Bob Dylan Live: Wembley Arena

This show is from October 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.

Well I got see Bob at Wembley but it was a close run thing, oh man oh man with one thing and another it really was a close run thing. I was due to meet Madeleine and Ngawang, a Swedish-Tibetan couple with whom I was going to see Bob, outside Wembley Park tube station at 7pm, in order to give them their tickets for the show. But massive problems on the tube meant that I didn’t get to Wembley Park until 7.15 because everything was running late. There was no sign of Madeleine and Ngawang but I wasn’t too worried about that as it was pretty clear everyone going to the show by tube was in the same boat as far as being delayed was concerned and that it would only be a matter of time before they appeared.

I hung around the entrance to the tube station, made sure I had all exits covered by keeping them in my line of vision. It was a fairly cold early October evening and it had now been a good ten days since I had last seen Bob when he played Portsmouth on a day of torrential rain. In between that show on the south coast and Wembley, Bob had been over on the continent performing in Belgium, Holland, Germany and France. Good shows too by all accounts; the reviews of them on the Net had almost all been very favourable. Now he was back in London, I was seeing the second of his two concerts at Wembley Arena and naturally enough I was rather looking forward to it.

Time went on and although hundreds of people now began to emerge from the tube there was no sign of Madeleine and Ngawang. After half an hour or so of waiting I was beginning to get itchy feet. It was now around 7.45, earlier in the tour Bob was coming on stage at this point, however I had read a review of the first Wembley show the night before on the Net where it had said that Bob didn’t come on until 8.10 which hopefully still gave me 25 minutes. So there was no need for me to panic just yet, all the same it did feel like things were getting a bit too close for comfort as time was pressing on.

By 8pm I was getting very nervous as there was still no Madeleine and Ngawang. Just what the hell had happened? It was disconcerting to stand there, see the bulk of people walk past me on their way to see Bob, as usually by this point I would have been with them, leading the way. My mind should have been full of the good stuff, such as intense anticipation over what Bob would be playing during the course of his 19 song set, instead of currently being caught up in cycles of worry and fear over the possibility  it was going to turn out to be a memorable night, but for all the wrong reasons. It was a decidedly tricky situation because if I abandoned my post now Madeleine and Ngawang would miss out on the show because I had their tickets and they simply wouldn’t know where the hell I had got to.

What was supposed to have been an exciting enjoyable build up to the show was now turning out to be completely horrible and I began to get bitter, very bitter indeed. Why the fuck did it always seem to be me who ended up in these kind of situations? Waiting for hours on end for people to turn up when they should have arrived ages go. By now I was sick of the sight of Wembley Park tube station having hung around there for the best part of an hour, way too long and watched everyone else who was waiting there meet up with their friends and happily walk down Wembley Way to the show.

By 8.10 it was virtually just me and the ticket touts who were still there, it was simply heartbreaking for me to find myself in such a situation, knowing what was just about to take place a few hundred yards down the road, or worse, already taking place. To say I was sick to the pit of my stomach barely began to describe how gutted I felt. It was now certain that the incense would have been lit by the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail, the roadies would have finished tuning up all the guitars, Bob would be just about ready to come on stage, waiting in the wings for the announcement to come over the PA before stepping into the light with the boys beside him to be greeted by a huge roar from the crowd. All the usual sweet anticipation which I got used to feeling and savouring, loving so much once inside the arena, had gone up in smoke on this occasion and it was devastating, simply devastating. There was sweet fuck all to be had by way of enjoyment from where I was standing, just a very bad time outside Wembley Park tube station was all I had experienced so far, leaving me feeling completely and utterly robbed, seething bitterly inside and cursing all the gods like there was no tomorrow. It wasn’t supposed to have been like this for the last night of my own brief time on the road following Bob around the country in the year 2000, no way was it supposed to have been like this. But it was!

Just past 8.15 I realised if I stayed there waiting for much longer I would miss half the show and that was just madness, pure madness. I therefore grabbed a tout, asked him how much he would take for the two standing tickets that I now had spare since it didn’t look like they were going to get used by Madeleine and Ngawang. He said he would take 30 quid for them and I accepted his offer without any hesitation whatsoever as there was no point in wasting any more precious time over haggling for a few bucks more. Better to try and cut my loses as much as possible and just get on with things. I had paid 25 quid each for them, plus a booking fee of £1.50 which meant I was damn near 22 quid down, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, if truth be told I felt pretty relieved to have even got 30 quid for them.

Now was the time to make a break for it, escape those haunted chambers of Wembley Park tube station which had become so familiar to me over the last desperate hour or so and all in the worst way possible. Immediately I very nearly got run over trying to cross the very busy, very nasty main road which naturally enough was suddenly full of traffic. When I eventually got onto Wembley Way I ran as fast as I could down to the Arena, overtaking the late comers whilst holding on to my Levis jacket to stop it madly flapping in the wind. It was the farthest and fastest I had run in years and it absolutely killed me if truth be told as it was sheer torture, simple as that. Wembley Arena seemed to get further and further away, like in a bad dream. My legs felt like they were wading through quicksand and mud, not getting anywhere, taking ages just to move a matter of inches.

In reality I guess I must have made it from the tube to the Arena in little more than three or four minutes which was pretty incredible if you think about it considering how bad my knees are. It meant by the time I arrived the blood was pumping through my veins a million miles an hour and I was very seriously out of breath. Turning the corner to dive into the entrance of the arena I almost knocked over Ngawang and Madeleine. I simply couldn’t believe it! This was now more than a bad dream, it was a complete nightmare!!! What were they doing there? Panting heavily, trying to get my breath back I hoarsely asked Ngawang what was happening, looking up at him as I bent double with my palms resting on my knees.

When we had made the arrangements earlier in the week we had agreed to meet outside the tube station at Wembley Park, simple as that. Now he told me he and Madeleine had waited at the tube station until 7.10 then made their way up to the Arena thinking that I would be there and that I would have brought my mobile phone. No! No! No! I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Hadn’t the arrangement been to meet outside the tube station?  Yes it had, simple as that! There had been no mention whatsoever of hanging around for 10 minutes or so and then going on up to the Arena. That simply hadn’t been part of the plan. They hadn’t stuck to the fucking plan, as a result of which I had waited at the tube station for over an hour for nothing and at the end of it had sold their fucking tickets!

With there being no time to spare I told them what I had done. The tickets which I had bought for us were in the standing section on the floor and in front of the stage, now I only had one of them left and that was mine. What the hell was I supposed to do now? Thinking quickly I turned round, grabbed the nearest ticket tout and asked him what he had to offer us. He said he had three seats together and he would trade them for my one remaining standing ticket plus 60 quid. Well there was no time to stand around and haggle, that luxury was long gone, as I knew full well the show would have already started and I was simply desperate to get inside. I stuffed my hand into my jeans pocket and gave him three twenties along with that last remaining standing ticket. Under the circumstances it didn’t seem like I had done too bad but I have to say at that point I was not at my best in terms of sitting down to do some calculations. Once in possession of the new tickets I quickly led Madeleine and Ngawang into the arena where, after the usual confusion of trying to work out which entrance we were supposed to go through, we were soon in the darkened concert hall being shown to our seats.

Bob was already on stage just as I had fully expected he would be and I instantly recognised Desolation Row  which sounded at that point like he was more or less halfway through it. By the time we actually sat down I was fairly confident that this meant it was the third number of the set. If that was the case I guess things were not too bad as we would still get to hear 16 ½ songs out of what would be a 19 song set. The effect from the mad dash down Wembley Way caught up with me big time when I sat down in my seat. It was as much as I could do to stop myself from bending over double and collapsing into a fit of coughing. My chest was feeling pretty damn painful and tight, my pulse was still beating so fast that I realised it was going to take me a good while to come to my senses and tune into the vibe of the show. Desolation Row was therefore done and dusted whilst I was still deep inside my own head struggling to fully connect with my new surroundings.

Nevertheless I had enough presence of mind to recognise Girl from the North Country which came next and which I felt reasonably confident was song number four. If Tangled Up in Blue followed I would indeed be right because Tangled was always without fail song number 5 in the set list running order on this particular leg of the Never Ending Tour. Girl from the North Country sounded pretty great but I was still in a bit of a state, not really in any position to receive it in a full and proper way. Physically I was still trying to recover from the run from the station, mentally I was now in turmoil, worrying about just what the hell Madeleine and Ngawang thought of me for going ahead and selling their tickets before almost knocking them over like a lunatic. But what the hell had Ngawang been thinking of just going off after waiting barely 15 minutes?

Why had I been made to go through such a horrible experience waiting at the station? Why had the gods hung me out to dry? My first thought in relation to it all was that maybe it was a clear sign for me to cut back on seeing Bob. After all, Wembley Arena was my fifth Bob show in just over 2 weeks, maybe I was over indulging, being a bit too greedy for my own good and now paying the price for it. My last Bob show had been down in Portsmouth a couple of weeks ago and that had turned out to be a complicated affair by way of going off at tangents I just hadn’t anticipated. All those dreams, all that energy, all the hope channelled into Bob and for what exactly? Surely there was something better I could do with my life? This felt to me like it was one short sharp lesson as a consequence of not being prepared to give it all up, of being a bit more responsible and getting back on the straight and narrow.

As Girl from the North Country further seduced the audience whilst leaving me still unable to fully connect with it, I also began to count the cost of the last half hour. Basically after all the selling and buying back of tickets had been taken into account it had just cost me a cool £112.50 for the three seats we now occupied, seats on the side of the arena, approximately 2/3 of the way down the hall from the stage. Wow! That was pricey, no two fucking ways about it and of course I had yet to get the money out of Madeleine and Ngawang for the original tickets. My wallet was taking a good old battering that was for sure and for a couple of minutes I compounded my feelings of discomfort by having gloomy pictures in my mind of Madeleine and Ngawang refusing to pay me at the end of the evening because I had gone and fucked things up. It was all a bit on the expensive side to say the least, I felt more than a little sick with myself for being into Bob to such an extent that I was prepared to spend a large amount of money on him and so quickly as well. The fact that it was the first time in many a long year that I had heard Bob play Girl from the North Country was scant compensation. At that moment in time I was consumed with guilt, filled with all kinds of negative feelings regarding how I was conducting my affairs. Shit, £112.50! And at the end of all that we were 2/3 of the way down the hall and quite far away from the stage.

Tangled Up in Blue was indeed the next song up and for the first time in a while I began to feel a bit better about things. I had been right, spot on in fact, when I had reckoned we had come in halfway through the third number. That was good, maybe I wasn’t so out of sync after all. We had only missed out on 2½ songs and as Tangled gathered pace I began to wonder what those first two numbers might have been. Well, the opener would have been a cover that was for sure, as it always was, but what would have been song number two? Maybe Times They Are a Changin’  had got reinstated or maybe Bob had pulled a nugget from out the bag which I would later on kick myself for not having heard him play. In fact later that evening I was to find out from the Net that Duncan and Brady and Song to Woody were the two songs I had missed out on. Shit! I really would have given a lot to have heard Bob do Song to Woody, a song which had appeared on Bob Dylan his very first album, that really was a nugget from out of the bag, but that was just the way it went I guess, when you were out of favour with the gods it all goes to pot.

Nevertheless as Tangled up in Blue progressed I did indeed feel like I was finding my feet again. My coughing fit had eased off, I began to take note of our surroundings and I was pleasantly surprised to realise that on closer analysis our seats were in fact not that bad at all. We might have been quite far back but we still had a good view of things on stage, we also had a great view of the crowd and the whole of the rest of the arena. It was clear from looking around that this second Wembley show was not a sell out but I guess it was pretty close. Things seemed pretty relaxed in fact, with there being a good amount of room on the floor for those who were standing, for people to dance if they wanted to, so all in all things were very comfortable for everyone. We were also in a perfect position to appreciate the lights, whilst the sound coming from the speaker stacks was absolutely spot on. Bob and the boys sounded just great, fucking excellent, no question whatsoever about that. Tangled Up in Blue of course had some pretty good shadow lights to accompany it and I really enjoyed watching them beam over the heads of the crowd right from the back of the hall. Nice one! From where we were it felt like we were getting the complete picture, on top of all that Bob pulled a Tangled Up in Blue out of the bag that rose above the run of the mill, way above in fact, as it was quite simply excellent.

Bob himself had also changed in appearance yet again, after all at times he was the ultimate shape shifter, about that there was really no question. From my sitting position in the arena he now seemed to look like he was in his late 30’s or early 40’s, an age I had never really thought about before in the context of this particular cycle of shows. He had either looked incredibly old or very young up until this point but now from the middle of the stage he was displaying the power and presence of  a man in his prime. I thought for a moment he was up there in front of us wearing a leather jacket instead of his usual suit, necktie and cowboy boots. It was odd, it was beguiling, it was also quietly fascinating. Searching for a Soldiers Grave finished the opening acoustic part of the set and it was one more number through which I could just sit and recover from the trauma of our late entrance. By the time it was over I feeling like my old self again, in fact I now felt a lot more positive and I was looking forward to the electric part of the show.

Yes, I was feeling better all the time and when Country Pie kicked off the electric set things continued going in the right direction because it was a pretty damn excellent take with Bob, Larry and Charlie loosening up their fingers on their Fender guitars and by dint of their nimble picking they were shining a light into the darkest corners of the arena. In other words Country Pie just about brought the house down which was all the more surprising when one considered it had started life as just a minor cut from the Nashville Skyline album over 30 years ago. I was now beginning to really enjoy myself, any bad thoughts and feelings over the pre-show fiasco cum complete and utter disaster were receding by the minute, by the second in fact.

Blind Willie McTell came next, the second time I had heard this song during this current series of shows and it was a lot better than the take Bob and the boys did of it down in Cardiff. This time around there was some brilliant guitar work by Charlie, Bob sang clear as a bell, placing all of us in that room of the St James Hotel, waiting for the tolling of another bell beneath the light of the Southern Cross. It was simply fantastic, yet another occasion when Bob delivers a performance which just elevates things to another level entirely. Miraculous really, it was like taking a drug when Bob was able to do that, a very high quality drug causing all my recent doubts over the actions I had taken to simply fade away.

What came next however was even better. An absolutely brilliant Standing in the Doorway from Time Out of Mind and one of those songs that he does not get around to performing so often, which means that when he does it is a bit of a treat. It had a long musical introduction, slowly building up before Bob stepped up to the microphone and sang it beautifully, treating it with a level of care and consideration which was heart warming to witness. As I sat there looking at the stage with Bob and boys on it, I got that feeling which I have had so many times before when seeing Bob Dylan play live. That there was simply no other performer like him anywhere on the planet, not even close and when he’s gone there won’t be anyone else for many years to come, centuries even, who will be able to match him. Standing in the Doorway was a transformation. It took me someplace deep, full of light and well-being that made me glow from the within as Bob painted another one of his pictures of eternal longing on Heartbreak Avenue in Sunset Town. After all it was still not so long ago that I had been waiting at Wembley Park tube station cracking up with stress, in the depths of the deepest misery, getting more and more filled up with all kinds of negativity, seriously questioning why I was seeing Bob yet again.

Now I was getting a clear, unmistakable answer, an answer strong enough to ensure I would always be back for more. The answer was simply that seeing Bob Dylan live, listening to him perform up there on stage made me feel extremely happy. It made my life richer, tons richer if truth be told and there was simply no getting away from that indisputable fact. As I sat there and watched Bob, a distant figure on the stage beneath all the lights in front of thousands of people, I just felt so glad I was able to see him again because I knew I could have gone thousands of miles in any direction and never seen or heard anything remotely like him in a million years. Standing in the Doorway could have gone on for hours for all I cared. I was lost in the shadows of those slow burning landscapes of desolation, loss and love it so effortlessly conjured up, walking through its sun filled pastures with the maker of those scenes painting pictures right before my eyes. Bob was offering a powerful gift, giving us a message which if we so chose we could take away with us and use it to turn on the light in our own lives. No doubt about it, Bob was unbelievable, simple as that!

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Cold Irons Bound and Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat comprised the remainder of the electric set. I sat there blissfully happy throughout, drinking down deep their sometimes hooligan but never less than top quality noise. All those bad feelings from earlier on, all those doubts from barely an hour ago were so far away now it was amazing to think they could have ever existed. I just sat there in my seat, enjoying the incredible playing and singing of Bob Dylan and his band, taking in the lights from the stage shining over the heads of all those thousands of people inside the concert hall, illuminating this solitary, distant and sometimes strange figure who was such an important part of the lives of so many people. And of course yet again it was another stunning Fender guitar battalion take of Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat that brought to a close the main set.

Well, I see you got a new boyfriend
You know, I never seen him before
Well, I saw him makin’ love to you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill box hat

The end of the main set came way too soon, all the more so because of course I had arrived 2 and a half songs late. As Bob and the boys lined up for another Formation taking in the wild appreciation of the cheering crowd, remaining stationery and expressionless before one by one walking off the stage, my mind was already thinking about the encore, what might be on offer for us on what, for a whole number of crazy reasons, was turning out to be a very special evening indeed.

The usual break of five or so minutes followed, which gave me a chance to talk with Madeleine and Ngawang, to see what they thought of the show. I had become so absorbed in watching and listening to Bob and the boys that I really didn’t know what they had made of it because I hadn’t really paid them any attention. Probably it was my unconscious wanting to blot the painful beginning to the evening right out of my mind. Madeleine seemed pretty positive about what she had seen and listened to, no doubt about that and it was clear I would talk to her in depth about it after the show was over. As for Ngawang I wasn’t too sure whether he was into it or not, it was quite possible he was pissed off over the tickets fiasco, the screwed up meeting, but as far as I was concerned that whole episode now belonged to the past and far, far away after the last hour or so of redemption I had received from Bob.

When Bob and the boys returned they launched straight into Things have Changed which went down well with the crowd but the reception it got was modest compared to what the next one received, which was of course Like a Rolling Stone. Yet again it was played as if Bob had only just written it the week before, so fresh, so full of life and vigour did it sound. The great majority of the arena was now on its feet, the whole of the crowd bathed in the powerfully bright lights that shone over them from above the stage, giving Bob and boys a really good chance to see exactly who was out there, and then for them to decide whether it meant that much to them or not.

Like a Rolling Stone was followed by the obscure thirty year old cut If Dogs Run Free from Bob’s underrated early 70s New Morning album which had been released in a rush after Self Portrait, a work which had been savaged by the critics. I had read on the Net that Bob had astounded everyone earlier that week when playing in Cologne by giving Dogs its first ever live performance. Now it seemed like it had worked its way into the set for a run which might just last this evening, or which might carry on for months to come if Bob got into it. Yes, it all depended on him I guess, whether or not it would fit in with how he was currently feeling about things. What we had in Wembley was an acoustic version of the song which, as it was still in its infant stages as far as performances on the Never Ending Tour go, meant it would probably be fleshed out to a far greater degree and depth over the course of time, if time was what it got.

All Along the Watchtower followed If Dogs Run Free and it most mightily rocked the arena to its foundations, the way the lights played over the heads of the crowd whilst Bob and the boys made some seriously doom laden electric noise with visions of the apocalypse just over the horizon, was immensely enjoyable. I just sat looking up at the three speaker stacks suspended from the ceiling and I couldn’t help thinking what an utterly brilliant show it had turned out to be, initially of course against all the odds. It has taken Bob Dylan 40 years to get to this point, constantly refining his art, constantly taking his show on the road, performing in front of people all over the world. When you see it and hear it you realise how it has been worth it, not just for the generations able to witness it now, but hopefully for more generations to come. There was also no doubt in my mind that at these times this is also the only place Bob wants to be. He knows damn well that the music being created by him and the boys is top quality fantastic stuff that just would not be found anywhere else on the planet.

I Shall be Released replaced Forever Young as third song from the end in the encore and it was a heartfelt version, harking back to those late 60s times when it was first recorded with The Band. It was followed by another trail blazing Highway 61 Revisited with Bob and the boys lined up on stage in Fender guitar battalion mode yet again and in no mood whatsoever to take any prisoners by way of the pure electric noise they were mercilessly pumping out, seemingly just for the lovely, lovely hell of it. Blowin’ In the Wind finished it all off, just like it had every night I had seen him on this particular jaunt following him around the country, an iconic song sending those imaginary doves from way back when flying out over Wembley Arena and into the London night. And that was it. The crowd were cheering wildly but it was all to no avail, there would be no second encore, not even for Wembley Arena. After they lined up for the final Formation I knew that Bob and the boys would not be back, 19 songs was the limit, you would have to be very lucky to get any more out of him although of course it was not unknown, but it was very rare if truth be told.

I just sat there in my seat smiling to myself, quietly laughing over the fact that such an awesome performance  from Bob and the boys most certainly did not come cheap, well not at least as far as I was concerned. As we made our way out of the arena Madeleine told me how much she had enjoyed the show, how the songs had seemed to her to be so full of hope and in one sense she said that Bob was exactly like how she thought he would be. I stepped back a bit and realised that after all these times seeing Bob I had never actually thought Bob’s songs were indeed hopeful and the funny thing was that she was absolutely right. Bob is often ridiculed as being one of the most miserable people on the planet, but if you thought about it, his music contains such incredible optimism and light it was powerful enough to enrich your life a thousand times over.

Setlist Wembley Arena 6th October 2000 –

Duncan and Brady
Song toWoody
Desolation Row
Girl from the North Country
Tangled Up in Blue
Searching for a Soldiers Grave
Country Pie
Blind Willie Mctell
Standing in the Doorway
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Cold Irons Bound
Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat
Things Have Changed
Like a Rolling Stone
If Dogs Run Free
All Along the Watchtower
I Shall be Released
Highway 61Revisited
Blowin’ In the Wind

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