Yes, that’s right, there were no less than 10 Bob shows in the 90s that I went to – 4 at the Hammersmith Apollo, London in 1993, 1 at The Fleadh, Finsbury Park, London in 1993, 2 at the Brixton Academy, London in 1995, 1 in Hyde Park, London in 1996, 1 at Wembley Arena in 1997 and last but not least 1 at the Cardiff International Arena which was also in 1997. What you can read below is a brief description of all of them, prefaced by an account of how Bob came into my life, or if we wanna go Biblical, how I found Bob.
Now I first got into Bob towards the end of 1992 thanks to Good As I’ve Been to You which I bought from a CD shop just off Walthamstow market in North East London. Yes Good As I’ve Been to You was my first ever Bob Dylan album, which in some way is kind of ironic since it is a work of traditional folk and blues covers with not an original Bob Dylan song on it. Just saw it there in the CD racks of the shop and when I picked it up to take a closer look there was something about the photograph of Bob on the front which made me want to buy it there and then, immediately, on the spot. It is certainly the case that I hadn’t been intending to get it when I had walked in there but when I got to play it later that evening, after clocking off from another day of work at Wisdom Books, I was simply knocked out by it and from that point onwards never looked back.
Bob’s voice was ragged and dirty from having been around the world a million times over and done pretty much everything you could hope to do as a 20th century recording artist. When it came to popular music back then, there were a handful of names which immediately came to mind for the vast majority of people and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan would almost certainly have been among them. It was probably the case that in any given city throughout the Western world you would have been able to bet your bottom dollar the vast majority of buskers out on the streets and in the parks would have known at least one Bob Dylan song. Yet here he was on the cover of Good As I’ve Been to You looking pretty fed up, world weary and almost it seemed at the end of the line. Guess in some strange way it would be true to say my heart went out to him, it really did and pretty much from that moment onwards I was on his side, wanting to see him pick himself up again and get back to where he belonged.
It is also true to say that Bob came along at a time in my life when I might well have needed him as by late 1992 I was just over three years into what would turn out to be a 27 year stint working at Wise Words. It was a case of having stumbled into working there in the autumn of 1989 after returning in the June of that year from what had been an eight month trip to Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. My journey to the East had seen me do a number of Buddhist meditation courses as part of some kind of spiritual quest I was on, at least when that quest wasn’t interrupted by prolonged periods of dope smoking, playing those opium bongos and all the rest of it. Wise Words specialised in the distribution of books on Buddhism and it was through connections I’d made whilst I was out there that I was able to find casual work back in London, stuffing flyers into catalogues for sending out to people on the Wise Words mailing list. It was not long before I moved onto packing books for them in their small warehouse in Walthamstow, then after a year or so I had worked my way up to processing invoices, before a couple of years later becoming their office manager at the same location.
As you can see, I ended up staying at Wise Words a very long time and for a great number of those 27 years I was managing what in reality was a tiny book company which never employed more than 5 or 6 people. After 10 years trading in Walthamstow, Wise Words moved to larger premises in Ilford, East London, in late 1999, something which on reflection was probably the high point as far as the company was concerned. The further we progressed into the 21st century the tougher things became to stay in business, which meant that for a lot of the time trying to keep the whole show on the road was really quite stressful, whilst the salaries we paid ourselves were modest by anyone’s standards. Eventually in the autumn of 2015 we woke up to the inevitable and decided to pull the plug by way of Wise Words going into voluntary liquidation, something which finally happened in June 2016 after we’d spent six months trying to tidy things up as much as possible in relation to our creditors. Throughout those years from late 1992 onwards it was a great source of joy for me to have Bob in my life, his music for me to listen to and his shows to go along to. It is probably true to say it was a blessing and something which I felt lucky to have, still do as a matter of fact. Yet after all this time I consider myself to be just a fan, one of many, not an expert, not someone who would be able to discuss in any great depth the ins and outs of Bob’s words and music. The only thing I can say is that I love it all, even the bad stuff, of which there is actually quite a lot!
So anyway, as I have already mentioned, it was only at the back end of 1992 that I first got into Bob by way of Good As I’ve Been to You and yet by the middle of February 1993 I would be able to proudly tell anyone who would listen that I had already seen Bob Dylan play live! This was because he did a string of five shows at the Hammersmith Apollo in February 1993 out of which I went along to no less than four of them. The first two, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th, I bought tickets for in advance whilst the latter two, Thursday 11th and Friday 12th, I went down and bought tickets off the touts lurking outside the venue. Guess that might give you some idea of what kind of impression seeing Bob Dylan play live had on me. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the first moment I saw him step on stage I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was a performer on a whole different level of magnitude when compared to anyone else I had previously seen. Those first two shows were so damn good that I just couldn’t resist going back down again and again, to buy tickets at inflated prices sold to me in the shadows, just so long as I would be able to see him.
By the way, for the first show on Monday 8th I went with my old friend Thomas Deilecke, better known as Toby Ruft in some of my Indian writings which appear on my website Traceless Path, specifically in a work by the name of Tiger Trails, but also in a number of shorter pieces found in a section called Om Reflections. All of that is a little bit of a digression however, suffice to say that Thomas or Toby, was over in London for a few days in early 1993 visiting me, so I had bought two tickets in order for us to go and see Bob together. Later in the decade he would be over in London again and on that occasion we had bit of fun by way of making the trek up to Crouch End in order to have a meal at a curry house it was rumoured Bob used to frequent on a regular basis at various points in the 1990s, around the time of World Gone Wrong in 1994 to be exact, when there was speculation Bob might even buy a house in North London. Think all this came about due to Bob’s connection with Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics who had produced Bob’s extremely poorly received 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded, in the aftermath of which you could almost hear the nails being hammered into his coffin. Stewart must have lived in the area and the rumours spread from there. Whether it was ever true or not – the favourite curry house or the actual house – we will never know, but it was a nice prospect to ponder; Bob living out his days in North London and that you might be able to pop in and have a cup of coffee with him. All pie in the sky of course but relatively harmless. The Indian restaurant was empty when me and Thomas went there, but the food they dished up was pretty good, even though at the end of the day it was still a long way for us to travel in order have a chicken madras with a bunch of naan breads. All the same there was a sense of excitement which we felt throughout the whole of our meal, both of us reasonably confident that any moment Bob was going to walk through the door and sit at the table right next to us, although it goes without saying that was something which never happened.
In respect to those two extra shows I think my early dedication paid dividends by way of the first one on Thursday February 11th 1993, when Bob played what was the greatest concert I had ever seen in my life. No question. It was of such power that it brought home to me in no uncertain terms that that was why he was Bob Dylan, a name which at that point was known the whole world over, standing head and shoulders above the countless other singer songwriters around, just like it had done for over the last 30 years. The show was just incredible and I remember standing there in the stalls shouting so loud that by the end I had nearly lost my voice. Being down in the stalls was different as well, because for the first two shows I had been sitting up in the balcony, now it felt like I was much closer to the action and so was thrilled because of it. Somewhat typically I then went down the next night, February 12th, my fourth Bob show in well under a week and seriously burning through the dough at this point, before realising that I might just have over extended myself. Bob was in a completely different space from the night before when his performance had been so mind blowing, so powerful as to leave the whole of the packed Apollo absolutely transfixed and in awe of him. Not to put to finer point on it he just wasn’t interested this time around. On top of that, my exertions involved in making my way down from Walthamstow to Hammersmith on four nearly consecutive nights in the midst of a typical working week, seriously caught up with me and I stood there for the whole show feeling absolutely shattered. Guess in some strange way it set the tone for the next couple of decades when it came to seeing Bob, in that some shows could be utterly fantastic whilst others, for a whole host of reasons, could see me with my back well and truly up against the wall, wondering just what exactly was I doing, following Bob around the country from here to there, this way to that and then back home again.
A brief overview of the sets Bob played on each night of those four Hammersmith shows reveal just what a great selection of songs they contained. Really nice encores each night which consisted of either Everything is Broken, Ballad of a Thin Man, It Ain’t Me Babe or Everything is Broken, What Good Am I?, It Ain’t Me Babe. The latter three being particularly appealing, with the first two songs coming from Oh Mercy, Bob’s 1989 album produced by Daniel Lanois down in swampy Louisiana, which I guess in 1993 was not that long ago, still quite recent. Each night there had been a great Maggie’s Farm to kick things off followed by a song rotation at number two, which meant on the four nights I got to hear him sing Pretty Peggy-O, Every Grain of Sand, If Not for You and Just Like a Woman for that second number. I mean, for a four song selection out of his bag of tricks how great is that? The sets then settled down with All Along the Watchtower and Tangled Up in Blue always as songs number 3 and 4 before another nice little piece of rotation for song number 5 by way of I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) for two of the shows with Under the Red Sky and Watching the River Flow for the others.
Songs 6,7,8 & 9 were the same on each night of the four shows going from Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, She Belongs to Me, Tomorrow Night to Jim Jones. The latter two of these were acoustic songs from Good As I’ve Been to You which of course had got the whole thing going for me just a couple of months before. Song number 10 on three of those Hammersmith nights was Mr Tambourine Man, with the notable exception of the show on the 11th – the one which blew my mind – when song number 10 was none other than Desolation Row. Song number 11 for three of the shows was Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right but again, interestingly, on that memorable show from the 11th it was Girl from the North Country instead. Then finally songs 12,13,14,15 on each of the four nights to close out the main set were Cat’s In the Well, I and I, Simple Twist of Fate and Highway 61 Revisited, all apart from the last four on the 9th when instead of Simple Twist of Fate Bob slipped in a Times They Are a Changin’.
Looking back on them now I think to myself what enjoyable sets they were in terms of song selection, so it was no wonder I was bowled over. A nice nod to the more recent material in the form of those two traditional covers from Good As I’ve Been to You, also a couple each from Under the Red Sky and Oh Mercy his two most recent albums of original songs. There was the presence on each night of I and I from his 1984 album Infidels, a song particularly well played throughout the week, a real lost gem of a Bob song in my opinion, taking the listener right into the heart of the Holy Land with the singer himself guiding us by the hand through moonlit valleys and luminous streams on our search for some kind of universal revelation. Magical! Then of course there was the 60s stuff, but well thought out in terms of what it was, the solid gold in other words; Tambourine Man, Don’t Think Twice, Highway, Watchtower, Maggie’s, Mobile, Babe. Interposed amongst all those were a couple of songs from the classic 1975 album Blood on the Tracks in the form of Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate. Finally there were one offs to die for by way of Desolation Row, Every Grain of Sand, If Not for You and from his very first album the oh so evocatively reachin’ back Pretty Peggy – O. Oh man, no wonder then I was hooked after all that and don’t forget at the time a lot of those songs I hardly knew at all, so new was I from stumbling onto the scene.
My adventures with Bob in 1993 didn’t end in Hammersmith however as on June 12th I was back seeing him again when he headlined The Fleadh in Finsbury, Park and where he gave a memorable performance in the early summer London drizzle, coming on after a sterling show from a good tempered Van Morrison. Van reappeared in Bob’s set for a duet on One Irish Rover, one of Van’s own songs from his critically acclaimed album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. The Fleadh was my first Bob show in the company of someone with whom I would see him a number of times in subsequent years, namely Marc Murphy, an ex-colleague of mine from Wisdom Books. By 1993 Marc had moved onto pastures new in regard to employment but we had kept in touch and continue to do so to this day, having both seen Bob together just recently in July 2019, when he performed in Hyde Park as part of a double header with Neil Young. The main thing I remember about Bob’s set at The Fleadh was that just before he came on the skies darkened and it began to rain, something which seemed to add to the electricity in the air as the lights from the amps flickered and the noise of the crowd got louder and louder. Sure enough Bob did not disappoint as after the heavens opened he walked onstage with his band, all of them looking like a rag tag group of 18th century soldiers and sailors, to deliver a stunning opening song in the form of an acoustic Hard Times from Good As I’ve Been to You. After that he didn’t look back, nor did any of us in fact, as he rocked Finsbury Park with a set of songs which more or less comprised the same material as what he was playing at Hammersmith a few months before, just shaking the pack up a bit in terms of running order, stuff like that and throwing in a beautiful You’re a Big Girl Now from Blood on the Tracks just for good measure. I remember walking back to Manor Park tube station which lay at the other end of the park under that thin persistent London drizzle and feeling most mightily satisfied with how a long day out in the open had ended up for me.
It was nearly two years later when I next saw Bob, on the 29th and 30th of March 1995, the first two nights of three straight shows he played at the Brixton Academy in South London, for which the supporting act was a solo Elvis Costello who joined Bob for an encore of I Shall Be Released on the second night I was there. One of the shows I went on my own and the other was a resumption of my Bob watching duties with Marc Murphy. Now as far as the music Bob was playing at this time, I suppose it went something like this – two sets of 15 songs each with 12 in the main set and 3 for the encore. Out of that total of 30 songs over the two nights no less than 26 were different, with just 4 played on both nights – Mr Tambourine Man, Like a Rolling Stone, Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) and All Along the Watchtower. Gone from the set were any of the traditional folk and blues covers Bob had been playing in 1993 after the release of Good As I’ve Been to You, despite the fact he had released his second album of such covers by way of World Gone Wrong in 1994. If anything this second record was more bluesy and less folk orientated than the first and like its predecessor it didn’t contain a single Bob original song. None of them made it onto the Brixton Academy set lists however and instead what we got was a veritable kaleidoscope which shone a light on so many different phases of Bob’s career as to be almost all encompassing. Such was the variety on offer you might have been tempted to think that down there in the depths of deepest South London Bob might actually have been having a bit of a ball. The audience certainly were, me most definitely included, standing there in the middle of the packed Academy floor and thoroughly enjoying the likes of Jokerman, If You See Her Say Hello, I Believe in You, Dignity, Positively Fourth Street, I Want You and Boots of Spanish Leather amongst many others, which on closer analysis were mainly tilted towards what he wrote when he was at the height of his powers in the mid 1960s.
A year later I saw another Bob show in London, this time in the form of a 9 song set at The Prince’s Trust Benefit Concert in Hyde Park on June 29th 1996 in the company of my old friend Simon Buck from Penarth in South Wales where we had been in Sixth Form together in Stanwell Road. This one had Ronnie Wood from the The Rolling Stones and Al Kooper as part of his band and it was a set strictly from the 60s and 70s with the exception of Silvio, a late 80s effort found on the distinctly unremarkable if not downright appalling Down in the Groove. What Bob served up was the tried and tested stuff which would never have flopped in a million years, namely Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, Tangled Up in Blue, All Along the Watchtower and Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright to name but a few. There was one rarity however and that came in the form of Seven Days which was sung on the day by Ronnie Wood, it being a song of Bob’s which Wood had covered on one of his eminently forgettable solo albums from the mid 70s. The whole thing was good enough for what it was and following on from Bob came a one-off performance of Quadrophenia by The Who and then a set from that overrated snooze merchant Eric Clapton.
Next up on the block and my last two Bob shows of the 1990s were in 1997, one on the 3rd October down at the Cardiff International Arena and the other on the 5th October at Wembley Arena in London. These shows took place just days after the release of Time Out of Mind at the end of September 1997 which was Bob’s first album of original material in seven years since his poorly received but really quite good Under the Red Sky in 1990.It also just so happened to Bob’s best album in at least 20 years, more really, as it is only when you go back to Blood on the Tracks from 1975 that you find anything better, although I am sure some people, if not many, might disagree with me. Bob was not yet ready for showcasing much of what was on it apart from renditions of album opener Love Sick as part of the encore in both shows. Other than that Bob played two 15 song sets which yielded a total of different 21 songs, meaning there were 9 repeats from one show to another but at least some of those repeats were of the more interesting kind and were therefore worth catching more than once. In this regard I am talking about songs such as Tough Mama from Planet Waves and Absolutely Sweet Marie from Blonde on Blonde; the former being a genuine rarity and the other a personal favourite which didn’t get played by him that often. There were also some nice one offs which were well worth hearing too, namely Senor (Tales of Yankee Power), Blind Willie McTell, You Ain’t Going Nowhere, This Wheel’s on Fire and My Back Pages. The rest of the sets were comprised of much more familiar material by way of Highway 61 Revisited, Like a Rolling Stone, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 and Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.
It was to be another three years before I got to see Bob again and that is where some of the more in depth show descriptions take over, starting with Birmingham NEC from 20th September 2000. By this point songs from the ground breaking Time Out of Mind had become well bedded into the rotating set lists of that phase of the Never Ending Tour. Some of the supposedly less remarkable songs from that album were now realising their full potential in the form of new reworked versions which would at times bring the house down of whatever arena or concert hall they were played in. Here I am referring to songs such as Can’t Wait, Million Miles and Cold Irons Bound which Bob and the boys would often perform to such a high degree of intensity they would blow the socks off the recorded versions. And that was the point, they were songs on the album which were only ever meant to be templates from which they be transformed into a multiplicity of different incarnations. That was Bob you see, the ultimate shape shifter forever pushing the boundaries, when in 1997 he was at the stage of being over 35 years into what had already been an incredible career.