Bob Dylan Live: London Docklands Arena

This show is from 2002 when I went down the road in my home town to see Bob Dylan play a show at the now long defunct London Docklands Arena on May 11th when he was touring the UK on another leg of his Never Ending Tour. It was around nine months after his Love & Theft album which was released on September 11th 2001, and the show features a number of songs from it which I was hearing him perform live for the very first time.

It was now about 7.45, by my calculations show time would be 8pm without too much of a wait beyond that. The incense was already lit, Nagchampa incense I thought, if this was so it meant the incense came from India, the Sai Baba organisation no less, but it was at best an educated guess, probably a wrong one as Bob had never to my knowledge shown much of an interest in the whole Indian mystical guru scene. It was rolling over the first few rows of people on the floor in fragrant clouds with that oh so familiar sweet, heady smell. All part of the ritual for darshan, an audience with the master no less, all of which could apply as far as I was concerned when it came to me and Bob. This was always one of my favourite times. Waiting for the magic to begin, taking in through my nostrils that incense perfume, watching the rows of the arena fill up with people, looking down at the front where the diehard Dylan fans stood around in clusters excitedly talking with one another, heads held high in expectation, no doubt speculating on which selection of songs they were going to hear that night.

Then there was the stage itself where the usual faces were up there making themselves busy. The Oriental guy  who had been on the road with Bob for at least the last five years, probably longer in fact. The huge guy with the beard and the pony tail by the mixing desk who had been with Bob for as long as I could remember and who always got to make the announcement of introduction just before Bob came on stage. Then there was the guy who looked just like Bob himself, who hovered around the shadows like he was a deliberate plant to get people excited, fooling them into thinking that it was Bob they were seeing when of course actually it wasn’t.

The musical equipment looked pretty much like it always did. Racks and racks of guitars, all of them needed as most songs required a guitar change for at least three of the band members, sometimes four. It was an impressive arsenal, all of which needed tuning and protecting night after night as they wound their way around the world being played in show after show after show by Bob and the boys on the Never Ending Tour. Then there were the speaker stacks suspended from the ceiling above the stage. Speaker stacks I always looked up to when the louder, harder, electric songs in the set came along, closing my eyes to let the sound wash over me and open my heart to the sun. You see it just so happened to be the case that the noise made from Bob Dylan plugging in was a wonderful noise indeed and one which has now been around since the middle of the 60s.

The last time I had been in front of those speaker stacks was nearly a year ago now, when me and Marc Murphy had seen Bob and the boys play in the grounds of Stirling Castle on a wild Scottish summer evening in the middle of July 2001, when banks of clouds had been rolling in around us direct from out of the Highlands. Those cloud banks had been continuously threatening rain for the duration of the whole show but miraculously the wet stuff had only materialised after it was over. By then me and Marc were walking back down the cobbled streets of the ancient town with hearts light and our ears ringing from the magical sound of Bob and the boys, who had given us their very best for over two hours. That show had been special, out in the open air of the north country with Bob, a hipflask of the finest Bushmills in my jacket pocket which during the course of the show me and Marc had taken enough swigs from to leave it very nearly empty and our eyes very, very red. Oh yes indeed, that had been a show to remember!

At the London Docklands Arena the stage was set some way ahead of the curtained back drop, on which Bob Dylan’s Eye of Integrity was emblazoned, which meant there would be a good few yards of empty space which Bob and the boys would have to cross before stepping up onto it to face the audience. At the back was a set of steps clearly lit so that no one would trip up and I tried to imagine what it must be like for Bob when he made that climb up into the lights of the equipment filled stage, taking in the roar of the crowd before once again setting off on playing yet another show on his Never Ending Tour. Well, it was impossible to imagine of course, for a nowhere man like me. Probably, more than probably in fact, it was just another night, another show for him on the endless road he had been on since 1988. The only thing which stood in the way for everyone from coming back again and again was mortality. If we were to return in 100 years time the place would be empty of all the people who were there now, in fact the place itself would probably be long gone, lost in the mists of history. Death was the ultimate spoiler and in that sense what I was witnessing was really quite poignant, as the sands of time were slowly but surely trickling away for all of us, even Bob, up there as he was in the realms of the gods, because he was a god and had been for the last 40 years.

After a blast of Fanfare for the Common Man over the PA system at just gone 8pm there was that familiar and most welcome announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen would you please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!” As usual it was magical, simply magical, to hear those words again, to listen to the roar of the crowd as five figures emerged from the shadows, as if from out of nowhere. Amongst them was a slight built man considerably older than the rest and who had a huge white Stetson hat on his head. Yes, it was none other than Bob Dylan! They were all soon up and onto the stage with minimal acknowledgment of the arena full of screaming fans, where they then proceeded to pick up their instruments, to get down to the business of the day, as now once again it was show time.

First up was I Am The Man Thomas one of a selection of traditional songs which Bob always uses to open his sets and has done for the last couple of years. It was great, these songs are warm ups really, just to get things going in a loose relaxed kind of way, probably for the guys to fix the sound levels and other stuff like that. Just an opportunity for folk to get re-acquainted again. From our position I had a good sidelong view of Bob with his huge white Stetson hat, the back of which seemed to trail along after him. Larry Campbell was to our near side, Charlie Sexton was over on the far side, with bass guitar player and band leader Tony Garnier, along with drummer Jim Keltner in the middle and towards the back. The drummer was the one change in the line up to when I had last seen Bob and the boys in Stirling Castle, as back in 2000 and 2001 it had been the ex-Jerry Garcia Band member Dave Kemper on the skins but he had now left Bob’s band in supposedly acrimonious circumstances. Jim Keltner, who was a seasoned studio pro whose association with Bob went back many years, was therefore his temporary replacement. The sound of the band and the sound of Bob’s voice washed out of the speaker stacks above us and it suddenly felt like we were off, back in business Capital City style!

Second song was Times They Are A Changin’ a song in which Bob often succeeded in fluffing his lines as indeed he did this time, despite the fact he has now played it literally thousands of times. It was a nice arrangement but not as good as the performance he did of it in Sheffield 2000 where he really nailed the golden essence of this particular early anthem in a way which was hard for me to ever forget. You can’t hope for that all the time however, anyway the whole process of evaluation is hopelessly subjective, an ever changing scene hard to pin down. Third was It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding which was well received by an already receptive audience and it was a better It’s Alright Ma than those he was performing a couple of years ago but still not up to the heights of what he could be capable of as far as this Bringing It all Back Home classic is concerned. It was followed however by another number from that first album in his mid 60s Golden Trilogy, a fantastic It’s All Over Now Baby Blue in a new, really wonderful arrangement with Larry on pedal steel guitar, Bob getting his harmonica out and playing in a far more meaningful way than he had just done on Times They Are A Changin’. Funnily enough I had been listening to It’s All Over Now Baby Blue a few times recently due to having purchased an album by Bryan Ferry which went by the name of Frantic, containing as it did two Dylan covers, both of which Bob happened to play during the show. The Ferry version of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue was a grower but Bob on this one rendition blew it a million miles into space as it was quite simply brilliant!

From our favourable position on the side, close to the front, it was really nice to be able to look back over the rows and rows of people stretching all the way to the back of the Arena. The place was full, it seemed to me that every last seat was taken, not bad for a 61 year grandfather who had now been treading the boards for over 40 years. Not bad at all in fact. Things got noisy on the next song, an electrified Solid Rock from Bob’s second Christian album Saved, a work despised by critics and not held in high regard by fans either. This was not so much to do with the songs on Saved  but simply the way in which they were recorded, which was lacklustre to say the least and decidedly poor when compared to the live versions he was doing of them at the time. This Solid Rock was tremendous, simply tremendous, with Bob, Charlie and Larry forming a front of stage Fender guitar battalion which knocked anything which stood in their way right out of the arena and which would have truly put the fear of god into anyone who tried to question what it was they were doing. My concert going companion Duncan “Dunc” Hutson really got into this song as well and I could see that he was now busy re-evaluating his previously held opinions about Bob, as quite frankly any sane person would have had to do because the simple fact of the matter was that Bob was smokin’!

The first song of the night from Love and Theft,Bob’s most recent album which had come out the previous year in September 2001 and which had garnered just as much critical acclaim as 1997s game changing Time Out of Mind,came next. It was Floater, a song which up until that point had passed me by but which now made me sit up and take notice. Serious notice! In subsequent weeks I would play this particular song many, many times, listen to it in awe, because with effortless ease Floater takes you on a trip to the heart of the Mid-West, into a family story from the depths of the banks beside a mosquito buzzing river right in the middle of a vast emptiness. Subterranean Homesick Blues followed, which was interesting for the form in which it appeared, but would have been unforgettable if Bob had played it in the original breakneck version found on Bringing It All Back Home. Nevertheless it was pretty damn enjoyable, so any such wishful thinking might have remained strictly in the realm of dreams, it was more than compensated by the fact that we got to hear this relatively rarely played mid 60s classic at all, a song which in my humble opinion ranks as one of the very best Bob has ever written.

The Fender guitars stayed out for what was the second number from Love and Theft that night, a hard straight down the middle and thoroughly no messing Lonesome Day Blues in a version which was strong enough to shake the arena to its foundations. When I initially bought the album this song had been my favourite and I had been looking forward to hearing it live from the first moment I heard it. Whilst it didn’t disappoint I kind of still thought that there was work to do on this one before Bob and the boys made it the truly classic live offering which it most certainly had the potential to become. Mr Tambourine Man followed Lonesome Day Blues and like Times They Are a Changin’whilst very pleasant, it didn’t take us to those transcendental pastures of the really great performances of it which Bob is capable of pulling out of the bag when he is really in the mood. But that was alright, if he was always able to so effortlessly make every Tambo  so great it would cease to be special when those truly magical performances of it did come along.

The next two songs,Visions of Johanna and Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright really were top, top quality however. Played back to back they brought the house down, where that special genius like luminosity of his great songs from the 60s was really displayed for the first time during this particular show. Visions of Johanna had extended acoustic guitar interplay between Bob, Larry and Charlie which could have gone on forever as it rolled along in gentle waves to beguile, seduce and slam the audience. Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright was just a simply stunning version of the other song which had appeared on that recent Bryan Ferry album. This time Bob struck gold, evoked that timeless halo of evanescence which his best songs from the 60s are revered for. Dunc was also most mightily impressed with this one and it was good for me to see him enjoying himself, getting himself a proper musical education by way of seeing a true music legend for the first time in his life. This was important to note as prior to this point Dunc had in my opinion been way too over exposed to middle of the road music from the likes of Dire Straits and Eric Clapton. Bob looked in a good mood too from what I could see of him on the stage, which of course was a bonus, although in all honesty it was rather difficult to tell as his face was pretty well hidden by that huge white Stetson hat he was wearing.

A relatively rare performance of Blind Willie McTell came next which happened to be the best of the three versions that I have now witnessed Bob play of it, still not as good as the one on Bootleg Tapes Vols 1-3  however, but then again how could it be? The Bootleg Tapes Vols 1 – 3 recorded version of Blind Willie McTell simply led you by the hand far out into those sun drenched cotton fields of the Deep South, where before the tollin’ of the bell real danger at the midnight crossroads might well lie in wait for you. All the same this version really was not too bad at all and under the circumstances would do very, very nicely, extra special nicely as a matter of fact.

Summer Days was the third Love and Theft song of the night to be played and this was a revelation as unlike Lonesome Day Blues which was a pretty straight forward replication of what is found on the album, Summer Days really came alive, going way beyond the recorded version and giving Charlie Sexton the opportunity to exhibit some truly exceptional guitar playing. The song was quite simply tremendous, about twice as long as what it is on the album and the best of all the Love and Theft  songs Bob played that night, best in fact by a country mile. This was a real surprise as on the album I had barely paid Summer Days  much attention, but now it manifested qualities which only Bob could have known about when he originally wrote it, seeing the potential back then of what it might become. It was another good example of his genius for creating what was in effect a template to be moulded into different shapes depending on time and occasion. That is what his best songs are all about, not just simply recordings stuck in time, forever to be repeated only in the way they were first laid down, but songs subject to constant and sometimes strenuous re-interpretation. Everyone went wild over Summer Days  and quite rightly so because it was a really stunning version. It made me smile to think that Bob also seemed at his happiest when the music he was playing was at its loudest and noisiest and there really was nothing wrong with that, in fact there was everything right about it.

Summer Days set things up for what has now become a scorching live version of Cold Irons Bound from the Time Out of Mind album. It is now in a radically different arrangement from the 1997 recorded version, again as if the song on the album only barely hints at the qualities it is able to display when played live. It was ridiculously loud and suddenly Bob had never looked more contented as he tore through the white hot metal of Irons with Charlie and Larry standing right beside him letting it rip. The main set then finished up with Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, one of my favourite Blonde on Blonde songs and whilst not up to some of the great September 2000 versions he played, at virtually every show in fact, it still brought a big smile to my face. Pill-Box  saw me close my eyes, take in the wall of electric noise which was coming out of the speaker stacks suspended high above the crowd, wash my head in the sounds from those stacks and think to myself that I could never get enough, never get enough of it. Needless to say everyone went wild when it was over, before Bob and boys once more lined up for The Formation, each of them staring expressionless into the cheering crowd before they took their leave of the stage with Bob as usual the last to leave. A solid as a rock main set, no doubt about that, no doubt at all and the only thing left to do now was to get stuck into the encore.

The main set had comprised 15 songs and from my studies of set lists so far on the 2002 Spring leg of the Never Ending Tour there had been upwards of 20 or 21 songs played each night with one or sometimes two encores. Therefore as I stood there in the frantic darkness,  full of the sound of the cheering London Docklands crowd, I had high hopes we were still going to get upwards of another half dozen songs, including possibly a second encore. It turned out that the encore was only to be four more songs and when, after a long sustained period of shouting for more from the audience, the house lights came on it most definitely signalled to everyone that the show was over. Guess in retrospect walking away with 19 songs under my belt for the night was a little bit of a disappointment when others might have seen him in another place on the road and got 21, but it didn’t feel like it at the time, far from it in fact.

Like a Rolling Stone kicked things off again when Bob and the boys reappeared, this song had now changed position to first song of the encore rather than being embedded in the electric part of the main set as it had been in 2000 and 2001. It was clean, crisp, very enjoyable, a sure-fire 100% guaranteed crowd pleaser and an opportunity for Bob and the boys to get a look at the audience, as it was during Like a Rolling Stone  when the bright stage lights were always turned to shine on them. I looked back across the arena, down at the rows and rows of ecstatic people and I thought how thoroughly addicted Bob must have been to it all as he stared out over thousands of arms waving in the air, countless people dancing in the aisles and screaming for his attention. It must have been just what he needed to make him feel like it was worth carrying on, keeping the whole show on the road and to get as much of it as possible for as long as he could.

Honest with Me  followed on from Like a Rolling Stone the fifth song to come from Love and Theft, a logical choice for this part of the encore as its nearest counterpart is Highway 61 Revisited which has performed a similar function as a rousing encore song thousands of times throughout the years. It gave the chance for Bob and the Boys to line up once more in a Fender guitar battalion and rock like a bunch of suit clad hooligans from out of the US of A and to thus ensure that Honest with Me more than did the business. Next was an acoustic Blowin’ In the Wind, which for me was the weakest number of night but probably only because I wished it could have been something different. There are only so many times I can listen to Blowin’  without getting a feeling of claustrophobia and I think  I have now crossed the point of no return, despite singing my heart out to it less than a year ago when up in Stirling where I was soaked to the gills in Bushmills. Too many flying cannonballs, immovable mountains and sandy white doves for it to still have much meaning beyond it being an iconic sign off from a legendary artist. God knows what the real Bob die-hard fans, the ones who have seen him literally hundreds and hundreds of times, felt when they heard the opening bars to Blowin’  being played yet again. It certainly had me sitting there wishing for something different, some little baby bolt from the blue, but no it was not to be. Things were finished off with All Along the Watchtowerandthe only complaint one could have about it was that it was over way too soon, being a somewhat curtailed version, similar in fact to the abbreviated Watchtower we got the previous year up in Stirling. Not enough lead guitar, not enough noise, not enough time to sit there with my eyes closed so as to lose myself once more in the electric life-giving power sound of Bob and the boys being blasted from out of those speaker stacks.

All in all then we got a 19 song set clocking in at just under 2 ¼ hours and although we hadn’t hit the 20 mark, let alone 21, it still felt like pretty damn good value for money. Dunc was really knocked out by it, I don’t think he had realised up until that point just what a serious, committed and amazing performer Bob Dylan really is, but then how could he when he’d spent so much of his time listening to Eric Clapton? When the house lights came on all that was left on the stage were a few lights still glowing from the amplifiers and these were switched off one by one by the young Oriental guy who was now beginning the mop up operation along with the rest of the roadies. Something still hung in the air, a smoky collective residue, now fading as people left the arena, soon to be scattered like ants across the vast city of London and into the great beyond. But quite a lot of them would  be back the following night for the second London Docklands Arena show from Bob, that was for sure, including myself of course.

Setlist Docklands Arena May 11th 2002

I Am The Man Thomas
Times They Are A Changin’
It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue
Solid Rock
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Lonesome Day Blues
Mr Tambourine Man
Visions of Johanna
Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright
Blind Willie McTell
Summer Days
Cold Irons Bound
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
Like a Rolling Stone
Honest with Me
Blowin’ In the Wind
All Along the Watchtower

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