Bob Dylan Live: London Docklands Arena Reloaded

This show is from 2002 when I went down the road in my home town to see Bob Dylan play another show at the now long defunct London Docklands Arena on May 12th 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.

At a certain point in proceedings that familiar smell of Nagchampa incense began to fill our nostrils as it rolled over the front rows of the crowd, having now been lit in the buckets at the back of the stage by the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail. There was a palpable rising of the energy levels of the crowd as the majority of people began to sense the time was soon about to descend upon us again when show time began. I stood there staring straight ahead at the huge black curtain behind the stage with the Bob Dylan Eye of Integrity stamped into the middle of it. I hadn’t seen it properly the night before due to fact that our seats had been to the side. The Eye of Integrity was Bob’s unofficial logo, or at least had been for the last few years and there were various pieces of merchandise you could buy with it on such tempting items as t-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps, key rings, coffee mugs and stuff like that.

Despite the fact that we all had seats no one was sitting in them as it was clear that the whole of show was going to have to be witnessed from a standing position if we wanted any chance of being able to see Bob and the boys. It only took a couple of people at the front to insist on standing up to force everyone else on the floor to do so as well. There was not much that we could do about it and I have to admit that it did not make that much difference to me, despite the fact I was still a little weary from my exertions the night before. My companion for the night was Marc Murphy and it was a source of some fair degree of annoyance and irritation to him that we were not able to sit, which I guess was unfortunate. It indicated to me that Marc might well have been a little off his game as usually such things did not really bother him that much at all, but there was nothing to be done about it and so he would just have tough out it without making too much in the way of serious complaint, unless that is he wanted to suffer.

Suddenly there was a blast of Fanfare for the Common Man and the house lights were hit, plunging the London Docklands Arena into darkness. Over the PA came that most familiar and welcome of announcements, courtesy of the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail “Ladies and gentlemen would you please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!” A huge roar went up from the crowd and I turned my head to look behind me, saw the place was packed to the rafters once again, just like the night before. Then I looked back onto the stage and there was Bob and the boys walking purposefully to their guitars, completely ignoring the wild cheers of the crowd and soon ready to launch into their first song. This time Bob was wearing a black Stetson hat instead of the white Stetson he wore the night before and the most remarkable thing about it was that viewed face on it made Bob look like a Dutch cheese farmer instead of a cowboy coming in off the mystical plains of the Wild West. The edges of the Stetson were just so damn sharp it took away the Texas Ranger aura about him, suddenly in my mind I was traversing the flatlands of the Low Countries, trooping behind an ultimate merchant of Edam cheese with all the thunder of an unforgiving Protestant god in clogs blowing through his sails. It was weird, very weird indeed!

I Am The Man Thomas again opened the set which was a rarity due to the fact that it was basically a straight repetition of the opener from the night before, instead of being another choice from Bob’s rotating pool of traditional covers. It was good, basically the same as the previous night, but for most of the song my attention was taken up with that black Stetson of his and how strange it looked on him. To Ramona came next another early Dylan song occupying the slot which Times They Are a Changin’  had the previous night and this Another Side number was brilliant, dynamite in fact, blowing the deal wide open as to how good the rest of the show might turn out to be.

There then came the second straight repetition of the night with It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding again at song number three. It was a much better version than the previous night, actually sounding like Bob was not desperate simply to get to the end of it before having hardly even begun. What stood out among other things was the excellent drumming of Jim Keltner who I had hardly noticed the first evening due to most of my attention being on Bob and the boys at the front of the stage. From what I was hearing him come up with, it was obvious he was a top quality session musician who Bob must have plucked from out of the Los Angeles heartlands, making him an offer he simply couldn’t refuse, to come and join him on the Never Ending Tour. Marc Murphy was getting into it as well, standing next to me and bopping along whilst he kept saying how the band looked like they were going to be “on form”. I could only stand there and agree with him, shaking my leg to the beat, getting into the sound they were coming up with, Bob and the boys once again cooking it up right in front of our eyes.

Just like the previous night a sublime It’s All Over Now Baby Blue occupied fourth slot in the main set, followed by a beautiful version of If You See Her Say Hello from Bob’s marriage break up Blood on the Tracks album. Larry Campbell stood to the right of the stage playing the fiddle whilst Bob was in the middle delivering the words to the song with care and commitment, giving them the kind of intonation which pointed to their sense of infinite sadness. Talking of Larry Campbell it was quite noticeable to me throughout the whole of the show just how isolated he now appeared to be in the band. Because I had been sitting to the side the night before it hadn’t been so obvious, but now that we were looking straight at the stage he seemed like a man who Bob had simply cut adrift. Whilst Bob talked constantly with Charlie Sexton and Tony Garnier he barely gave Larry a second glance. He was a tall guy who stood way to the left of the stage completely on his own, whilst Bob, Charlie and Tony occupied the rest of it and were often huddled together in conversation between songs whilst congregating in front of Jim Keltner on the drums.

It had become something of a constant rumour that Larry Campbell was always on the verge of quitting the Never Ending Tour and with situations like this in the Docklands Arena it was easy to see why those rumours just kept on coming. Larry had been touring with Bob since early 1997, just before Bob had exploded back into serious critical rehabilitation with his ground breaking Time Out of Mind album. I didn’t know if all the concerts were now catching up with Larry but there was no doubt that it was a source of concern to numerous Bob fans as to what his status was and for sure, there were definitely more than one or two members of the audience in the Docklands Arena who would be picking up on what they were witnessing. Everyone knew that Bob had a reputation for being a bit ruthless when he wanted to be with regard to those in his employment, so it could very well be the case that he was now getting close to giving Larry the permanent cold shoulder, which would have been a pity as Larry always appeared to me like he was a really nice guy and of course it goes without saying he was a top quality musician.

Stuck Inside Of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again came next and it was good to hear this long, strange and wonderful song from the Blonde on Blonde album all over again. It has been one of my favourite Bob songs since the early 90s when Bob had been playing it in a somewhat ridiculously elongated version virtually every show, sometimes stretching it out to well over 12 minutes. Now it was more refined, more under control, but he still gave it regular performances which suited me just fine as the whole structure of the song was comfortably inhabitable with one verse rolling along after another for a good 8 or 9 minutes at least, sometimes longer, bathing us in an evanescent mid 60s glow all the while he was singing it.

Things calmed down considerably for the next song which was the first of the night from Love and Theft, the soft and gentle number which went by the name of Moonlight. People in the crowd began to sit down at this point and we did as well, but the folks in the rows right in front of us didn’t bother. This caused some distress to others around us who found their polite requests for those in front to sit down were simply ignored. It meant that after a little while the people who were seated began angrily shouting at those who were still standing, saying stuff like “You don’t understand what Bob’s about! Now will you please sit down!” As if they did understand what Bob was about and that what Bob wanted was for everyone to sit down, although absolutely no indication of that in any way whatsoever came from the stage. Guess it was just their pent up middle class wishful thinking cut through with anger. No, Bob was too busy standing there in his strange black hat singing his new song Moonlight, whilst the shouting and bawling of those who wanted all the people in front of them to sit down did not make any difference to him at all. He was oblivious, even if he had known he would probably not have cared, anyway the inevitable result was that during the course of the song virtually everyone got back up on their feet again. Maybe those people who had sat down were just tired and liked the idea of a little break, sitting with their feet up whilst still having the chance to get a good view of Bob, but that was simply not to be and it was something they would have to understand. Stamina was required to get through Bob’s shows, sacrifices had to be made and your pleasure had to be well and truly earned.

Subterranean Homesick Blues came in at sixth slot in the set and it was pretty much the same as the rendition that Bob had given the night before which probably wasn’t quite the one I wanted. Still, it was great to hear it again, as one never knew how long it might be around for before being dropped from the set by Bob for a couple more decades. It was followed right away by a hard hitting and very bluesy Cry A While, Bob’s second song of the night from Love and Theft  and a song I have yet to fully get into.Nevertheless, so far the two Love and Theft songs Bob played had been completely different from the ones on the first night which meant I was getting to hear a pretty good selection of his newstuff live over these two shows, which naturally enough was rather satisfying and one of the reasons why I had come down to the Docklands for two nights running. These two plus the five from the night before meant I was now up to seven songs from Love and Theft  which out of the twelve on the album wasn’t bad going at all. Bob’s unpredictable song choice selection meant that conceivably one might end up not hearing any of it at all, although that was unlikely as Love and Theft material had been regularly performed live since its release in September 2001. Clearly he was enjoying the opportunity to sing his new stuff and on top of that the new songs lent themselves to being played live, sounding in fact that they had been written expressly for that purpose. It also confirmed to me, just in case it hadn’t yet sunk in, that the structure and content of these 2002 sets were markedly different from the sets he had played when I saw him five times in September and October 2000. No acoustic and electric set splits anymore, instead it was all mixed in together.

Three acoustic songs now followed on Cry A While, namely Mama You Been on My Mind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and Forever Young. From the three I guess the best was the last one which used to be so solidly set in the encore section back in the 2000 shows. It was a similar part of the show to the night before when Bob and the boys had given us Visions of Johanna and Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright  but these were not of the same quality, with Bob at times bawling out the lines, not really seeming to show that much interest in bringing out the best in them. Might just have been the case Bob was feeling tired. There was also no doubt I was finding this second night quite a bit tougher going than the first one as well, which might have had something to do with the fact I was having to spend the whole evening standing. Marc Murphy was still hanging on in there, in fact he was very impressed with what he was hearing so far and he would later say that he thought this show was particularly good, up there with the best Bob shows he had been to. As for me I was becoming a little distracted by the physical discomfort I was experiencing from having to remain on my feet all the time. Put simply I was dog tired, yesterday had caught up with me as it had ended up being a very late night after hitting the bars in Canary Wharf with Dunc after the show, but at the same time there was no way I was going to sit down because I knew that if I languished in the shadow world of the seats I would immediately think I might be missing out on something big.

Summer Days  brought me out of my internal ruminations because just like the night before it was staggeringly good, Charlie again excelling on electric guitar with Bob in the middle encouraging him all the time to play faster, meaner and louder. It seemed to me that it was a slightly longer version than the previous night as well and like all the best electric numbers Bob plays loud, there comes a point where you just wish it would go on and on forever. It was so full on that it definitely brought a bit of energy back to me which at that stage of the show was pretty much exactly what I needed. Sugar Baby followed Summer Days which meant we had two Love and Theft numbers back to back and on this song Bob’s singing was exceptional, his voice resonating throughout the whole of the Docklands Arena with every word ringing out crystal clear. It was a stunning back to the sun performance, one of the best received songs of the night, which may or not have given him some degree of satisfaction it was hard to tell, hiding as he was beneath that big black hat possibly thinking of cheese, something creamy, nice and mild.

A hard hitting Wicked Messenger followed on from Sugar Baby, the Fender guitar battalion of Bob, Charlie and Larry sending us out onto those plains of black and white shadow riders hitting the trail at dawn. It had a metallic shimmer about it which sent shivers of deep satisfaction down my spine, again making me wish that it would never stop, as the sound and the energy were life giving and I wanted more of it, more of that rock. The main set closed with a brilliant Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35,that classic opener from Blonde on Blonde and the version he did this time was up there with the one from Stirling in July 2001, also up there with the best reinterpretations he has given of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat over the last few years as well, which I guess was saying something as Bob’s new Pill-Box could at times  be truly exceptional. Rainy Day was hot as hell in other words and Bob was into it as well, no doubt about that, stoning the whole damn arena. Then the main set was over, 15 songs just like the night before, with quite a shuffling of the pack as far as his selections were concerned, not a bad bit of pack shuffling at that, in fact a pretty damn good one. It was now only left for Bob and the boys to line up for The Formation at the front of the stage in order to bask in the wild cheers of appreciation from the packed Docklands Arena for the second night running. Needless to say, if Bob was deliriously happy about it all he didn’t show it in any way whatsoever, just turned his back and disappeared into the shadows with the boys.

It was at this point that Marc Murphy bowed out for the night. He had a long way to get home from Docklands and since it was a Sunday night it meant there would be work for him the next day, which in his case meant diving right back into the world of chemical brokering. Seemed like he was getting to be a bit of an old timer as in days past he would have stayed until the very end of the show. Now, I guess I could have gone along with him, left early as well, especially since I was also pretty damn tired and had seen enough Bob encores to know exactly what was coming. However I also knew that it just wasn’t going to happen. I was there for the long haul and sure enough I stayed rooted to the spot, looking ahead at the darkened stage and the Eye of Integrity backdrop whilst counting down the minutes until Bob and the boys reappeared. In the meantime Marc shuffled along out of the row, there would be no more Bob for him that night, he was off and out of it, on his way back home with his thoughts no doubt a mix of having once again seen Bob Dylan along with the start of another working week which would soon be upon him.

Plenty of people were cheering and shouting at the tops of their voices, the levels of audience energy and participation were probably exactly equal to the night before which meant they were pretty high. These London Docklands shows were going down well, no doubt about that and judging by the number of people at the side of the stage, people who must have had VIP access, Bob Dylan coming to London was still regarded as something of a major event, a cultural one even. Quite rightly so, the integrity of the music was awesome and the level of musicianship on display quite impeccable. Bob to many people, including myself, was clearly a figure of deep and justifiable reverence, so it felt a privilege to be part of the thousands who had come to pay homage to him down there on the Isle of Dogs.

Like A Rolling Stone kicked off the encore, with the bright lights shining out again from the stage over the audience. Once more I took the opportunity to cast around a glance at the crowd which stretched right to the very back of the arena, indicating that it was another sell out show for Bob in the capital. Honest With Me from Love and Theft followed, proving once again that it was a more than adequate replacement for Highway 61 Revisited  sharing as it does the same groovy groan which the Fender guitar battalion of Bob, Larry and Charlie kept on chugging out, going right down the road with it for a full five or six minutes, seven or eight possibly, it was difficult to tell, but it doesn’t matter as it was quite simply excellent.

There is no getting away from the fact that I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I recognised the opening strains of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door coming after Honest With Me as this meant there would be no Blowin’ In the Wind  which the previous evening I’d had a bit of a hard time with. On top of that the version Bob and the boys delivered of Knockin’ was a really brilliant one, benefiting considerably from fully fledged backing vocals provided by Larry and Charlie, each of them flanking Bob at the front of the stage. It was pretty much song of the night in fact, which was a bit of a surprise in an obvious but still extremely nice kind of way. I mean, who would have thought it? Knockin’? Then it was a longer, better version of All Along the Watchtower  than the night before to finish things off and finish things off it did very nicely. Bob’s darkly prophetic visions emphatically delivered in the style of Hendrix, so that all we could see were the grains of sand trickling down from out of that big clock of the cosmos which was indicating we were indeed fast running out of time.

There was a prolonged bout of wild cheering from the ecstatic crowd after Bob and the boys had taken their bows by way of another line up of The Formation before they left the stage, but again there was to be no second encore. That would have to wait for another day, another place further down the road on the Never Ending Tour. So 19 songs were played on both nights, of which 12 of those songs were different from one evening to another. Not bad those stats, not bad at all, pretty damn impressive as a matter of fact.

Setlist Docklands Arena: May 12th 2002 –

I Am The Man Thomas
To Ramona
It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding
If You See Her Say Hello
Stuck Inside Of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Cry A While
Mama, You Been on My Mind
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Forever Young
Summer Days
Sugar Baby
Wicked Messenger
Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35
Like A Rolling Stone
Honest With Me
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
All Along the Watchtower

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