Bob Dylan Live: Portsmouth Guildhall

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.

Portsmouth Guildhall really was quite a lot different from the other places I had so far seen Bob on my little tour, far from being an arena that was for sure! It was a pretty old looking building and of course the vital factor for the Bob fans who made the trip was that it was small, a great place in other words to get close to greatness. I walked through the foyer in no time at all, the merchandise stand which at the other venues had been huge and sprawling now looked no bigger than a local market stall, with all the t-shirts and other stuff set out for sale on what were little more than a couple of wooden tables. The hall inside was tiny compared to the other places I had seen Bob that week, holding just over 2000 people, barely a quarter of the size of the Sheffield Arena for example, which could hold around 12,000. At the back of the floor standing area in the stalls were a couple of rows of seats on slightly raised platforms, above the stalls was an all seated balcony which looked like being the best place to see the show, especially if you were in the front as you would be looking right down at Bob on the stage. The ceiling was very high and ornately decorated, but it had obviously not been possible to have Bob’s speaker stacks suspended from it, so they sat instead like two black mountains at either end of the stage ready to pump out the noise which was going to made by Bob and the boys.

Due to the fact that I had waited for quite a while outside trying to sell the Wizard’s ticket, there were already a fair few people huddled around the area in front of the centre of the stage, which I guess was a bit of a bummer considering the fact I had arrived in town hours ago. Nevertheless I made straight for the centre of that floor space and secured myself a reasonable position about eight rows from the front which under the circumstances was not too bad at all. My first observation of the crowd was that there were considerably fewer women than at the other shows and that the vast majority of the people already there had obviously seen Bob many times before. There was no doubt about that and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe there was something desperate about us coming all the way down to Portsmouth to see him on a miserably wet Monday night. But I had been through those kind of thoughts before and it was doubtful they were ever going to stop me from doing it all again if similar opportunities arose in the future.

Nevertheless the doubts continued as after all what were we really expecting to hear and see? Everyone knew full well it would be a 19 song set with certain numbers from the Bob canon guaranteed to get played; Tangled Up in Blue, Like a Rolling Stone, Highway 61 Revisited, Blowin’ in the Wind all of those for sure, guaranteed, a done deal. In that regard there must have been more than one or two of us quietly harbouring feelings of dread over their inevitable appearance at the same points in the show. Did we really need to be there to hear Bob play them yet again? Maybe Bob asked the same question of us as well, but if he did he was not providing anything in the way of solutions, then again he didn’t really have to. Maybe we were all just not confronting some unmistakable facts in our lives, were merely running away from them, filling up our own personal voids with Bob, ducking the hard questions whilst hiding in the safety of the crowd. Or maybe the simple fact of the matter was that I was just tired, that it was my fourth Bob show in under a week, going to see him up and down the country and that maybe things were beginning to catch up with me.

The hassle over the spare ticket, my failure to sell it, the constantly pissing down rain had obviously taken more out of me than I had anticipated. As I stood there in the middle of the crowd with the temperature of the hall constantly rising as it began to fill up, I began to seriously ask myself why I wanted to put myself through such an experience. Suddenly I felt shattered and would have liked nothing more than to have just been able to sit down somewhere and take a rest, as it felt like I was all out of answers as to why I was doing what I was doing. To make matters worse there was a really irritating German standing right behind me who was complaining incessantly about the heat and discomfort which we were all experiencing as the place got more and more packed. Well, just what did he expect? We were in a goddamned flea pit of a place in Portsmouth on a Monday night miles away from anywhere. At least I knew suffering was indeed part of the deal when it came to seeing Bob in such situations, we had to pay our dues in one way or another, it was just the price the gods came up with. For the first time that week I was finding it hard to generate those feelings of intense anticipation from knowing that I would soon be seeing Bob step on the stage right there in front of me. There was a little while to go yet however, so maybe those feelings would just creep up on me and the magic would indeed begin all over again.

It was funny looking at the stage in the Portsmouth Guildhall. With all the equipment of Bob and boys up on it, in the current circumstances there barely seemed to be enough room for it at all. A guitar rack had a red Bad Dog sticker on it which for some reason made me think how much Bob liked dogs, as I had read this fact in a recent book on him I had bought and he had also once written a song called If Dogs Run Free, a song which he’d stuck on his under the radar creepin’ New  Morning album in the very early 70s. The irritating German behind me with the big mouth was still complaining about the temperature, but now there was no doubting about the fact it was now getting pretty damn hot inside the Guildhall and also extremely packed. The place had filled up very quickly and people were already shouting for Bob to come on stage, they were obviously hopeful, but it seemed a bit premature as judging from the state of the current pre-show rituals I knew there was some way to go yet before things would get started.

The huge guy with the beard and the pony tail had only just lit the incense with the blow torch at the back of the stage and the incense was there to waft over the crowd for at least 20 minutes before each show. The young Oriental guy was also still tuning the guitars on the stage, so I knew we would all have to be patient for a little while longer as there were a certain number of things that still had to be performed before the real performance began. The incense soon made its presence felt, with clouds of Nagchampa floating over the packed crowd in front of the stage, raising the excitement levels of people a couple of notches higher.

As time went on it did indeed appear this was the night on the tour that Bob was choosing to come on late, just when everyone needed him to appear sooner rather than later, in order for him to relieve the inevitable discomfort being felt by the crowd packed into the Guildhall. For me there was now the distinct impression of being little more than a sardine in a can and it was becoming more and more unpleasant by the second. Usually show time was 7.45 but by 8pm there was still no sign of anything happening and I was beginning to quietly pray for things to get started. I was getting very uncomfortable, others were really becoming quite agitated, shouting for Bob to come on with more than a hint of desperation in their voices. Plenty of people were unable to appreciate the fact that they had put themselves in that situation, that it was no use blaming Bob as the chances were he wasn’t even yet inside the building. Finally however, after what seemed an age but which in reality was probably not that long at all, there was movement at the back of the stage.

The roar from the crowd was as much from relief as anything else when the familiar announcement of “Ladies and Gentlemen would you please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!” was sent out over the PA by the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail. The next thing we knew Bob and the boys were right there in front of us, right there on the stage in – of all places – Portsmouth Guildhall way down on the south coast of England.

Just as I had anticipated Bob looked pretty disinterested right from the start. Actually he looked shattered. This was his fourth night in a row playing shows, I guess it was only natural that at the age of 59 it would take a bit out of him after a while. It was taking enough out of me and I was a complete nobody who didn’t have to worry about the attentions of anyone else in the whole wide world, who could just slip in and out of situations like a ghost if he so chose. Bob on the other hand had to live and breathe whilst being in the spotlight, at least for the two hours of the show, knowing that virtually everything he did would be subject to the myriad interpretations of the people screaming their adulation at him from out of the dark. No wonder then, if he wasn’t feeling up to it on this occasion, looked instead like he was blanking us and that if he could he would have gone to bed.

First song up was Hallelujah I’m Ready to Go, the same opener as at the Cardiff International Arena a couple of nights ago but not as punchy. The cards in the pack were immediately shuffled around with the next number however which was Mr Tambourine Man. Quite a surprise to hear this one so early on in the set, in Sheffield it had made an appearance but firmly in the middle of the encore where in my opinion it quite rightly belonged. Nevertheless I really enjoyed this particular take of Tambourine Man, it wasn’t transcendent but it was satisfyingly mystical in an off-hand Monday night in Portsmouth kind of way. To me it summed up the show, in that whilst Bob didn’t really look like he had much of an appetite for singing or being out front, the musicianship was just excellent, Bob’s guitar playing included, helping to create a compelling scene before us. Bob would begin some lines of Tambourine Man standing well back from the microphone so no one could hear them, then by the time he reached the microphone the line was already halfway through, giving the impression that he was singing outside in a very strong breeze exposed to the elements and I’ve got admit that I enjoyed the effect immensely.

Equally enjoyable, more so in fact, was song number three, the wonderfully appropriate and right back to the early 60s doom laden prophecy of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. This was one of Bob’s early songs I had really got into over the summer, for some reason having overlooked it before and it simply staggered me to think Bob wrote this song when he was not far past the age of 21. With the boys in Portsmouth he played it slow and lazy, with lots of musical richness so that it felt just perfect. It seemed to me that Bob was now tuned into the mood of the night on quite a deep level, was now adjusting the delivery of his work accordingly. He knew full well that it wasn’t going to be a powerful show with lots of interaction between him and the audience, not that there was ever too much of that if truth be told. After all it was a rainy Monday night in Portsmouth and it was difficult for anyone to channel that good time wild Saturday night vibration under such circumstances. No, the music instead reflected the murkiness of the atmosphere, the lashing rain outside whilst being stuck down on the coast. The sound for a start was not as clear as it had been at the other shows, but it had a depth and seriousness about it that made it one for the connoisseur and I was slowly beginning to really enjoy it. Slowly but surely it felt like Bob was lifting me out of the doldrums.

What came next was another outing for Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. Bob had only played this one on Saturday in Cardiff, to hear him play it again so soon was a real shock as this John Wesley Harding song had been treated to only a handful of performances by Bob since he wrote it way back in 1968. For it to get two outings within a week must have been almost unprecedented, but this Priest wasn’t half as good as Cardiff, mainly because the song relied heavily on crisp delivery of the narrative and Bob simply wasn’t in the mood when it came to clearly singing the words, adding the right inflexions which would have been needed to elevate it above the ordinary. In Cardiff the song had been so sharp and focused that Bob had looked like he was enjoying every minute of it, whilst this version of Priest in Portsmouth was weary by comparison. But again there was something lurking just beneath the surface which made it strangely compulsive in an undefined, hand of fate by the roadside kind of way.

Tangled Up in Blue followed that rare collectors’ Priest and I have to say on this one Bob’s singing was poor, the worst of the night, almost to the point of being completely unintelligible. He didn’t so much fluff his lines, which everyone expected him to do from time to time, as just leave whole chunks of verses out of the song altogether, replacing them with little more than mumbles. It was seeming pretty clear to me now that he really needed to give Tangled a good long rest, but it appeared he just hadn’t got around to coming up with a suitable replacement for it at that point in the set. It was tough going for me, standing there in the closely packed crowd of the Guildhall, hoping like hell he would quickly get to the end of it as it was a really poor effort from Bob this time around. The acoustic section of the set ended as usual with Searching for a Soldier’s Grave by way of a version which was distinctly unremarkable. So there we are, the first part of the set was over in what seemed like no time at all, with Tambourine Man and Hard Rain being the best of the bunch by far.

Bob was having very little to do with the audience but as far as I was concerned this was hardly unexpected. The response from the crowd as well had so far been very different from Cardiff, it was muted, as if the energy level which Bob was on transmuted itself to everyone else in the hall. There was also the fact that due to the tightly packed conditions everyone was feeling more than a little uncomfortable, possibly less vociferous as a consequence instead of more. Bob was sweating buckets as usual, sweating like hell in fact and working hard, but it all seemed as if it was like a day down in the mine for him, where he was only finding bedrock and little in the way of gold. All the same I have to say that I really enjoyed it, just standing there observing the process, even if things were not quite at their best.

Country Pie kicked off the electric part of the proceedings and as usual it was just great.

Oh me oh my
Love that country pie
Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime
What do I care ?

This one off Nashville Skyline was in honour of his mother who had recently passed away.

The highlight of the show for me came next with what was a collector’s edition of She Belongs to Me, all the way from the first album in his mid-60s Golden Trilogy, namely Bringing It All Back Home. Bob didn’t sing it particularly well but that didn’t stop it from being great to hear and the stage was bathed in blue and red light which suited the mood of the song perfectly, Egyptian almost, with a little bit of trance thrown in for good measure. Somehow just to hear him perform She Belongs to Me  was enough to banish all those troublesome thoughts and worries I’d been having over failing to sell my spare ticket earlier on, either to another fan or to one of those tout lizards. Suddenly all that crap really didn’t matter, I was back in the zone and thoroughly enjoying myself in the process, witness once more to another strangely compelling performance from what was this time a rainy day Bob up there on the stage in front of me. The lighting stayed that way for the next song too, which again was another repetition from Cardiff, this time in the form of Tombstone Blues. It was another excellent version which transported one back into the light of the radiance bursting out from what was Highway 61 Revisited.

As mentioned before, Bob’s singing was definitely not spot on but the music from the boys was strong enough to carry him through, in fact it was a kind of laid back understated approach which more than suited the situation. The way Bob and the boys were playing was entirely in keeping with the surroundings, making it something to meditate upon at the beginning of another hard week, with the rain outside falling on down like it was never going to stop. Nothing was wildly fantastic but everything was still quietly excellent. Maybe that was the difference compared to years gone by when a bad night with Bob really could be a bad night, bad to the point of terrible. Things have changed in that regard as it is now clear Bob has taken responsibility for his path, reconciled himself to his fate as the Song and Dance Man, Carnival Jester and Mystery Tramp who so many people turn to.

Tryin’ to Get to Heaven in its new form was given an airing for the third time in under a week, however because it is a song which relies on a good vocal delivery it suffered somewhat because of Bob’s distinct lack of interest in bothering to sing clearly the words to his songs that night. But that was fine, by now I knew the territory we were in. The next number was Drifter’s Escape which was a truly scorching version and certainly blew away any cobwebs which might have slowly been beginning to form over the night’s proceedings. It really was wicked, great to hear it in such a radically transformed and hard as hell way from its John Wesley Harding original and needless to say it went down a storm. The main set then ended with another rock solid Everything Is Brokenfrom the 1989’s Oh Mercy. It was watertight, played straight down the middle so that it gave us all a smack between the eyes to which we could only react by standing there cheering wildly when it was over. So that brought the electric part of the main set to a close, then it was time for another Formation, with Bob and the boys both expressionless and motionless, standing in a line at the front of the stage taking in the appreciation from the audience before turning round one by one and walking off back into the shadows, with Bob of course the last to go.

So by way of a very wet, long and winding road it was turning out to be quite an interesting show! Nothing like the other shows that I had seen Bob perform so far on this little jaunt around the country, that was for sure. Outside it was a wet Monday night in Portsmouth, inside the venue was cramped and packed, the sound was muddy, Bob was not in the mood to really sing, he often did not make it to the microphone in time for the words to make that much sense, but nevertheless despite all this it was still at times extremely enjoyable. The audience which seemed to mainly comprise of serious Bob Dylan fans was a bit uptight compared to those at the other shows, but maybe that could be put down to some of the crowd having excessive expectations, hoping they were going to be treated to a show full of rarities and little played classics. But even after all these factors were taken into consideration it was all still immensely entertaining with plenty of things to contemplate, reflect upon in a more meditative kind of way, long after it was all over.

When Bob and the boys came back on the stage the encore began with Things Have Changed. I have to say that, although this was now the fourth time I had heard it live and whilst none of the takes had so far come up to par with the recorded version, which is a bit of a latter day Bob classic, this Things in Portsmouth was definitely the closest so far, to the point where it was very good indeed. Like a Rolling Stone kept its number two slot in the encore section, yet again Bob and the boys delivered a truly stunning version with Larry excelling on guitar as he took the lead that night by stepping forward from out of the Fender guitar battalion on the cramped stage and letting rip right in front of us. It certainly brought the house down, pretty much like it always did, and Bob then followed it with another deep 60s cut in the form of It Ain’t Me Babe. This was the second time for me to hear it during this particular cycle of shows and again, just like at the Birmingham NEC, it was a version which seemed to be lacking something compared to how he has done it in years gone by, although it was difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what was missing, its heart breaking evocation maybe, just don’t know. Watching the River Flow was a another repetition from Cardiff, again it was different, not as powerful maybe or as energised, but fascinating nonetheless. It is another great number when played in this way, in which Bob and the boys can stretch their legs on their electric guitars, until there comes a point in the song where it all just effortlessly rolls along, making it top quality music to stand there and listen to, whilst giving the illusion it seemed so damn easy to play, when of course it most certainly wasn’t.

The final three songs of the encore followed the exact same format as Sheffield and Cardiff namely Forever Young, Highway 61 Revisited and Blowin’ In the Wind. It was towards the end of Forever Young that Bob looked up, seemed to notice the people sitting in the balcony for the first time, as it was one of shows where Bob had just not made eye contact with the crowd at all, hardly bothering to look at them all night. There had been no poses or comical postures, there had been hardly any hint of a smile throughout the whole of the proceedings so far. Now, however, he seemed to become transformed. He kept looking up at the front row of the balcony, like he seemed to have chosen one person there who he was playing to and no one else. Maybe it was a stunningly beautiful woman who had caught his eye, there was just no way to tell from where I was standing whilst being down in the stalls and so close to the front. The point was that Bob didn’t stop looking up at the balcony for the remainder of Forever Young and then continued throughout the whole of Highway and Blowin’. It really was quite something. All of us in the crowd who were standing at his feet down in the stalls were craning our necks and looking upwards to see just who it was he was playing to. Bob really did become supremely animated, in the space of those two and half songs he struck more poses and smiled on more occasions than what he had throughout the whole of the previous 16 ½ numbers of the set. It was both rather strange and yet quietly glorious at the same time.

Naturally when Blowin’ in the Wind was finished that was the end of the show, the energy level of audience had become unexpectedly raised because of the very last part of the proceedings, leaving everyone cheering wildly until Bob and the boys finally disappeared off the stage and into the wet Portsmouth night. There was a real buzz about the place as the lights came on as people slowly shook the sweat from their bodies and made for the exits. When I got to the door I took one last look at the stage where the roadies were already clearing away all the equipment, packing it up, their minds no doubt already on how the next place along the road was going to be on this the Never Ending Tour. I walked back into the foyer, straight to the merchandise stall in fact, where I got myself a Bob Dylan Highway 61 coffee mug and a rather handsome A3 size Bob poster, blowing at least 20 quid in the process. Outside the Guildhall it was still raining, pissing down in fact and I realised that I would now be very glad to now hit the road and get the hell out of Portsmouth. And who knows, maybe not so far away Bob was thinking exactly the same thing.

Setlist Portsmouth Guildhall 25th September 2000 –

Hallelujah I’m Ready to Go
Mr Tambourine Man
A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
Tangled Up in Blue
Searching for a Soldier’s Grave
Country Pie
She Belongs to Me
Tombstone Blues
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven
Drifter’s Escape
Everything Is Broken
Things Have Changed
Like a Rolling Stone
It Ain’t Me Babe
Watching the River Flow
Forever Young
Highway 61 Revisited
Blowin’ In the Wind

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