Thought it would be nice to mark the beginning of May, the month of Bob Dylan’s 80th Birthday, with another in my series of accounts of going to see Bob in concert, something I have been lucky enough to do on 37 separate occasions. Needless to say this figure pales in comparison to many, many other Bob fans out there, but all the same it is the number I have so far been allotted and believe me, I have no complaints. After this I’ve got a similar piece on NET shows 2013 – 2019 but I think I’ll save that one for the big day itself – 24th May 2021. Following on from my brief overview of Bob shows which I went to in the 1990s, this post covers me going to see Bob Dylan play live at on three occasions at the Brixton Academy in 2005, once at Wenbley Arena in 2007, once at the London Roundhouse in 2009 and finally a brace of shows at the Cardiff International Arena in 2009 and 2011.
In writing about these 2005 – 2009 Bob Dylan shows mention first has to be made of the three Brixton Academy shows which I saw Bob play in November 2005. For some reason I did not write these up at the time and so they didn’t make it into my 2000 – 2006 period of live show full write ups, although of course they should have. A number of these full write ups I have already posted onto this blog over the last couple of years. My lack of notes for the Brixton Academy shows is an anomaly which now, fifteen years later, I can’t really explain, other than to say it was probably the case that work at Wise Words, the small book distribution company which I managed, must have been pretty stressful at the time. That would no doubt have made the prospect of writing up reports on those three shows beyond my capabilities, which is strange because I know that I really enjoyed them. Needless to say it is way too far down the line for me to remember them in any great detail, beyond what I will write here and even what I write here involves a little bit of cheating in that I have had to go online to check what the set lists were, as even these were not listed down by me at the time.
The Brixton Academy set lists in themselves are quite revealing as over those three shows Bob played a total of 38 songs spread over two sets of 17 songs each and one set of 18 songs. Only two songs were played on each of the three nights – All Along the Watchtower, Like a Rolling Stone– not unless you also count a partly completed introductory number which came in the form of Link Wray’s Rumble. Eight songs were played on two of the three nights namely Cold Irons Bound, Honest With Me, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Like A Rolling Stone, Maggie’s Farm, Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, Summer Days and Waiting For You. This means that a total of 27 songs from these three shows I went to were only played once and included in those one offs are some pretty tasty collectors items from the Bob canon too, rare performances of songs like God Knows, Million Dollar Bash, Mississippi, New Morning and ‘Til I Fell In Love With You. On top of all that in the second show of the three there was a partially completed cover version of London Calling by The Clash as first song of the encore and I bet your bottom dollar you would have to go an awful long way to ever hear Bob play that one again!
In total Bob played five straight shows at the Brixton Academy in November 2005 and I went to the first three of them, with the very first one on Sunday November 20th seeing me sitting up in the circle, whilst on the two subsequent nights I was down in the stalls standing on the Academy floor. Of course it goes without saying that all five shows were sell outs and the place was absolutely packed, so much so that I remember by the time of my second night down in the stalls and right in the mix of it I was feeling pretty damn shattered. But that was Bob for you, simple fact of the matter is to get absolution you have to be prepared to pay the price. To get those sun blast experiences of standing with my eyes closed in the middle of a crowd full of screaming people whilst having a big smile on my face, it was necessary to put myself through my paces, suffer a little bit along the way and although all the finer details of those nights escape me now, that was most certainly something which I did.
Now that my explanation for the Brixton Academy 2005 shows omission is out of the way we can move onto post-2006 proper and begin with the Bob show I went to on April 16th 2007 at Wembley Arena in London, the second of two nights Bob was playing there. It was just one day before my 45th birthday and which sadly, I guess, I attended on my own, reasons for which I can’t really remember now. It was not one of the greatest Bob concerts I had ever been to in my life I have to admit, mainly because it was an all seated show and I was on one of the sides a good three quarters of the way down the hall. I think it was very much a question of going along because it was the only Bob show that year for which I could get a ticket without having to do some travelling by way of going back up to either Birmingham or Sheffield. Wembley Arena it was then, also because I’d had a poor experience at his Cardiff International Arena show the previous year in 2006 when a drunken idiot had all but ruined it for me, I didn’t really go along having that much in the way of great expectations. Cardiff 2006 was when it seemed like the warning bells might have been ringing loudly for me to tone down my Bob addiction, which I guess I must have accordingly did.
The 2007 Wembley Arena show took place about 7 or 8 months after the release of Bob’s Modern Times album and the set list reflected that by having no less than six songs from it. Apart from a single Love and Theft track in the form of Summer Days and the Under the Red Sky set opener Cat’s In the Well, pretty much all of the rest of the set was from the 60s, including really early 60s numbers such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and the more obscure John Brown. Guess it was the place as much as anything, because the hard truth of the matter was I didn’t get much of a kick out of that particular show, maybe there was too much constriction, sitting in my seat in a row of rank strangers, with Bob merely a figure on stage some way off in the distance for me to fully to connect with. Maybe there was also the fact that whilst the Modern Times album worked fine and was one which I had played on a very regular basis since it first saw the light of day in the late summer of 2006, I have to say the live renditions of the six songs Bob performed from it that night added nothing to what I’d already heard by way of their studio versions, with the possible exception of Spirit on the Water. There had not been enough time since its release for Bob’s process of re-invention to get to work on them in the same way as he had done on stuff from Time Out of Mind and to a lesser extent Love and Theft which prior to Modern Times were his two most recent albums. The songs from those two works which I am talking about here are not necessarily the obvious ones like Not Dark Yet or High Water but the ones which at first glance might be regarded as lesser songs in comparison to the stand outs; Can’t Wait, Million Miles and Cold Irons Bound from Time Out Of Mind and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, Summer Days and Honest with Me from Love and Theft. It is possible that it was just going to be a question of time before amazing re-works of Modern Times material came along, but as far as that show in 2007 at Wembley Arena was concerned it was still a question of wait and see. In the meantime my next two Bob shows were in 2009, one at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London and another one at the CIA down in Cardiff.
Now the first of these was in a place which any self respecting Dylan fan would have fought tooth and nail to get a ticket for as it was by his standards an intimate gig in an iconic North London venue which had been pulling in the punters since the 1960s. On the day in question I queued up for many hours on the street outside so as to get as close to the front as possible when the doors finally opened. Turned out that I over extended myself a little bit because those hours queuing took their toll on me and I was pretty damn tired throughout the whole of a Bob show which in the final analysis was distinctly under-whelming. Guess it was one of those situations where everyone was hoping for a night full of nuggets and rarities but Bob was simply not in the mood and instead delivered an uninspired set full of songs we’d all heard a million times before, or at least that was what it felt like to me. No less than 10 of the songs from the 18 song set list were from his most recent three albums – Time Out Of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times – but apart from possibly Po’ Boy they were songs from them that he’d been playing around the world for a fair few years on the Never Ending Tour and they were starting to sound just a little bit tired.
However I think what was the most disappointing thing about this show at the Roundhouse was that it was just a few days before the release of his brand spanking new 2009 album Together Through Life, a work which was appearing at very short notice and causing quite a considerable amount of excitement among his fans. You would have been forgiven for thinking it would therefore have been a perfect opportunity for Bob to showcase a few unheard songs from it, thus making it an evening to remember, but no, what we got instead was the same old stuff with not a hint of anything new suddenly being played for us. It was a bummer to be honest, surely he could have seen that in such a place, a packed to the rafters Roundhouse in ultra cool North London, for him to present a few songs from Together Through Life would have been a great thing to do? Evidently not, so what we got and for the umpteenth time were songs like Summer Days, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Spirit on the Water and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum from those aforementioned recent albums, along with Like a Rolling Stone, Blowin’ in the Wind and All Along the Watchtower from the old as the hills stuff. If Bob was playing a stadium show or a festival all this might have been acceptable, but this was the Roundhouse in London on the eve of his hotly anticipated new album coming out, so surely a little bit of generosity and imagination might have been in order to make it special? Not a chance!!!
The Roundhouse was also one of those rare Bob shows where after a certain point I had to beat a tactical retreat away from the action, not due to any interference from other people in the audience or anything like that, but more simply because I was absolutely fucking knackered. Within the tightly constricted rows of the crowd standing on the floor of the Roundhouse, hoping against hope for some kind of revelation, I felt like I was in danger of passing out. Needless to say I got a few strange looks from my fellow fans when I decided to call it a day and make my way out of the centre but I was damn glad I did because when I got to the sides the bars were relatively free of people. This meant I was able to order a nice refreshing pint of Old Speckled Hen without any problem whatsoever and then continue to watch Bob and the boys from a safe distance. The beer was so damn tasty that I went back and bought another one and I have to say that with the alcohol inside me I suddenly felt a whole lot better about things and enjoyed the rest of the show, even if it was just the trooping out of the same old colours. Well, what the hell? It could all have been so much different and so much better – that one off show in the capital on a warm evening in the middle of Spring – but it was not to be. Bob wasn’t up for it, simple as that, so what we got was just the cannon fodder stuff from the Never Ending Tour.
It is kind of ironic that the Cardiff show two nights later was one which I hadn’t really intended to go along to as it was in the middle of a working week and all sorts of arrangements would have to be made for me to fit it in. I had bought the ticket simply because when I applied to get a ticket for the Roundhouse I had been certain I wouldn’t make the cut, therefore the Cardiff International Arena show was going to be my back up to ensure I got to see Bob at least once that year. As it turned out I struck lucky with my Roundhouse allocation which meant one ticket became two and suddenly I had a bit of driving to do in order to make it down to the Principality, place of my birth, in order to see him at the CIA. Well what do you know? The Cardiff show, tagged on at the end just in case, a show which I hadn’t paid much attention to beforehand in any way whatsoever, turned out to be completely fucking brilliant! Funny that, another reason why going to see Bob will always have to be on my agenda right until the end of the line. There I was thinking and thinking about the Roundhouse show only for it to turn out to be big a letdown and then Cardiff comes up from out of nowhere and hits me straight between the eyes due to the fact of how stupendously good it was.
Why do things work this way? I don’t know and I’m sure Bob doesn’t either. The Roundhouse with all the anticipation which went with it turned out to be a blow out and yes I’m sure Bob must have felt the same way about it as well, or at least I hoped. But then just two nights later down in Cardiff and far away from the hip an’ happening capital he was in that other capital, one lesser well known, where he walked out upon the stage and bowled everyone over. It was a 17 song set list as opposed to the 18 he delivered at the Roundhouse but somehow the song selection was so much better as to be almost unthinkable. Included in that shuffle of the pack were some mind blowing performances and here I am talking about songs such as John Brown which was stunningly awesome and a complete show stopper, then a Masters of War to kill for, a sublime Mr Tambourine Man and a one for the memory Nettie Moore from Modern Times. The margins are slim sometimes as to what makes a great Bob show and what does not, but there was no question that down in Cardiff on 30th April 2009 Bob Dylan absolutely slammed it and brought it right back to everyone’s attention why he is a superstar who will be sorely missed when he eventually moves along. Really, the whole show was so good that even Blowin’ In the Wind, final song of the encore and one which I often have trouble with, was lively as a leopard, brave as a lion and so dreamily fantastic it sent all us off to those distant shores of our white dove imaginations when we all went home. Funny thing about the Cardiff show was that there was no expectation Bob would play anything from his forthcoming Together Through Life and therefore no disappointment, none whatsoever, when he didn’t. It was a set structured in such a way that every song made perfect sense so that nothing more was needed to be delivered.
Now it just so happens that for my next Bob show I was back down in Cardiff again, this time on October 13th 2011 when once more Bob played the CIA only now it had been renamed as the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena. This show was different to many recent ones in the respect that there was a support act and a big name support act at that, coming in the form of Mark Knopfler, a heavy hitter who had enjoyed massive success in the 1980s with his group Dire Straits, success which had culminated in their multi-million selling Brothers In Arms album. Mark Knopfler had previous form with Bob having played guitar on Slow Train Coming back in 1979 and then producing his opportunity missed Infidels album in 1984. The set we got from Bob on this occasion was somewhat shorter than usual – 14 songs in total – which was no doubt due to the length of time Mark Knopfler had on stage to perform his songs before Bob came on.
As usual I arrived for the show nice and early in order to get a good spot on the floor as it was standing only and I reaped the dividends for this by way of having an excellent view of Mark Knopfler and his band when they came on at around 7.30 pm. Now I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed what Mark Knopfler had to offer, in the main he was previewing material from what would be his Privateering album which came out the following year in 2012 and which in my opinion is definitely one of the better ones in his quietly impressive canon. He was also relaxed and happy to be there on the stage in Cardiff, enjoying plenty of conversational interplay with the audience and towards the end of his set playing a couple of Dire Straits numbers which unsurprisingly went down very well and got a far better reaction from the crowd than his solo stuff. When he did Brothers In Arms it was something of a treat, a thrill for me to have Mark Knopfler play that famous dobro guitar of his right there in front of me, almost like he was in my own living room by way of being so close. There was not much more to say really, clearly he was a highly successful musician perfectly at ease in his surroundings and not bothered in the slightest that he was opening up for Bob.
Unfortunately the atmosphere changed somewhat markedly when Bob came on, there was suddenly a bit of an edge to the proceedings and to make matters worse he looked like he was in a really bad mood. Needless to say there was zero acknowledgment of the cheering crowd and not a single word was spoken the whole evening beyond a very brief introduction to the members of his band towards the end of the main set. It was a bit of a strange one if truth be told, maybe Bob was feeling threatened by way of having Mark Knopfler there as his support act, that he was more than capable of giving Bob a run for his money, not that I think Knopfler would have ever knowingly done that as he has a tremendous amount of respect for Bob and would probably have baulked at the thought of blowing him off stage. All the same there was something in the air which paved the way for what was one of the less enjoyable Bob shows I have witnessed and things weren’t helped by a set which had no golden nuggets thrown in for the fans and again nothing at all from his most recent album Together Through Life. Instead what we got were the tried and very tested Summer Days and Thunder on the Mountain from Love and Theft and Modern Times and a lot of stuff that the regulars amongst us had heard many times before by way of Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Ballad of a Thin Man and Highway 61 Revisited. There was a mildly interesting brace from 1989s Oh Mercy in the form of Shooting Star and Man in the Long Black Coat, but I guess the fact that Watching the River Flow was pretty much the best performance of the whole damn set sums it up really doesn’t it? So that was Bob in Cardiff 2011, on an evening when Mark Knopfler was highly enjoyable and a pleasure to watch, whilst Bob was up to his old tricks again by way of his manner and overall poor disposition throughout, nothing that we haven’t seen from him before if truth be told, but all the same it would have been nice if he’d made more of an effort to rise to the occasion.
So there we go, seven Bob shows 2007 – 2011 and as to be expected they cover the good, the bad and ugly as far as this particular Song and Dance Man is concerned.