First of two posts today, 24th May 2021, to mark – on my blog – the 80th birthday of the incomparable recording and performing artist – Bob Dylan.
Happy Birthday Bob!!!
Following on from my overview of Bob shows from the 1990s and also shows in the period 2005 – 2009, this post covers me seeing Bob Dylan live at the Tempodrom, Berlin on two dates in 2013, the Royal Albert Hall in London 2015, the Cardiff Interantional Arena 2017 and finally Hyde Park, London 2019.
It was to be just over two years later at the end of October 2013 when I next saw Bob by way of going to two shows in Germany on October 24th & October 26th at the Tempodrom in Berlin. Just so happened that I was over there paying a visit to my old friend Thomas Deilecke, otherwise known as Toby Ruft and who takes a leading role in some of my Indian writings which appear on my website Traceless Path, specifically in a novel on there by the name of Tiger Trails, but also in a number of shorter pieces found in a section called Om Reflections. But I guess this is something which I might have mentioned before! The tickets for the shows had been bought well in advance of my visit and I guess they were the main reason why was I was making the trip over, not solely of course, because it was great meeting up once again with Thomas but Bob was most definitely in my sights, no doubt about that. He was actually playing an unbroken three night stint at the Tempodrom, a concert hall in the middle of town built in the fashion and shape of a circus tent and we had tickets for the first night and for the third. Now it has to be said that the night of my first Tempodrom show was also my first day in town, having landed at Berlin Tegel in the early afternoon and gone straight with Thomas to his flat in South Berlin in order to dump my stuff and have a late afternoon meal with him and his wife Beate who would also be coming to see Bob with us. There was no question that I was very excited over the prospect of seeing Bob not once but twice in Berlin, which meant we all arrived at the venue pretty early as we had standing tickets and I wanted to make sure we had a good position down on the floor.
Turned out that the first Bob Tempodrom show was bloody brilliant, one of the best Bob shows ever as far as I was concerned and a million miles away from what he had to offer us a couple of years ago down in Cardiff when he was touring around with Mark Knopfler. In the two years since then he had released a new album, Tempest in 2012, and it was material from this which he specifically concentrated on in the Tempodrom playing no less than six songs from it. I also finally got to hear him play two songs from Together Through Life, his 2009 album which until that point I had not heard him play anything from at all. It was a win-win situation as far as I was concerned and there was a considerable bonus as well in that it was from these pool of songs that some of Bob’s best performances of the night came. There was a core selection of songs from Tempest which just worked incredibly well when played in a live context and here I am talking about Pay in Blood, Early Roman Kings, Scarlet Town and Long and Wasted Years, the last of which ended the show in an astoundingly powerful way. The two songs from Together Through Life were by no means bad either, namely Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ and Forgetful Heart,with the latter forming something of a centre piece in the middle of the main set. In fact out of all these it was Forgetful Heart, Early Roman Kings and that main set closer Long and Wasted Years which really brought the house down as they were tremendous, amazing even, proof once again that when it comes down to it Bob can still deliver in spades and leave all competition standing in the dust. He worked hard that night, sweat dripping down the sides of his face whilst working his band into a state of no mean intensity through which the superb guitar work of Charlie Sexton absolutely shone. There were no low points, no bad numbers or no bad versions, just a full on assault of the highest quality with some truly memorable peaks thrown in for good measure and all of it performed in the shadow of the Reichstag.
This was also the first Bob show I had seen where there was an intermission in the main set, as after Love Sick the ninth song in, Bob and the boys left the stage for five or ten minutes before returning to resume the proceedings with another eight songs. Once they were done it was then just a question of lining up at the front of the stage in what was known as The Formation, in order for them to take in the wild applause and cheering from an ecstatic Berlin crowd. Motionless and expressionless Bob and the boys stared into the sea of people before one by one departing the stage with Bob leaving last. The boys by the way, were long term band leader Tony Garnier on the bass guitar, George Recile on the drums who had now been with Bob for the best part of the last ten years, Charlie Sexton on lead guitar who had recently rejoined Bob’s band after a gap of over five years, guitarist Stu Kimball who had also been with Bob for the best part of the last ten years and likewise multi-instrumentalist Donnie Heron. There was no doubt that the return of Charlie Sexton had re-energised Bob who was now either behind his electric piano or taking centre stage with microphone and stand for certain numbers such as that mind blowing Long and Wasted Years. Once they returned for the encore Bob and the boys kept it simple with All Along the Watchtower and Blowin’ In the Wind but by this point nothing more was needed.
Seeing Bob that first night in Berlin I really couldn’t have been happier as it was easily his best show I had been to in years and it was just so refreshing to hear him play all those new songs, to at last give the set list a good old shake down and to rest a lot of the stuff which in recent years he had been playing too much and for far too long. The second Tempodrom show I went to was unique by way of the fact that it was an exact repetition of the songs from the first night, which was the first time I had ever seen this happen when it came to watching Bob on the Never Ending Tour. But this was the new way, a stable set list with minimal changes, maybe one or two here and there on occasion, but basically no, it was now going to be the same set every night. Since on that first night I was hearing no less than eight of the songs from the nineteen song set list for the very first time I didn’t mind in the slightest when the whole thing was repeated two nights later. It gave me more time to listen, to study and to enjoy them, so much so that if I had gone to all three Tempodrom shows and heard the same set list each night it would not have made any difference. It would still have been brilliant and more than worth my while, of that I had no doubt and yes, just for the record, the set list on the night I didn’t go to was exactly the same as well.
Nevertheless it has to be said that we were now in different territory as far as the live Bob Dylan experience was concerned, territory where set stability and structure now took precedence, with there being no room for last minute spontaneity and things thrown into the mix from out of the blue. It had only been just over eight years ago when Bob, over the course of the three nights I had seen him down at the Brixton Academy in November 2005, had played no less than 38 different songs. Now in Berlin 2013 he played over the course of three nights a total of 19 different songs, exactly half that number. That was maybe what you got when you were still treading the boards at over 70 years of age; time to hunker down, take your foot off the peddle and consolidate. The thing which counted as a big plus for this new way of thinking were the sheer quality of the shows Bob and the boys delivered, shows which were streets ahead of what they had been either down in Cardiff in 2011 or round at the Roundhouse in London in 2009. As for me, with that second Tempodrom show, I did not enjoy it to the same level of intensity as I did the first one, but that was not so much to do with Bob and the repetition of the whole set, but more to do with the fact I was feeling pretty damn shattered after having had three very full and busy days in Berlin hanging around with Thomas before going back to his place and burning the midnight oil.
Funny thing happened after the second show however, as it was a mild late autumn Berlin evening and there was a busker outside the Tempodrom playing early Dylan such as the likes of Blowin’ In the Wind, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, It Ain’t Me Babe, Times They Are a Changin’ and all those other great songs from Bob’s 60s period when it was just him and his guitar on the way to conquering the whole of the world. The thing about this guy was that he was so damn good as to be almost incredible and it was not long before a sizeable crowd gathered around him, loving every minute of what he was coming up with. There were a couple of bars outside the Tempodrom so me and Thomas grabbed a beer each and then stood there listening to this guy play his heart out and it was just simply amazing to witness how he was able to deliver one perfect version after another of classic early Bob. To cap it all off at a certain point in the proceedings a minibus came into view from around the back of the Tempodrom and inside it were the boys of Bob’s band – Tony, Charlie, Donnie, Stu and George – all of them still dressed in the suits they had worn on stage. They smiled and waved at us before disappearing into the night, no doubt back to their hotel somewhere in the centre of town. Needless to say there was no sign of Bob, being the main man he was probably in the back of a blacked out limo with a big pair of shades on, hunkered down under the covers whilst being sped away to a different destination.
Next Bob show for me was again two years later, at the Royal Albert Hall no less, a venue which has great resonance for Bob fans the world over due to what he did or didn’t do there in the 60s. This time around it was a single show once again in the company of Thomas Deilecke, who was over in London for a few days from Berlin where of course I had so very much enjoyed that brace of Tempodrom Bob shows in 2013. We were catching Bob on what was the fifth of a five night run at the hallowed venue and our tickets were the cheapest on offer due to me being slow on uptake as far as the ordering of them was concerned, which meant we just got in before they were all sold out. Think it is fair to say that it was not one of the most memorable Bob shows I have ever been to as far as I was concerned. From the distance we were at it was difficult to see what shape he was in, but by the sound of his voice and the energy levels of the band, it is pretty safe to say they were running if not on empty then at least pretty low. It was also confirmation of how static the set lists had become, as although it was now a full two years since I had last seen him, there were still no less than 11 songs from the 19 song set list which had been played in Berlin at the Tempodrom shows.
Pretty much all of the Tempest songs were still being played as indeed they had been in virtually every show since I had last seen him. You might wonder why Bob wouldn’t just every once in a while want to shake the pack a bit, try something different. Tempest songs like Pay in Blood and Early Roman Kings had now been a permanent presence on the set list for the best part of the last three years, with Soon After Midnight and Duquesne Whistle following on close behind them. Yet there were other songs from that album which Bob had hardly played at all and I would have thought at some stage Bob might have wanted to give them a try, songs like Narrow Way or Tin Angel, just to see what they were like in a live context but no, nuthin’ doin’. Bob was staying well clear of them, preferring instead to till the same old ground over and over and over which made one ask the question, was Pay in Blood really two hundred and fifty times better than Narrow Way? The only significant change to the structure of the set since Berlin was the inclusion of standards from the Great American Songbook, thanks to the release in 2015 of Shadows In the Night, Bob’s cover album of classic songs from the 40s and 50s. This meant I got to hear songs I had never heard in my life before, songs which in the past had been made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra; Autumn Leaves, Why Try to Change Me Now, I’m a Fool to Want You and others. These songs tended to be brief in duration and whilst pleasant enough they were low intensity and therefore created a rather subdued atmosphere that night at the Royal Albert Hall where Bob ploughed his way through six of them out of a total set list of 20 songs. Oh well, Bob was just into his thing I guess, I would just have to bear with him until he made his way onto different ground.
Bear with him I did when nearly two years later in May 2017 I got see him once again down in Cardiff at what was still called the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena. This time I struck lucky as Bob and the boys, the same boys whom Thomas and I had seen in that mini-bus trundling out from behind the Tempodrom in Berlin nearly four years ago, delivered a show which was both hypnotic, strange and ever so slightly rather sensational. The covers were still in the set, again half a dozen of them, the same number as what had been at the Royal Albert Hall, where in the two years since then, Bob had released two more American standards albums in the form of Fallen Angels in 2016 and Triplicate which had just come out in March 2017, a couple of months prior to the Cardiff show . The most noticeable feature about this show was that in between each of the songs Bob and the boys kept up a continual noise of tuning their instruments, a noise which seemed to be very deliberate, thus creating the effect of making the whole show seem to be like one continuous piece of music. As usual there was no interaction with the crowd in any great shape or form, not even a band introduction, but there was instead a studious concentration on display which ensured what we got this time around was a show of extremely high quality which bore the same consistency in the beginning, the middle, the end with no let up at any point. If anything there were highs rather than lows by way of a great To Ramona at song number 2 and then a true standout in the form of an incredible and thoroughly reworked Desolation Row towards the end of the main set. So there were are, Bob was up to his old tricks again, making it impossible for me to ever seriously think of letting him go.
Initially I had been pretty dubious as to whether the whole thing was going to be any good or not, mainly due to the fact that this time around the floor space in the Cardiff Motorpoint was given over to seating instead of standing, something which had seriously put me off as the one thing I enjoyed about Bob’s shows in Cardiff was that I could always get to stand pretty close to the front. In the end I had decided to press the button and buy a couple of tickets, one for me and one for my old friend from South Wales Simon Buck, with whom I had last seen Bob over 20 years ago when he’d played that nine song set at the Prince’s Trust show in Hyde Park back in 1996. Those Tempest songs which I had first heard nearly four years ago back at the Tempodrom in Berlin were still lingering, still hanging around the set list and showing no signs of going away anytime soon, but this time through the sheer force of delivery by Bob and the boys, their presence really didn’t bother me at all, in fact Pay In Blood and Early Roman Kings had never sounded better. So it was all a bit of a pleasant surprise and my companion for the evening Simon Buck was well impressed too, which probably did mean something as he was a musician himself and therefore knew good stuff when he heard it.
Now we get to what is the final show on my Bob list so far, show number 37, from last year when Bob played a concert in Hyde Park, London on July 12th 2019, sharing the top billing with another world famous musical icon in the form of Neil Young. It was one of those all day affairs which can often be a little bit gruelling but which once you are used to them follow along in their own particular way until they eventually reach their inevitable late night conclusion. Now I have to say that as far as this particular show was concerned – which by the way I went to see with my old Bob concert going companion Marc Murphy, in fact Hyde Park was our first Bob show together since Sheffield Arena in 2003 – I think I enjoyed the experience of seeing Neil Young live for the first time in my life more than seeing Bob again. The whole set up in Hyde Park was rather strange with the stage so far away from where the bulk of the audience were, which meant that after getting ourselves a burger and chips along with a bottle of mineral water each, me and Marc settled on sitting in front of one of the big screens which had been erected for the occasion at various points within the show perimeters. This made much better sense as the visual quality on screen was excellent and there was space enough on the ground where we were so as to be able to stretch out and fully relax within what turned out to be our own little enclave over the course of the time we were there.
It was pretty much from a position of prone horizontal that I saw and thoroughly enjoyed Neil Young play his set, backed by a young band by the name of Promise of the Real led by Lucas Nelson, son of the country singer Willie Nelson. There was a warmth and energy to the performance which made it a pleasure to watch, with plenty of electric noise coming from the stage in the form of extended guitar solos and feedback to ensure it was high quality rock with a fine slice of melody thrown in for good measure. All performed in a packed and happy Hyde Park on a summer evening just as the sun was beginning to set, with Neil Young clearly enjoying it just as much as everyone else, treating us to a tour of his classic songs by way of Heart of Gold, Old Man, Love and Only Love and an extended, absolutely brilliant Rockin’ in the Free World to close things out. It was one to remember in other words and I was glad that I had at last had the opportunity to see him as I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed it for the world because it was fab.
As for Bob, well it was a strange one, very strange indeed, with him making no concession to the fact he was playing an outdoor show in front of quite a lot of people who might never have seen him before. There was no introduction to the band, no words spoken and no interaction with the audience in any way whatever other than just getting down to business and playing his songs. On the large screen in front of us the camera remained fixed on Bob for the entire show, never once panning out to allow us to see the rest of the band. It must have been in the contract I guess, but the fact of the matter was that Bob was wearing a hat which cast his face in shadow whilst he sat looking downwards at his keyboard virtually the whole time anyway. Visual entertainment it most certainly wasn’t, which meant we had to rely solely on the music and in that regard for this particular show it was at times of somewhat variable quality.
Some of it, particularly an awesome version of Can’t Wait from Time Out of Mind, was nothing short of stunning and by far and away the best song of the night, whilst other songs, such as a resurrected Gotta Serve Somebody just didn’t quite cut the mustard when compared to how he was playing it back in Stirling Castle 2001. There was also the inevitable fact that Bob was still playing a fair few of his Tempest songs, nearly a full seven years down the line from when the album first came out, which meant he yet again pumped out Pay in Blood and Early Roman Kings for what must now be the umpteenth time. Yet at the same time there was something so uncompromising about it which made me respect it for what it was and to find the whole show rather compelling. But there were plenty in the crowd who were not so impressed with Bob that evening which meant quite a lot of people were heading for the exits long before his set was over. Not me of course, I stayed right to the end and I was glad I did, as whilst it was far from a classic Bob show there was something so strange about it as make it almost subversive. Not only that, to hear the makeovers he gave to songs such as Like a Rolling Stone, When I Paint My Masterpiece and set closer It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry made me feel it was more than worth my while to have stuck with it. Where was Bob whilst he was up there on that Hyde Park stage, seemingly oblivious to everyone? Well that is a good question, but my guess is that he would have been well and truly in the zone, committing himself fully to his performance, being at 78 years of age nothing more than the consummate professional. Whether people got it or not was hardly the point and I for one was not going to argue with that, no way, not ever.
So, just when he is needed more than ever, during these strange times we are living in, let’s hope Bob comes along and punches us right in the face by way of his unearthly brilliance, makes us believe that in this vast and mysterious universe there really is a conscious force, only it might be something which we are never meant to fully understand. If that is the case I guess I might as well just sit back and enjoy the show, hopefully get ready at some point in the future to once again welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan when he next comes to town on his Never Ending Tour. You know I wouldn’t dare miss him!