.

So after an altogether incredible Crash on the Levee Bob goes into a slow burning blues take of Tryin’ to Get to Heaven from Time Out of Mind. It sounded like it was the first time he and boys had played it through in that particular version and it was a bit rough around the edges if truth be told. In retrospect what was interesting about this song was I would hear Bob play it in two later shows, by then it had become much more fully rounded and developed, with all the rough spots on display at the NEC thoroughly ironed out. Talking of iron the next song was an absolutely brilliant version of Cold Irons Bound again from Time Out of Mind. This song has really developed in the space of three years into a number of genuine tension sounding as hard as nails, at times it gets really heavy, extremely loud, so much so that I thought a lot of people in the audience who might have come to see Bob just knock out the standards from the 60s must have been pretty damn shocked. From where I was it went down pretty well, for me it was the best number of night so far as it simply took no prisoners and was forged from a template which allowed multiple forms of interpretation for both artist and band.

The main set then finished off with Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat which just about trumped Cold Irons and smoked its way into being the best song of the night for me. I would never have imagined it was possible to get such a fantastic performance out of it, although the version found on the Bob Dylan Live At the “Royal Albert Hall” Bootleg Series Vols 4 – 5 should have given me a hint that it could be done. When it finished the whole arena was on its feet. Bob and the boys just stood in a row at the front of the stage, arms by their sides, staring into a sea of smiling faces in what was known as The Formation, something which had become a part of the Never Ending Tour at some point earlier in the year 2000. One by one the boys broke away from The Formation until only Bob was left on stage and then he was gone as well. The main set was done. It had all been over so quick! The tiredness which I had felt from the waiting and the standing to attention for the best part of five hours had completely left me. The only thing on my mind was to shout at the top of my voice with all the others in order to get Bob and the boys back on stage again as soon as possible.

The way the sets were currently worked out was a main set of 12 with the first 6 acoustic, then the final 6 electric, followed by a straight encore of 7 mixed between acoustic and electric, so that in total it was 19 songs at a length of nearly 2 hours. It was very pleasant standing there in the darkness in the middle of the crowd in the full arena, waiting for Bob and the boys to come back out and play the encore. It was a good five minutes before those shadows appeared again at the back of the stage, then walked forward to pick up their instruments. The crowd naturally went wild and they had every right to as so far it had been a brilliant show.

The encore began with Things Have Changed the newest recorded song which Bob has written, a millennial  update on our our current state, with women in wheelbarrows and Bibles set to explode within a work which has already won him a lot of praise from critics and fans alike. I had got into it big time during the course of the summer thanks to its inclusion on the Best of Bob Dylan Vol.2 and as if that wasn’t enough I also splashed out on an import CD single of it at £6.99 courtesy of HMV Oxford Street. This came with both the single version, the full version, plus a couple of live cuts from recent shows on the Never Ending Tour, so all in all it was something which I thought was a tremendous bargain!

Things Have Changed was immediately followed by Like a Rolling Stone which was just awesome, it was hard to believe that this was a song which Bob has played thousands of times, because it sounded like he had just written it the week before, like he just wanted to share it with everyone because it was so damn good. This was also the best version I had yet heard him play, Larry was fantastic on rhythm guitar, then when Charlie Sexton came in hard at the end on his Fender, whilst as Bob stood between them delivering the words I was in heaven. Needless to say, with this one the crowd really did go wild, especially when the bright lights from the stage were turned on them, thus illuminating the whole of the arena for Bob and the boys to see just how many punters were packed inside the NEC screaming their adulation.

An acoustic It Ain’t Me Babe after such a mighty version of Like a Rolling Stone was a bit of a come down, but nevertheless it was a very enjoyable version. After It Ain’t Me Babe it was onto Highway 61 Revisited which I hadn’t heard him do as well since Hammersmith 1993. It is a great song for Bob and the boys to form that Fender guitar battalion in the middle of the stage and it is at moments like this in the set when you see that Bob really is now doing all these shows year after year simply for the sheer love of the noise being created. He gets lost in the music, we all get lost in the music, adapted as it is from a template set down many years ago. It was loud, very loud, but it sounded so good that it would have been just great if it could have gone right on up the road and over the border.

Forever Young was next, again it was time for the acoustic guitars but this time there were also strong backing vocals from Larry and Charlie. They had also done backing vocals on I Am the Man Thomas and Searching for a Soldiers Grave earlier on in the set but possibly, because those two songs were non original Bob numbers, they were not so noticeable. On Forever Young however they really stood out and I can see why the song has become an almost permanent feature at that part of the encore for quite a while now on the Never Ending Tour as it really does sound terrific.

A completely unbreakable Everything Is Broken followed, a song from 1989s critically well received Oh Mercy album and a song which Bob has consistently played throughout the years of his Never Ending Tour. Despite the growing fatigue my body was feeling, I could have quite happily stood and listened to a 20 minute version of Broken because it sounded so razor sharp, so clear and unstoppable. Blowin’ In the Wind was the final song of the encore, as it was to be throughout all the September 2000 shows I witnessed and again there were strong backing vocals from Larry and Charlie. It was just as good as the 7 minute version found on an extra two track CD which came with those initial copies of that recent Best of Bob Dylan Vol.2 and it just seemed incredible to think that Bob had wrote this song in 1962, nearly forty years ago, because he was putting the same kind of energy into it as if he had just written it a month before.

Just like at the end of the main set Bob and boys stood there in The Formation, staring out into the cheering crowd, soaking up the appreciation until one by one they left the stage. A couple of minutes later the house lights went up and everyone knew show time was over. As I was near the front of the standing area, right by the stage, I was one of the last to get out as there were a considerable number of bodies between me and the exits. I was going to go straight to my car but on the way out I saw the merchandise stand and after initially passing it by I backtracked on myself to join the queue. Five minutes or so later I had parted with 18 quid in exchange for a pretty cool extra large Bob Dylan t shirt. I was more than happy with my purchase, it felt like my tribal credentials were being bolstered up again and that I might just get to wear it a couple of nights later when I was due to go up to Sheffield with my old friend Marc Murphy for the next Bob show on my list.

By the time I got to my car there was a very long queue of vehicles trying to get out of the car parks, which meant there was no point in rushing as there was simply nowhere to go, so I sat tight and cracked open my flask of coffee. It wasn’t too hot but that didn’t stop me drinking the whole thing down in a matter of minutes, greedy for the caffeine. I didn’t want to fall asleep on the way back, although in reality I already knew there was little chance of that as I was buzzing like hell from the fabulous show Bob and the boys had just delivered. Eventually things started to slowly crawl along as we all nudged our way towards the exit of the car park, but all the same it was pretty slow going and a little bit of a test of one’s patience. Just at the point where the attendants were taking the parking tickets a guy was lying flat on the grass in front of some bushes and I could only think that he must have been completely pissed. It was a cold night and it was not the kind of place you would want to stay out for very long unless that is, you fancied a dose of pneumonia coming your way. God knows how he got there. Surely he hadn’t been to see Bob, but if he had it was a mystery to me how he’d so quickly ended up where he was, unless he had left the show early of course. I slowly drove past him and twisted my neck to take a good look just like everyone else, before heading out of the NEC and leaving him there to his fate.

The sight of the drunk reminded me of the people I had seen earlier on, the possible East Europeans who had looked like they had just jumped from out the back of a lorry. I briefly wondered where they might have been now, how far they’d got from the NEC, if in fact they’d gone at all. In Like a Rolling Stone Bob sings about having to scrounge around for your next meal and it had looked to me as if those people would have had to do exactly that by the time their day was through. We, the Bob show goers on the other hand, were purely interested in hearing his words as entertainment and miles away from actually confronting them as reality. Strange the way the lives of people could be so different and strange the way it was so difficult to connect, break on through in any kind of meaningful way. Maybe at one time Bob would have exhorted us to do something about it, or maybe not, just don’t know, but the fact of the matter was that we were a long way down the line now from that sense of sacrifice, idealism, whatever else it was you might call it, which might or might not have been around in the hippy 60s.

The route I chose to go back was the M42 onto the M40, then round the M25 to Junction 26 and for many miles the show was still ringing in my ears. Whoever had been on the mixing desk at the NEC deserved a big pat on the back because the sound had been just excellent, in fact it was one of the loudest, hardest shows I had heard Bob play. It meant that I drove on into the night at close to 100 mph as I was still buzzing like a demon and now fuelled up from all that lukewarm coffee I’d downed. There was no need to stick Street Legal back on the CD player of the Nissan as it would only have taken away from the power of the show I had just witnessed. In just under two hours I had brought it all back home and was parked up back on my drive in Woodford. One show down and four to go. This was what it was all about, on the road with the Mystery Tramp, Bread Crumb Sinner, the Ultimate Song and Dance Man from the Land of the Star Spangled Banner!

Setlist Birmingham NEC 20th September 2000 –

I Am the Man Thomas
Times They Are a Changin’
It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding
One Too Many Mornings
Tangled up in Blue
Searching for a Soldiers Grave
Country Pie
Ballad of a Thin Man
Crash on the Levee
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
Cold Irons Bound
Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat
Things Have Changed
Like a Rolling Stone
It Ain’t Me Babe
Highway 61 Revisited
Forever Young
Everything Is Broken
Blowin’ In the Wind

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