To mark the announcement that Bob Dylan will be resuming his Never Ending Tour, by way of playing shows across the world from 2021 to 2024 in support of his Rough And Rowdy Ways album released in 2020, I have pulled a few more Bob tales out the bag from way back when.
The doors to the CIA opened at 6.45 which was a little earlier than I had expected but nevertheless most welcome. Suddenly Welsh security people were scurrying around and making themselves look busy, talking into their mobile phones with a gravity which made you think there must be a killer on the loose or that they had suddenly been charged with looking after a nuclear bomb. Stern warnings were given to people in the queue that no photographs were to be taken in any shape or form whatsoever once inside the arena. If this rule was transgressed people ran the risk of having their equipment confiscated and never returned, all of which was at the express request of the artist. Needless to say they would also be pulled out of the crowd and kicked out of the arena as well. That was Bob for you, there was no getting away from the fact he could be most mightily touchy when it came to what he saw as invasion of his privacy, something which extended to whatever the stage he was performing on in whatever country throughout the world.
Once inside the CIA and after going for a quick but very necessary piss because of all my mineral water sipping whilst standing in the queue outside, I was able to take my place in amongst the small but rapidly growing cluster of people who were standing on floor of the arena directly in front of the stage. Show time would not be until 8.15 so I now prepared myself for 90 minutes of standing in the crowd, knowing conditions would get tougher as the temperatures rose and excitement levels increased the closer it got to show time. As the floor filled up it would also mean less in the way of space to comfortably move about in so as to ease those inevitable points of pressure on the body which resulted from having to stand up for so long. Well, that was just the way it was and there was no reason for me to think this time it would be any different. It was the price which had to be paid when it came to seeing Bob up close and personal, even though in whatever situation I saw him he always managed in some kind of mystical way to keep his distance.
Standing on the floor of the CIA I got into a conversation with two Bob fans who like me had driven down to the show from London. They really knew their stuff as far as Bob was concerned and it was clear they had each seen him on many occasions in the past. One of them had just come back from the bar and in the process of getting a couple of beers for him and his mate, he had also checked out the merchandise stall to see what was on sale. He gave us a detailed inventory of all that was on offer, products this time ranging from Bob Dylan sofa throws to a Bob Dylan sheriff’s badge, one of which he had bought for only 10 quid! He cradled it in his hand and I have to say it really did look rather special, so special that I made a note to possibly get one for myself once the show was over if the queue at the stall wasn’t too long. As we stood there talking all things Bob, I spotted on one of the amplifiers on stage the Oscar which he had won in 2001 for his song Things Have Changed which had appeared on the soundtrack to the film The Wonder Boys starring Michael Douglas. The last time I had noticed the Oscar had been back in July 2001 when Bob played a show in Stirling Castle on a Scottish summer evening in the middle of July. That had been a simply tremendous show on a wet and wild day, with the hills of the Highlands seeming to be just a flick of an eye away and a hip flask full of finest Bushmills Irish Whiskey in my pocket, which by the end of the show had been almost completely drunk. One of the guys next to me in Cardiff told me that a couple of years ago, when Bob had been playing some US shows, his Oscar would get paraded before the audience before being placed on one of the amps on stage. This must have been quite a funny thing to witness and something which would most definitely only have happened if Bob had issued specific instructions for it to be done.
The minutes were ticking by and the Cardiff International Arena was now rapidly filling up, with the noise level of the crowd having risen substantially in the process. From where I was standing, which was pretty much right in the middle of the floor and close to the front, it was impossible to see across to the sides of the hall where I imagined the bars were doing pretty good business. A nice cold beer in a plastic glass would, under the circumstances, have been very welcome indeed, but I was happy to forego it in order to maintain my position on the floor which if forsaken at this stage would never, ever be reclaimed, of that I was 100% certain. On the stage preparations were coming along nicely with everyone efficiently going about their business, tuning the guitars which stood in racks to the side of the stage, turning on the switches of the amplifiers and getting everything else in position.
It was the same faces as usual who were up there; the young Oriental guy who had been part of Bob’s road crew for as long as I could remember and the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail who was always behind the mixing desk and who always made the announcement of introduction just before Bob and the boys came on stage. There was the high possibility that this had been his job for the best part of the last 30 years, pretty much since Bob had seriously got back on the road again at the end of the 80s. Not a bad way of making a living it had to be said, introducing Bob Dylan night after night in countless cities across the globe where he was playing to packed houses of adoring fans. The stage had no unnecessary decoration apart from possibly that Oscar of course which stood on one of the amps, everything else there had a practical purpose, all were instruments to be used for the job soon to be done. To the right of the stage stood Bob’s electric piano which was what he would be standing behind for the whole of the show, thumping down on the keys, blending in perfectly with his voice and of course on the rest of the stage there were guitars both acoustic and electric plus the basses and the drums.
When the clouds of Nagchampa incense began to roll over the heads of the first rows of the crowd we all knew that it was close to show time. The incense seemed to blend in with the combined scent of tobacco and marijuana which had been steadily accumulating for the last 40 minutes or so, despite the fact that obviously the CIA was a no-smoking arena. Everyone was now talking more and more loudly and there were more than one or two demands from those waiting in the crowd for Bob to show his presence. Suddenly someone hit the lights, a massive cheer went up, then with typical understatement the huge guy with the beard and the pony tail introduced Bob and the boys who duly stepped out of the shadows and onto the stage in front of what was now an arena packed with ecstatic Welsh fans. Bob was back in Cardiff! For me at least, what made Cardiff such a fantastic place to see him was I could get as close as it was possible to get to him when I was standing on the floor towards the front of the arena, although it meant I had to be there early enough to make that happen, well before the place filled up.
Seemed like the place temporarily went crazy over the sight of Bob dressed in his black suit and Stetson hat as he made his across the stage with that strange bopping walk of his to the electric piano whilst making no eye contact whatsoever with his audience. For seasoned Bob fans like me the only appropriate thing to do under the circumstances was to stand there with arms outstretched in the air, big smiles on our faces, all of us shouting at the tops of our voices. This was the moment we had been waiting for and no matter how many times we had seen it before there was something truly unbeatable about it, something you could almost never get enough of if truth be told. From a wildly different perspective I was pretty sure that at 63 years old Bob Dylan might have felt the same thing as well, stepping once more into the chamber of adulation, all of which just so happened to be directed at him.
Bob was behind his electric piano to the right of the stage with that Oscar for Things Have Changed standing proud on the amp behind him. He had an almost sideways view of the action which allowed him to keep his eye on both the crowd and the band at the same time. New guitarist Stu Kimball who, since the last shows I had seen 2003, had replaced the bluesy Freddy Koella, stood immediately to the left of Bob. On the far left stood the tall, long-haired multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell who had now been with Bob since 1997 and who Bob seemingly ignored sometimes for the whole show, thus creating a rather disconcerting spectacle in the process. In the middle of the stage towards the back, so that he was standing just in front of the drums, was bassist Tony Garnier who had now been playing with Bob continuously since the end of the 80s and was de facto band leader. Finally on the drums was another relative new boy George Recile, sporting a black beret and who had now been Bob’s drummer for the last 12 months or so, being the permanent replacement for Dave Kemper, ex-Jerry Garcia Band member who had left Bob’s employ under something of a dark cloud in 2001.
It was not in fact until the chorus of the first song that I realised that it was indeed Seeing the Real You at Last from Bob’s 1984 album Empire Burlesque, a work which had been derided by critics at the time and which has not necessarily improved much with age either, although I have to admit to having a rather soft spot for it. The main problem with Empire Burlesque was not so much the songs on it but the way it was produced by Arthur Baker who had made famous dance and rap records at the time with groups such as New Order and Afrika Bambaataa. Needless to say Seeing the Real You at Last now sounded radically different to what it had on the album, as it progressed I listened closely to Bob’s intonation of the words as he crouched over his electric piano and came to the conclusion that it was all rather impressive. Next to me was a small woman who must have been her late 50s and who had brought along with her a little stool on which she was now standing, thus enabling her to gain enough extra height to in order see Bob. She had lost her husband in the crowd earlier on but now that the show had started she really didn’t seem to care as her eyes were transfixed on what was happening on the stage and where of course she was now seeing the real Bob at last.
As was usual when the song was over Bob did little in the way of acknowledging the cheers of the crowd, merely sauntered out from behind his piano to confer with the members of his band towards the back of the centre of the stage right in front of the drums, behind which George Recile sat looking on expressionless. It might have been the case that Bob was giving instructions on what song was to be played next, or maybe he was pointing out some things with the opening number which he had not been happy with. All this was par for the course, there were often these mini conferences which took place at various points in the show with all band members huddled around Bob with the possible exception of Larry who didn’t always get invited.
What was for certain was that it was extremely unlikely that Bob would talk to the crowd in any way whatsoever, apart from a few seconds towards the end of the show when he would perfunctorily introduce the band. Similarly it was also rare for Bob to look at the crowd at all, apart from when he and his band lined up to stand together in what was known as The Formation at the end of the show, so as to take in the wild cheering and applause of the audience. That was just the way it was with Bob, those who came to see him expecting anything different were sure to go home disappointed as he was not the kind of guy to say “Hello Cardiff, how ya all doin? It’s great to be back!” No way, not in a million years would he ever do that.
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue was next up from his mid 60s album Bringing It All Back Home the first of Bob’s Golden Trilogy continuing on with Highway 61 Revisited and ending with Blonde on Blonde. I had heard Bob sing this song numerous times over the years, usually at this position in the set as well. This time around the lines were delivered with precision, both well placed and relaxed, one of those versions you got lost in whilst thinking nice thoughts, secure in the knowledge that all ends would be tied up and that in between you could immerse yourself in the sound of top quality electric country music which would see the song through to a more than satisfactory conclusion.
Straight after this we were into Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum territory from the 2001 album Love and Theft. Now there is no doubt that among many serious Bob fans Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum is not going to be up there as one of their favourite latter day Bob songs and I guess to a certain extent and under certain circumstances I might be included in this category as well. All the same there are occasions when Bob and the boys can deliver a wicked version of Tweedle and it just so happened that in Cardiff we got one which landed smack between the eyes as they conjured up with ease a rolling landscape of trees blowing on the dust plains with visions a la Tweeter and the Monkey Man following along right behind them. The performance most definitely benefited from some really neat electric guitar interplay between Larry and Stu, whilst Bob looked on with considerable approval from the side of the stage behind his electric piano. It really was an excellent version, good enough to have me standing in the middle of the crowd with my eyes closed, seeing an inexhaustible inner sun clear as a bell right before me. Standing there as Larry and Stu delivered one quality riff and solo after another, well and truly puttingthis Love and Theft openerthrough its paces in front of a Welsh crowd which simply went wild for it.
Next up was Just Like a Woman and there was no doubt that as far as a great many people in the crowd were concerned this was the highlight of the set so far, if for no other reason than it is of course a fully certified complete and utter classic from Blonde on Blonde. For me though, I think I was still recovering from that awesome Tweedle to fully appreciate it, thinking that it was really little more than run of the mill Bob, although run of the mill Bob is still pretty damn certain to knock anyone else right out of the park. It was generating immense excitement simply because it was being played at all, offering a little bit of room for Bob to take his foot off the pedal possibly, as this particular Just Like a Woman was nothing to get too excited about. Much better followed however with another Blonde on Blonde cut in the shape of Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine, a nice crisp version which featured excellent guitar work again and George Recile pulling out the stops on the drums in an understated but intricate kind of way that I thought was really quite incredible. Throughout this song Bob’s eyes were firmly fixed on Stu Kimball who as the new guitarist was still obviously being put through his paces as to whether he was ultimately going to be able to cut the mustard. Think it is safe to say that on this occasion Bob was satisfied with the results as Stu was really rather good and Bob gave no indication that he thought otherwise as well.
What was for me a rather tired version of Girl from the North Country came next which in a similar vein to Just Like a Woman went down extremely well with the crowd but as far as I was concerned left me feeling a bit cold. Bob played it overly sentimental this time around but maybe the ecstatic cheers from the crowd in the CIA were enough to fool him into thinking he was getting it right in its current incarnation. Fact of the matter is that it is simply unbeatable when just played solo with only him and acoustic guitar, going back to basics would have been by far the best option in other words, but that was never going to happen as the days of Bob ever playing anything completely on his own were well and truly over.
Song number seven turned out to be another ultra heavy Cold Irons Bound which Bob has been playing in pretty much the same way for the last four years or so now and which is a million miles away from the recorded version found on Time Out of Mind. This 1997 album saw him reinstated in the popular consciousness by way of the reviews it got from the critics who were both elated and awestruck by the quality of the material on it. A slight echo was discernible on Bob’s vocals on Irons whilst the sound coming out of Larry and Stu’s guitars was strong enough to punch anyone in the crowd 30 miles up the road and north of Tredegar. It was a powerful, pulsating version and again I stood there in the middle of the crowd with my eyes closed in order to fully soak up the incomparable life giving electric energy it was so effortlessly producing. Bob was clearly into it as well. Listening to him deliver the words as he crouched over his electric piano made me realise just how very few grandfathers of his age would have ever contemplated doing something like what he was doing. Magical stuff, medicinal even, punching the life into me to the point that when I opened my eyes after it was over, everything appeared colourful and fresh as if emerging from a fabulous dream, albeit an extremely loud one.
A surprise came next in the form of If Dogs Run Free from Bob’s early 70s New Morning, an underrated album which, although it occupies a semi-obscure place in the Bob canon, actually has some great stuff on it. This version of Dogs was as good if not better than the other versions I have heard Bob play since it became a fairly regular song in the set list from around the year 2000.
In harmony with the cosmic sea
True love needs no company
It can cure the soul, it can make it whole
If dogs run free
Straight after Dogs came a rocking Highway 61 Revisited and once again I have to admit it was time to close my eyes in the middle of the crowd as I floated there like I was disembodied within my own space, feeding off a power saturated in a high volume chug that I only wished would never stop. Stu and Larry exchanged some fierce Fender interplay between them, whilst Bob stood there to the side rocking away behind his electric piano, encouraging the two of them to push the boundaries on Highway as far as they liked, far on up the road if they so wished and right across the border.
As the show progressed the noise level inside the arena markedly increased, there was no doubt that the Cardiff crowd was a very receptive one and it was almost certain that in the bars along the sides and to the back of the main floor area the tills would have been ticking over very nicely. It was not that difficult to see why Bob always seemed to make sure he included a date in Cardiff whenever he hit the British Isles for a prolonged period of time. He just seemed to be really into it and it was heart warming to witness his admittedly hard to discern appreciation of the Welsh Celtic roar. Without fail after every song there was a sea of arms outstretched in the air accompanied by mighty cheers and it really would have been very difficult for anyone to remain completely indifferent when receiving such a reception each and every time they came to town.
A rare Shooting Star from Bob’s well received 1989 album Oh Mercy followed next, which was definitely one for the collectors who were at the show that evening, but it was not in my opinion one of his best efforts of the night, sounding more than a little rusty and I was glad when he dispensed with it so that we could get back to business again with another great take of Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. It is a long song and the live versions that Bob sometimes plays of it make it even longer, allowing one to stand back and inhabit the landscapes found within those indefinably wide and generous borders of Blonde on Blonde, the album which it comes from.
The next song however soon made me forget all about Mobile as it was a stupendous Honest with Mefrom Love and Theft, a song which was very possibly the best number of the whole damn show. It was watertight as Bob delivered his best vocal performance of the night by far, sweat dripping down the sides of his face, a face which bore an expression of no mean intensity. Needless to say I stood there with my eyes closed again whilst drinking in the radiance, as the sound of Bob and the boys filled the arena with the indescribable federal glory of a messenger riding over the plains bearing some incredible news. The life giving sun was shining on my back, colouring the landscape in the deep shades of a terrestrial Yankee trail running through some of the most mystical canyons which you are ever likely to see. Funny thing is that Honest with Me is a song which no one gets particularly excited about when they see it appear on current Bob set lists, but it just so happens that Bob and the boys play it at such an awesomely high level of quality that it is naturally elevated to the point of being head and shoulders above everything else standing either side of it and in Cardiff it was quite simply magnificent.
When I opened my eyes again towards the end of Honest with Me I focused on Bob, saw this strange twisted kind of figure crouching over his piano to the side of the stage, wearing his Stetson hat, with those streams of sweat dripping from his brow. There was no way in hell he would be doing all of this unless he was deeply in love with it, looking 200 years old one minute then barely 20 years old the next; the ultimate shape shifter, the original Song and Dance Master from the Land of the Star Spangled Banner. If you were going to play music then this was the way to do it. The version of Honest with Me had in fact been so damn good that an It Ain’t Me Babe which followed it passed me by in a bit of a blur as I was still in recovery mode from what I had just witnessed. The main set then finished with Summer Days which of course was good enough, fast enough and loud enough to more than ensure that when Bob and the boys lined up at the front of the stage for The Formation they were greeted with wild cheers and howls of approval from the thousands of people packed into the arena. I was right there in amongst them, letting whatever sounds from the back of my throat fly right out of me, my arms waving wildly in the air whilst Bob and the boys stood there expressionless as they stared at the crowd before one by one they left the stage with the main man walking off last.
As far as the encore was concerned there was little in the way of surprises with the three songs played being the same as what had been played for each encore in virtually every Bob show on the Never Ending Tour throughout the whole of 2003 and 2004. This was of course the point where those who knew a thing or two about what to expect from this current series of shows would no doubt hope Bob would suddenly change his way of thinking and shake up the pack a bit. There was really no chance of that happening however and so the show in Cardiff was no exception in that what we got were the entirely predictable Cat’s in the Well, Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower all served up in that order, just like they had been on every night so far of 2004. To include the latter two was quite understandable, they were without doubt two of Bob’s most famous songs and he was still able to deliver them with an energy and power that ensured they actually got better over the years and hardly ever sounded worn or tired, which of course was something of an awesome achievement in itself.
Cat’s in the Well however was another matter, as in the ultimate analysis it was, at best, a fair to middling song found at the end of Under the Red Sky, his 1991 album which was poorly received by the critics and after which saw him enter an extended period of hibernation as far as releasing any new original material was concerned. A few years ago I was happy to hear it, but now I felt it was time for Bob to put Cat’s in the Well to bed for a while, a good long while maybe, although at the moment there was fat chance of that ever happening. As first song in the encore this Cat’s in the Well in Cardiff was really no different to all the other Cat’s I had heard Bob perform down through the years. The noise of the electric guitars was enjoyable enough, possibly inspired even, but I did feel the verses and chorus were plain fare as far as the pen of Bob was concerned, the nursery rhyme tinged landscape they painted being rather flat. Funny thing is he actually played far better versions of it back in the early 90s which had been closer to its date of release at the time and which might just go to show that in the long run Cat’s is never really going to stand a chance of ageing that well.
Like a Rolling Stone was as welcome as it was inevitable, being the only song which is seemingly always played without fail by Bob and it has now got to the point where the circumstances are going to have to be pretty exceptional for it to ever be omitted from the set list. It was a less rocking version this time around, with Larry seated behind the steel guitar and Bob of course on the electric piano, but when the point came for the bright lights from the stage to be shone upon the audience the crowd went absolutely wild, even if some of the rock had indeed been taken out of this particular Stone by way of there being no Fender guitar battalion.
Nevertheless it all blended nicely into the final song of the night, All Along the Watchtower, during which Larry remained behind the steel and the band duly delivered a truly stunning version of this hard, dark and deeply prophetic song of Bob’s from the late 60s. It is a song which these days is generally remembered more from being performed by Jimi Hendrix, although in my opinion Bob had been blasting the Hendrix version out into space for many, many years now. This Watchtower was no exception andcould only leave the listener filled with images of the storm to come, where signposts by lonely crossroads on the highway missed would surely come back to haunt us once we came to fully understand the message its singer was trying to give to us.
The end of this three song encore signalled the end of what was a 17 song set. Naturally the crowd cheered like crazy for more but there was absolutely nothing doing in that department, something which came as no surprise to me. There was simply no chance of Bob and the boys coming back, he was almost certainly already out of the building and on his way to a possible ayurvedic rubdown on the back seat of his tour bus. It had been a variable set ranging from exceptional takes of Honest with Me, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, Cold Irons Bound, Highway 61 Revisited, and All Along the Watchtower to asleep at the wheel renditions of Girl from the North Country, Just Like a Woman, Shooting Star and Cat’s in the Well. Overall though it had been awesome, simply awesome to see Bob again!
Since I was in the middle of the crowd and pretty close to the front, it took me quite a while to make my way out of the arena. There were a great many people who were not bothering to move that quickly to the exits, preferring to linger and chat with their friends about the show they had just witnessed whilst taking in the last echoes of what was an incredible buzz. That was fine by me, I was a little disorientated from the ear ringing I was experiencing myself and on top of that my body felt like it had really been put through the mincer after five hours or so standing upright, the last two of those being in right in the middle of a packed and sweaty crowd in front of a wall of hard pounding noise pumped by Bob and the boys. All of it after a very late night before at Cannabis Rik’s the previous evening, where it had felt at times like I was in the presence of a fakir, but dues had now been paid and that feeling of reward and purification tasted sweet.
There was a considerable amount of congestion around the exit doors as right beside them were the merchandise stalls, around which an awful lot of people were now gathered, hungry to buy something as a memento or just simply to the add to the collection. I did make a half-hearted attempt to position myself in front of one of them in order to get my hands on a Bob Dylan sheriff’s badge, but I gave up after I saw there was not going to be any chance of getting things sorted for at least another 20 minutes. The badge would just have to wait for another time, well, Sunday in fact, which of course was when I would be seeing Bob again at The Fleadh in Finsbury Park and this time not on my own but with Leon Day, otherwise known as the Wizard. Outside in the fresh air of a pleasant Cardiff evening in the middle of June, I weighed up the possibilities of picking up a takeaway curry on my way back to the flat in Penarth before heading off to the car with my head full of Bob.
Setlist Cardiff International Arena 18th June 2004 –
Seeing the Real You at Last
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue
Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum
Just Like a Woman
Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine
Girl from the North Country
Cold Irons Bound
If Dogs Run Free
Highway 61 Revisited
Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Honest with Me
It Ain’t Me Babe
Cat’s in the Well
Like a Rolling Stone
All Along the Watchtower