Bob Dylan Live: Cardiff International Arena

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.

It was 6.30 when the doors to the CIA were finally opened and after a brief delay due to some security mix up, which involved a lot of bulky Welsh bouncers shouting into their mobile phones, we were allowed inside. Just like at the NEC it was a case of trying to maintain a sense of dignity whilst half walking and half running across the wide open floor space in order to join the small crowd of people already congregated at the front of the stage. Of course the bouncers rudely shouted at everyone not to run and of course it was a massive temptation to just completely ignore the shitheads and break out into a full on sprint. All the same me and Huw covered the ground in not too much time at all and we soon proudly claimed prime standing positions right in the centre of the floor, not too close to the front so that we would lose the power of the sound from the PA stacks suspended from the ceiling above our heads, but not too far away either. All we had to do now was stand there and wait for show time!

So we had made it. In 1986 we had seen James Taylor together at the Hammersmith Odeon, a singer who at the time had meant a hell of a lot to Huw and now we would soon be seeing Bob Dylan together in the year 2000 a full 14 years later, seeing someone who meant a hell of a lot to me. It was three years since Bob had last played the CIA in Cardiff and on that occasion he had been introduced to the crowd in Welsh just before he had bounded onto the stage with something approaching a smile on his face. Back then it had been a show performed in the first flush of success from the 1997 release of Time Out of Mind and I wondered what it would be like this time. All would soon be revealed, it was just a question of time, of finding a bit more patience and not wishing for a second that there was any other place in the world I would rather have been than where I was.

Huw was fascinated by the stage equipment, he said it looked so old and I guess it was; old amps, racks of old guitars, like something from out of another time, another space. There were a hell of a lot of guitars in fact and it wasn’t long before the roadies were out there on the stage tuning them all up. I knew from the previous shows that Bob and boys went through a complete change of guitars after almost every number they played so there was a lot of tuning up to do. The most noticeable people up there for me being once again the young Oriental guy and also the huge guy with the beard and pony tail.  There was also the backdrop curtain behind the stage which reflected some of the lights and had the Bob Dylan Eye of Integrity emblazoned on it. It was something I meditated upon, thinking of all the times it had hung there behind Bob as he made his way around the world, playing shows in so many different places, doing his best to get the job done, despite the fact his job was never ending.

The great thing about seeing Bob in Cardiff for me and Huw was that we were going to have a completely unobstructed view of the stage, not unless a couple of giants came along and muscled their way in front of us. As the minutes slowly ticked on by our excitement grew and grew. For quite a while it seemed like the small crowd huddled around the front of the stage to which we belonged were the only people in the arena but gradually it began to fill up. It had a 5,500 capacity after all and the show was a complete sell out, so at some point the temperature was bound to rise. The majority of space was taken up by the standing area on the arena floor, with there being only limited seating around the sides. It meant that if Bob was on form and the crowd were up for it, there would be a great atmosphere as the Welsh were exceptionally good at getting into the spirit of things, especially when they were helped along by a little bit of alcohol, more than a little as a matter of fact.

We got talking for a while with a guy and his wife who had travelled up to Cardiff from Winchester in order to see the show. He was most intrigued when I ran the set list from Sheffield by him and gave him the news that Bob had played Dignity the night before. Guess it was true to say he was both intrigued and disappointed because Dignity was one of his favourite later period Bob songs and he now knew the chances of getting to hear it in Cardiff were decidedly slim as it only made an appearance every once in a while on the Never Ending Tour. In fact he could forget it because as far as I could work out there was no chance Bob was going to play it again anytime soon. He told us that he was due to see Bob in Cardiff, Portsmouth and Wembley and that he was also wondering whether or not to drive across to Europe to catch some of the Dutch and German shows as well. Earlier in the year he had followed Bob around some of his US dates on the Never Ending Tour and now in Cardiff he was on his 36th Bob show. Both of us knew that was still not much compared to real hardened Bob fans who had easily racked up hundreds concerts over the years, but still 36 Bob shows was nothing to be ashamed of. His wife was seeing Bob for the first time and the song she was hoping to hear Bob sing was My Back Pages, her own particular favourite from way back in 1964 and the Another Side of Bob Dylan album, however I thought the chances of him playing that one were going to be extremely remote but I didn’t like to tell her that was so.

At a certain point I looked around the arena in Cardiff, saw that the place was now quite full. Not long after that the familiar smell of incense came drifting over the heads of the people in the front rows of the crowd, wafting over in clouds from the back of the stage. The guy who we had been talking to turned around, joked to us that it was probably lit up in order to keep the smell of the crowd away from Bob, which was actually kind of quite funny, possibly not that far off the mark. I kind of favoured a more mystical interpretation myself, although if push came to shove I wouldn’t have been able to exactly put it into words. But there was a buzz in the air, there was a real sense of expectation and things had definitely moved up a level. I was feeling it myself and my heart was beating fast. It was getting close to show time all over again, I had that wonderful certainty of knowing without a shadow of a doubt Bob Dylan would very soon walk out on the stage and strap his guitar over his shoulder to sing his songs right in front of me and everyone else. My old friend Huw said his ticker was grinning like a Cheshire cat and yet again we laughed together, which was great, because let’s face it the older you get the harder it sometimes is to allow yourself to be thrilled in the way you used to be when you were younger. But Bob Dylan was the joy bringer who for me could cut across those boundaries and now, after a good few hours of standing and waiting, doing our penance, it felt like we were in a fit condition to receive whatever it was he was going to deliver.

When the lights were hit a massive roar went up from the crowd and high excitement was suddenly breaking out in the darkness. Things became accelerated, speeded up a bit, as figures could be made out at the back of the stage, then seconds later they were walking forward and picking up instruments leaning against the amplifiers. At exactly the same time that familiar voice of the guy with the huge beard and the pony tail came over the PA making the usual announcement,  “Ladies and Gentlemen would you please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!”

The moment we had been patiently waiting for had arrived and seconds later Bob was there right in front of us with Larry, Charlie and Tony too, as they seamlessly launched the show with Hallelujah I’m Ready to Go. With the incense smoke billowing from behind them, the misty red and blue stage lighting shone on their faces as the sound of the music sailed upwards and out into the packed arena. Hallelujah indeed! A different opener from Birmingham and Sheffield and I could tell almost immediately that Bob was also in a good mood. He actually looked like he might be happy. Maybe it was the Welsh crowd, their boundless enthusiasm which had given him a lift, maybe it was the Celtic vibe thing, being over on the west side of the British Isles I just don’t know. Whatever it was he definitely had a half smile on his face and he was also making positive eye contact with the crowd right in front of him.

Good signs, great signs in fact, as it was more than well known Bob had done countless shows whilst hardly looking at people at all, band members included. He had done some crowd gazing in Birmingham of course, but then there had been something intimidating about him, as if he had been challenging everyone to bring something with them to the table if they wanted to share the same space as him. At the NEC he had been like a prowling lion marking out his territory, but now in Cardiff he appeared a lot more welcoming. Tony Garnier was smiling too, leaning on his stand up bass, wearing his trilby hat whilst forever watching Bob, trying to anticipate his next move. Larry, Charlie and Dave Kemper on the drums all looked pretty cool as well and more importantly they sounded like they were up for it and ready to rock.

Song number two and Larry brought his fiddle out for what was a beautiful version of My Back Pages. The wife of the guy who had been talking to us before the start of the show had her wishes fulfilled as this was the song she had wanted to hear Bob play above all others and who would have thought he would have played it? Not me, that was for sure! It was another change to the set list, suddenly it seemed as if Times They Are a Changin’  had never existed in the number two slot, although it had only been the night before when it had sounded so fixed and permanent at that particular point of the show. My Back Pages brought the house down and the volume level of the crowd, already markedly higher than the previous two shows, was a good match for the playing power of Bob and the boys on stage. From where Huw and I were standing each time a song ended we were awash in a sea of outstretched arms reaching upwards and madly waving in warm Welsh abandon. Thousands of arms stretching out and reaching upwards! It was a blissful feeling for me to do the same as everyone else, to shout and cheer at the top of my voice. Good exercise, good therapy you might call it and something to be thoroughly recommended for anyone wishing to let off a little bit of steam.

If My Back Pages was a good song to play second in the set, the third was an absolute killer, an ultra powerful-beyond-words version of the epic Desolation Row from Highway 61 Revisited, the album which lay slap bang in the middle of Bob’s mid 60s Golden Trilogy. The current version Bob plays of this song is without doubt the best I have heard him do, primarily because Dave Kemper on the drums keeps it rocking along with plenty of decent kick which means that Bob gets to finish it in under ten minutes. Previously I had only heard him play either wholly acoustic or semi acoustic versions with no drums and the difference is a big one. Desolation Row is of course a great favourite, with all the serious Dylan fans waiting to hear him deliver those stream of consciousness words that he plucked out of the who knows where such a long time ago. This time around the place simply went wild; my arms were up in the air again and big sounds were coming out from the back of my throat. It felt like there was really not that much I needed in life to keep me happy when I was able to stand there and witness what Bob was giving us, well not exactly giving as we had all paid rather a lot of money for the tickets of course, but all the same it felt like a form of giving.

Bob was definitely much more animated than the previous two shows in Birmingham and Sheffield. It seemed like he had recognised some people in the crowd and he was playing with them throughout, toying with them, striking all those classic poses which make him so mesmerising to look at. Huw was looking at him intently, often when I turned to see how he was enjoying the show we would just crack up laughing if our eyes happened to meet. Bob was such a compelling performer – a kind of cross between a medieval minstrel, Charlie Chaplin, mystic poet, civil war soldier and parsnip faced Casanova with hunches – so there was plenty for Huw to concentrate his keen attention on. Sweat was already dripping from Bob’s head and face, onto his shoulders as he punched holes into those classic creations by way of his deliverance. It was entertainment of the highest order and things had barely even begun.

Somehow Bob managed to follow Desolation Row with a song which generated just as much excitement and appreciation from the crowd, a crystal clear Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. Suddenly we were in John Wesley Harding territory and pretty amazing it was too, especially considering how rarely over the course of the last 30 years or so since he wrote it  that Bob has actually performed this Bible shaped ballad. As if he had been blasted by paradox Bob looked kind of beautiful singing this one and gave us an awesome performance.

 Judas pointed down the road
And said, “Eternity !”
“Eternity ?” said Frankie Lee,
With a voice as cold as ice.
“That’s right,” said Judas Priest, “Eternity,
Though you might call it “Paradise”

Yes, paradise, indeed. There was Bob on the stage right in front of us, now playing better than he has ever played in my opinion, after 40 years of an unsurpassable career with the last 10 years of it being almost constantly on the road by way of the Never Ending Tour. What a sight, what a sound!

Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest meant that so far the first four songs of the set had been totally different from Sheffield and the NEC. Things got back to normal with the fifth however which was the ever present Tangled Up in Blue and it seemed like it was going to take something like a Hurricane to ever dislodge it from this particular part of the set! It was a hard, powerful, tummy kicking version and only just remained within the bounds of the acoustic part of the set, so close it was to blowing away many a would be electric performance. In almost no time at all the acoustic part of the main set was brought to an end with Searching for a Soldiers Grave which had seemed to have successfully muscled its way into that position in the set as currently it was a permanent feature and was therefore the second repetition from the previous show in Sheffield.

There was always something quietly symbolic about watching Bob plug in for the electric half of the show. After all it had been Bob plugging in which had caused him so many problems all those years ago in the 60s, whilst at the same time playing a big part in changing the face of modern music. A finger picking Country Pie only seemed to be a warm up for the song which followed, a rare outing for the sublime Blind Willie McTell a major Bob song from his Infidels recording sessions and probably the most notorious example of a classic creation which was inexplicably left off the final cut of the album. It was funny Bob should chose to play this one as it was one of the songs which Huw particularly liked and I still remembered how knocked out he had been when I had played the original version to him as found on the Bootleg Tapes Vols 1 –3 a few years previously. More mass ecstasy erupted from the Welsh crowd when the song was over, bringing to an end what was new song number five when compared with the sets played in Birmingham and Sheffield. There was now no doubt that Bob was giving a considerable shuffle to the pack in regard to his set list for Cardiff and it made me begin to wonder just how many more new ones we were going to get that evening.

Another song different from the two previous shows came next with an absolutely brilliant Tombstone Blues. This Highway 61 Revisited number has never been one of my top favourite Bob songs but this version was just fantastic, no other word for it. Bob, Larry and Charlie on electric guitars just made a one  hell of a racket; powerful, energised, forever moving in the right direction, it simply blew away all that dared to stand in its path. It seemed to be the case that as the years went by Bob was just getting louder and louder in his playing and clearly enjoying every minute of it. How did he do it? Most guys his age were grandfathers heading for retirement, but Bob in stark contrast to them was in the land of his own glory, bathing in the light of the sun of his genius, washing his ears out in it night after night and taking it all over the world whilst also getting paid for it. All the time turning the volume control up just a little bit more. It was flabbergasting and I was speechless! Best I could was just stand there raising my arms up in the air, looking up high above the speaker stacks which were hanging there suspended from the arena ceiling, like instruments of the prophet, letting the sound flow out, washing over everyone as we all bathed in its transcendence.

Tryin’ to Get Heaven which followed Tombstone Blues now sounded a lot more rounded than the first time I heard this particular version of it in Birmingham only a few days ago. Bluesy, lazy, kind of heavenly, this time Bob and the boys were spot on with their new rendition. Cold Irons Bound was as hard hitting as on the two previous shows, mental almost in its metallic brutality and after that the main set ended with yet another incredible take of Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat which I was fast becoming addicted to, forged as it was in that particular incarnation with Bob, Larry and Charlie lined up on the stage in another Fender guitar battalion.

Before we knew it Bob and the boys were stood in The Formation staring into the wildly cheering Welsh crowd, taking in their adulation whilst remaining expressionless and then one by one they left the stage. The crowd was going mad, there was just no other word for it and quite right too as the show so far had been a complete and utter stunner. Everyone knew it wouldn’t be long before Bob and the boys would be back for the encore, but that did not stop all of us from shouting at the tops of our voices to get them back on stage as soon as was humanly possible. It was just simply great to stand there on the floor, bathe in the darkness with all the wild appreciation going on around us, knowing that Bob and the boys would soon re-appear right there in front of us and start all over again.

Sure enough they didn’t let us down, they had no intention of letting us down and when they were back they launched straight into Things Have Changed. Still yet to deliver the definitive live version, I felt, but I guess there were a few shows to go yet in order for Bob to get that one sorted. Like a Rolling Stone which followed was possibly the best version I had heard Bob play yet, it was up there, right up there with Sheffield and out the other side into a luminous kingdom which can only be reached by following his awesome Fender guitar battalion pumping out the noise at very high volume. Bob fed off it in a big way, taking energy from the mass sing-along delivered by the crowd, which of course was illuminated in full by the bright lights shining out from above the stage. They then proceeded to go right into a beautiful version of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright which put folks straight into Freewheelin’ early 60s bliss and with good reason, as it was a version so unbelievably awesome it was hard to see how it could get much better. Now it seemed like we were all in those remote valleys of the clouds territory, where only a chosen few ever get to go, but Bob was our guide and he was taking us there by the hand by way of this performance.

There was a Welsh guy in front of me howling with joy, making some weird and wonderful shapes in the air with his arms and hands as if in communication with hidden powers, or powers at least which only he could see. Whatever his cosmology was I didn’t understand it but it really did not matter in the least, as he was like a Sufi dancer in a trance, coming from out of the depths of the Taff, that Welsh river which wound down the valleys and into Cardiff Bay. Bob was bringing that reaction out in people, it was as if we were witnessing the fulfilment of a potential which is always there, but the fiendish trick for anyone was how to master it and bring it out in performance. This little guy looked like he was releasing birds of peace into the sky, releasing them to fly in every direction. It made me feel kind of religious, that religious feeling which makes you think of the sacred, not the kind which makes you want to spout out hard headed dogma whilst closing your ears to the real truth which lay somewhere in the great beyond.

By the time we got to Watching the River Flow we were up to the eighth different song after the Birmingham and Sheffield shows and it was a great rolling version, paving the way for the final three songs of the night which were in the same order as what they had been in Sheffield; Forever Young, Highway 61 Revisited and Blowin’ In the Wind. The crowd sang their hearts out to Forever Young and Blowin’ whilst Highway 61 sandwiched between them was a final chance for Bob and the boys to rock everyone out of the arena, themselves included, by way of lining up yet again in that centre stage Fender guitar battalion. All I really remember about it was standing there next to Huw right in the middle of it all, rocking back on my heels a little bit, having a great big smile on my face as Bob Dylan – Mystery Tramp and Bread Crumb Sinner – came out of the mists with his mystical bag of healing potions and cured us yet again of all possible ills.

After a second Formation, during which Bob stood there in line with the boys staring out into the audience, arms at his side, shaking the last beads of sweat from out of his hair, it was the end of another night’s work well and truly done. There was then the final image of Bob turning his back, walking off stage for the last time that evening and we knew the show was over. Or at least I did! Bob virtually never played a set beyond 19 songs and we had now reached that threshold. My back was stiff, my armpits were soaking wet, my feet were fizzing, the whole of my body felt like it had been through the grinder. My new Bob t shirt already stank of sweat, my ears were ringing to the point where they felt like they had been thoroughly boxed, boxed, then boxed again just for good measure. None of these things mattered in the slightest however, in fact I would have been disappointed if it had been any other way. We had been given a glimpse of the promised land and those sights simply do not come cheap, never had done and never will. Huw and I had been there in Cardiff when Bob Dylan came to town in September 2000, played a set which had included for starters an extremely rare performance of Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and from that point on we had simply never looked back.

Setlist Cardiff International Arena 23rd September 2000 –

Hallelujah I’m Ready to Go
My Back Pages
Desolation Row
Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
Tangled Up in Blue
Searching for a Soldiers Grave
Country Pie
Blind Willie McTell
Tombstone Blues
Trying to Get Heaven
Cold Irons Bound
Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat
Things Have Changed
Like a Rolling Stone
Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright
Watching the River Flow
Forever Young
Highway 61 Revisited
Blowin’ In the Wind

 

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