Bob Dylan Live: London Hammersmith Apollo

Second 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!!!

This one is a write up of the third of three shows I saw Bob play back in 2003. Whilst the first two were run of the mill arena shows, one in Birmingham and one in Sheffield, this one was always going to be special – a return to the legendary Hammersmith Apollo in West London. Sure enough, Bob didn’t disappoint, pulling some stone cold nuggets from out the bag, including a song which he hadn’t played in 26 years. Nice one!

So now it was a case of two down one to go as far as my Three Bob Shows for 2003 were concerned. There was a whole two days in between the Birmingham NEC show which I had been to on the Friday and the Hammersmith Apollo show on the Monday. That was a long weekend to get through in other words, a very long weekend indeed when I knew that Bob was in town, playing places like the Shepherds Bush Empire which would no doubt be packed to the rafters and full of adoring fans. This time I was going to see Bob with Duncan “Dunc” Hutson one of my partners in crime at Wise Words, the small distribution company specialising in books on Buddhism, which I helped run as well as being co-director of. Dunc had come to see Bob with me once before, the first of the two London Docklands Arena shows in May 2002 and at the time he had been suitably impressed with what he had witnessed. When I told him a couple of months ago that Bob would be back in London in November he jumped at the chance to come along with me to see him again. Therefore on the Monday I finished early at Wise and arranged to meet Dunc round my place in the late afternoon for him to park his car before we took the tube down to Hammersmith from Woodford.

On the ride into town I recounted to Dunc in some considerable detail the serious stress I had been under a few nights before in regard to seeing Bob in Birmingham, when a fog from hell had suddenly descended upon me us from out of nowhere, to maroon us on the grid locked streets of Solihull in rush hour time. I told Dunc how close I had been to throwing in the whole lousy goddamned dog headed deal which had left me cursing the gods and nearly ending up on Desolation Row because of it. Reflecting on the experience, as I inevitably had done over the weekend, it seemed to me as if a higher force greater than what I could have ever imagined was trying through concocted circumstance to tell me that enough was enough as far as Bob was concerned and that it was time to let him go. Time to call it a day, ease off the pedal and to do something a bit more useful with my life, although exactly what that might have been I really didn’t know, simply had no idea. Besides, it was only 21 times which I had seen him in the last 10 years, hardly a bank buster within the great scheme of things and not really that excessive at all when compared to many others out there. In fact those sad eyed badlands which I had been forced to ride through within the greater environs of Birmingham on Friday night felt like they were fading away the closer I got to Hammersmith. Now I was back and ready for more, back and fighting, ready for another Bob show, already reaching down deep inside to tap those feelings of immense excitement which only the prospect of seeing Bob Dylan play live can generate.

We enjoyed a smooth ride across the great city and when we got off I was rather surprised to find the whole area around Hammersmith tube station had been completely re-developed since I was last in that part of town. Then again, as I thought about it, I realised that it had been over 10 years since I had been there, not since Bob had last played there in 1993 in fact, which was the first time I had ever seen him. Back then I had gone to four Bob shows in a row, pretty much one night after another Monday to Friday with a single break on the Wednesday, but only because on that day there had been no show. For those shows in 1993 I had originally booked tickets for just the first two shows but they had been so brilliant, so unbelievable, that I was knocked out loaded by them and went down on the next two nights he was playing as well, paying over the odds to the tout lizards in order to get myself in through the doors to see him again. Even though it had seen me burn through the bread like there was no tomorrow and run myself ragged by way of still going into work every day, it had without a shadow of a doubt been worth it. So anyway, on one level 10 years was quite a long time since last being in a place, but then again on another level it was absolutely nothing when one considered the Earth has been spinning round the sun for over 4 billion years and the sun in turn circling our galactic centre for even longer.

Ten years ago people going to shows at the Hammersmith Apollo had to use exits from the tube which were a pretty long way from the venue and you needed to walk quite some distance next to very busy west London roads before you eventually got to the building. Now in the gleaming 21st century things had changed and there was an exit more or less right outside, something which was infinitely more civilised as there was now only one road that you had to cross before you were there. Dunc and I had originally planned to go and have a drink before the show, but when we looked at the queue which had already formed around the Apollo we thought it would be better to join it right away. I have to admit I was most mightily relieved that Dunc was happy to forego a pre-show pint in a pub as I really don’t think I would have enjoyed it. Not when I would have been standing there knowing increasing numbers of people outside would have been getting one step ahead of us in regard to going to see Bob that evening. Better to just jump right in, play the waiting game in the queue, make the sacrifice and then reap the dividends later, better by far in fact.

The tickets we had were for standing in the stalls and not seated up in the circle, which meant it was simply going to be a case of first come first served as far as getting in a good position to see Bob was concerned. There would also be a lot of push and shove plus the potential for gate crashing piss heads, which was what it was like in the middle of an excited crowd, thrown in for good measure. All the same, standing in the stalls was better for me any day of the week as I far preferred mixing it with the mob and taking my chances on the floor rather than being stuck on a seat somewhere up in the gods. Down on the floor as close to the stage as possible was where all the action was in terms of being able to witness another performance by the Mystery Tramp, Ragged Clown, Bread Crumb Sinner, the ultimate Song and Dance Man from the Land of the Star Spangled Banner! Dunc had been fine about standing in the stalls when I’d bought the tickets and now he also didn’t mind standing outside the Apollo on a dark November evening for what would easily be the best part of an hour. The crucial point to bear in mind as far as I was concerned was that joining the queue early meant we would be reasonably assured of a good position in the stalls when the doors opened and it was time to go inside. Since the whole point of the evening was to see Bob and not spend time in a smoky Hammersmith boozer, it seemed to me our decision was an eminently sensible one for which we were to be congratulated. As if to confirm this Dunc told me he’d had a pretty heavy weekend drinks wise anyway, so giving the pub a miss on a Monday night was really no big deal for him.

It was late November, but just like the previous week when Marc Murphy and I had been up in Sheffield, it really wasn’t very cold at all and of course with a crowd of excited people surrounding us in the queue it seemed warmer still. Those freezing November nights we used to get 20 or 30 years ago, when it could be decidedly chilly if you stayed outside for long, now seemed to be gone. To queue for an hour or so before going in to see Bob was not really much of a problem at all, if anything it was more like a pleasure, being easy enough to pass the time observing the people around us. Since it was a London show it was interesting to see there were lots more younger faces around, very different to Sheffield where it had been almost exclusively old timers and different to the NEC as well when the audience had been most decidedly Brummie. In front of us was a young a guy in who must have been his early 20s, he was smoking rolled up cigarettes and looked very excited, his face full of anticipation. He was dressed like Bob from around the time of the making of his Subterranean Homesick Blues promo shoot from way back in the mid 60s. There was something which was pretty cool about him and in my heart I could only wish the young man well, as by immersing himself in all things Bob he was going to be giving himself a good education. Needless to say there were plenty of the usual folks around as well, grey beards with serious faces no doubt used to the intensity of deep conversations on all things Bob, many of whom came with a fair amount of middle aged spread, areas of course which Dunc and myself were also now spilling into.

There was no denying that I was hoping Hammersmith was going to be a pretty good show as it was taking place in what was a relatively small venue for Bob and with that always came the hope he was going to pull something special out of the bag, nuggets from deep down inside the goldmine. It was all a mile away from the vibe of the Birmingham and Sheffield shows just a few nights ago, both of which had been arena affairs in the middle of the country and where there was most definitely a bottom line. This one was different and there was real excitement in the air, people knew that by standing in the stalls in a place like the Hammersmith Apollo it was a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with Bob, although it seemed to me that no matter what kind of place he played he always managed in some mystical kind of way to keep out of reach, just like when I had seen him down in Portsmouth Guildhall back in September 2000. But there was the distinct possibility of some sure fire rarities from his extensive and incredible back catalogue getting an airing at the Apollo and that was most definitely what people were hoping for judging by the many conversations taking place in the queue around us.

When the doors finally opened we jostled past the security guards once our pockets had been given a tap and then we joined the rush onto the floor area of the stalls in the Hammersmith Apollo, getting as close to the front as possible. Duncan and I were lucky because we got to one of the few spaces on the floor where there was a railing to lean against, which meant things were going to be a whole lot easier on our legs the more the evening went on. Otherwise as I knew only too well from past experience that 3 or 4 hours standing up whilst in the middle of a hot and excitable crowd could sometimes be a pretty gruelling experience. Once we got settled we could stand there and take in the scene. It was the first time of course that I had been back to the Hammersmith Apollo since 1993 and I could see that it had undergone some quite extensive renovations. The new decor was dim and dark, lots of deep burgundy and black, a little bit like the Brixton Academy, with the whole place looking a lot smaller now that the seats had been taken out, which was strange as you would have expected the opposite. That was fine by me, the smaller the better as far as the venue in which I was going to see Bob was concerned, up close and personal, although like I said, no matter how small the venue Bob would always somehow manage to keep his distance.

It was great just to be standing there on the floor of the Apollo looking across at the stage which really was not too far away, almost within touching distance. Seeing the speaker stacks hanging down from the ceiling in front of the stage, all the guitars in racks on both sides of it, the drum kit, Bob’s electric piano, the mixing desk, with one or two technicians wandering around making a few tweaks before it was show time; all of it was a sight I would never tire of. Tech roadies such as the young Oriental guy were going from amp to amp and flicking them on before tuning the guitars, then there was the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail who would no doubt soon be making his announcement of introduction before the lights were hit. This was simply what it was, Bob Dylan and His Band on the road, cutting into the electric atmosphere on yet another night in yet another city, somewhere down the line on the Never Ending Tour. The floor space of the Apollo filled up rapidly and soon the temperature began to rise, along with the noise level of the crowd, increasing in volume until it hit a pitch of quite considerable intensity. It was clear from where me and Dunc were standing that there were now quite a lot of people packed onto the floor, faces full with sweet anticipation over Bob being back in the capital.

When the Nagchampa incense which had been placed in buckets at the back of the stage was lit with a blowtorch by the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail and its clouds of sweet fragrance billowed out over the front few rows of the crowd, I knew that it was getting very close to show time. After seeing Bob so many times and in a variety of locations, this was when the excitement I felt never dimmed and I wished it would always be that way, that it would last forever. The first two nights of this series of three Bob shows had been run of the mill in Sheffield and Birmingham, which of course was still artistic performance at an exceptionally high level, but this one in London felt like it was going to be different. Suddenly the lights were hit and a roar went up from the crowd as the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail announced over the PA “Ladies and gentleman would you please welcome Columbia recording artist, Bob Dylan!” Shadows duly appeared from the back of the stage, then they stepped into the lights and incense smoke, a moment of pure addiction for everyone, as Bob jaunted over to the right hand side of the stage with his eyes fixed firmly in front of him, making no eye with the audience whatsoever. He got to his electric piano in a matter of seconds striking a little bit of a Jerry Lee Lewis pose, this time dressed in a way which gave off the air of an ageless pirate about him, proving once again how Bob could be the ultimate shape shifter at a moment’s notice.

Well, whatever Bob was dressed in he soon hit the ground running as the show got off to a tremendous start with a hard as nails, take no prisoners Drifter’s Escape from his late 60s album John Wesley Harding.  It was good, it was very good, it was right on the edge and it felt like it was just the beginning of something special. Sure enough the first surprise of the night came with the second song, a fantastic You Ain’t Going Nowhere, a rumble out from The Basement Tapes no less, with every word sung clear as a bell and given the kind of intonation which only Bob can do when it came to throwing key phrases out into space so that they landed straight up. Things were looking good, that this set was going to yield some collectors items and be really rather handsome in terms of variety and content. Earlier in the day back at Wisdom I’d read on the Net that Bob’s show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire the night before had indeed featured many of his lesser known songs, or rather many of his songs which, for whatever reason, he chose not to play that often. The vast majority of the reviews of the show had been extremely favourable, tinged as they were with a mixture of wonder and relief that Bob had finally given the pack a little bit of a shuffle when it came to what the set list was on this leg of the Never Ending Tour.

The first real confirmation we were in for an out of the ordinary show came with the number which followed both a perfectly serviceable Cry A While from Love and Theft and his early Freewheelin’  classic Girl from the North Country. This was because at number five was a totally unbelievable, almost unprecedented Romance in Durango from Desire, Bob’s almost great album from 1975 when Rolling Thunder had most definitely been in the air. This song alone was more than enough to get any of the numerous heavy duty Bob fans in the crowd scrambling for their history books as anyone who was anyone knew right away that this was the first time they were hearing Bob play it in 26 years!!! The roar of the crowd which greeted its arrival, once everyone had recognised what it was, indicated just how much people knew what the significance was of this moment. The reaction of the crowd nearly blew the roof off the Apollo as we stood in awe of Bob delivering an understandably rusty version of this sun drenched and sun dried Tex Mex style classic. There was even the slight possibility of a shadow of a smile crossing Bob’s face as well, although as far as that was concerned it was extremely hard to tell. However there was no doubt at all this moment served to confirm to a great many people in the audience why going to see Bob Dylan play live was always going to be such an incredible thing to do. It was just for the chance, no matter how remote, that you would be there when he pulls another Romance in Durango out of the bag, throwing it down in front of you like gold he has found from way up high in the mountains. Needless to say if the show had ended there and then, a hell of a lot of the people in the crowd would have made their back home through the dark streets of London feeling completely satisfied that their work for the night was done.

Things however did not stop there as immediately after Durango came another John Wesley Harding number, the very obscure Dear Landlord which saw Bob hammering the keys down during the course of what was another very rarely performed song and which had the eyes of many people in the crowd almost popping out of their heads. After an amazing current tour staple in the form of a tidally elemental High Water from Love and Theft, Bob again hit us with another 100% gem in the form of Tough Mama , a song which I had last heard him play in 1997 by way of a brace, with one in Cardiff and one at the Wembley Arena. This song was from Planet Waves that quietly fantastic album of his which came out in the early 70s when Bob toyed and then followed through on the almost unthinkable idea of leaving Columbia, the record label which he had been with since 1961, in order to join Island Records. It was an album which also showcased the talents of guitarist Robbie Robertson and the rest of The Band, all of whom had been with him at various points since the mid 60s. In my mind it was difficult to know which song Bob had played less in a live setting, Dear Landlord or Tough Mama, probably Landlord actually, but whichever one it might have been it was deeply fascinating stuff for me to ponder on. Floater came in next from Love and Theft but on this occasion it felt like it was little more than a prelude to a most mightily dirty Million Miles from Time Out of Mind, Bob’s 1997 Daniel Lanois produced album which brought him right back into the fold as far as serious critical rehabilitation was concerned. The deep, rumbling swamp bass of this particular Million Miles put it right up there with Can’t Wait from Birmingham a couple of nights before, as a prime example of how Bob gives relatively recent material such a radical reinterpretation it is almost as if you are listening to a completely
different song, one which also just so happens to be a million times better than the original.

After this explosion of surprises came another sure fire nugget from Bob in the form of Jokerman originally recorded with the reggae drum and bass duo Sly and Robbie on his early 80s Infidels album.ProducedbyMark Knopfler from Dire Straits it was Infidels which signalled Bob’s re-emergence from his heavy duty Christian phase which had begun to manifest itself with Slow Train Coming in 1979, continuing on through to the patchy but sometimes brilliant Shot of Love in 1981 with Saved from 1980 sandwiched in the middle of them. Similar to Romance in Durango there was a certain roughness to Bob’s rendition of Jokerman which was maybe understandable as again it was a song which Bob had not played in quite a long time. There was no doubt he had not remembered all the words to it as well, which was not too surprising as Jokerman did have a lot of verses, but some of them were incredibly good ones which would have been great to hear him sing. Still, this hardly seemed to matter as we were all in raptures simply hearing Bob play it all. Make no mistake, Jokerman is a mystical song, closely related to the movements of the earth, sun and moon whilst shone through the prism of the Old Testament. A song in which its dangerous cosmology is cast upon a contemporary American setting both starless and bible black, all in the face of a Judgment Day lying just around the corner.

The final part of the set after Jokerman reverted back to type in that there were to be no more major surprises but I think it is fair to say we had all had more than enough of them by way of those complete and utter bolts from the blue Bob had already delivered that night. Honest With Me, Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Summer Days finished off the main set, then Bob and the boys came back to give us his current standard encore of Cat’s in the Well, Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower. Each of these built upon the other to reach a truly powerful climax crescendo with a darkly prophetic storm riding Watchtower which had a reduced Fender guitar battalion of just Freddy and Larry, whilst Bob looked on from behind his electric piano with a distinct look of approval on his face. Then after all that there was just the dust left from the final Formation with Bob and the boys lined up once more, faces expressionless, standing right at the front of the stage and staring out into the audience. Wild cheers from the crowd filled the darkness of the Apollo but not for long as the stage was soon empty and the house lights switched back on. What a show!!!

Setlist London Hammersmith Apollo 24th November 2003 –

Drifter’s Escape
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Cry A While
Girl Of The North Country
Romance In Durango
Dear Landlord
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Tough Mama
Floater (Too Much To Ask)
Million Miles
Honest With Me
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
Summer Days
Cat’s In The Well
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower

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