When it comes to covering Bob Dylan we are met with a complex contradiction, his fans want to hear about the intricacies of his performance, while newcomers want a genuine impression of whether he is worth paying top dollar to see aged 70 from the uninitiated perspective. Therefore, we’re giving two reviews of Bob Dylan at London Feis, one by long time Dylan fan and Strictly Festivals editor David Hayter, and one by Dylan first timer Craig Brooks.
Bob Dylan @London Fies Festival, Finsbury Park
David Hayter: As a life long fan I found myself overcome by a wholly unique sense of trepidation when approaching my first ever Dylan set. I’d heard the rumours, I’d seen the mixed reviews, and I have close personal friends who have been both wowed and left bitter distraught after seeing Dylan for the first time. I therefore found myself in the curious circumstance of having both impeccably high and tragically low expectations; it was fitting then to uncover that Dylan operates at neither extreme.
His voice has been shredded by decades of relentless touring and a lifetime of substance abuse, leaving him in possession of a croaky sneer. The tonal variations of his youth, let alone his astounding breathing patterns, are now consigned to the long distant past. This raspy blurt of a voice renders certain tracks unmanageable. “Tangled Up In Blue”, “All Along The Watchtower” and “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall” are complete right offs, yet he performs them nonetheless. Oddly for an artist so famed for confounding his own fan base, he keeps these crowd-pleasing favourites in the setlist despite being almost incapable of performing them. Then again, he’s nothing if not stubborn, and who’s going to tell him he can’t.
The genius of Dylan’s performance comes in re-interpretation, he salvages “A Hard Rain…” by turning the chorus chant of “A Hard” into world weary plea, forcing out each line with methodical, harden grunt of resistance, allowing the audience to scream their lungs out as his defacto back up singers. “Tangled Up In Blue” may not have wispy vocal intricacies of old, but Dylan makes up for it by ripping into a relentlessly wirey harmonica solo (his first, and best of the night).
Elsewhere, Dylan clearly feels most comfortable with the post-1978 material. “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” is bristling opener, “Summer Days” is a barnstorming delight, and “Thunder On The Mountain” has a wonderful blues-rock swagger. Similarly, Dylan has rearranged certain tracks masterfully, “Simple Twist Of Fate” is transformed into considered and thoughtful ballad. Slow and full of regret, Dylan performs the track with the “I don’t give a fuck” fortitude of the last harden drunk in a dark and hopeless saloon. While Dylan finds an almost sardonic pleasure in “Things Have Changed”, as if he’s slyly sneering at his audience, whispering: this is the new Dylan, love it or leave it.
Towards the sets conclusion, Dylan hits a rich rain of form with a wrenchingly beautiful rendition of “Forgetful Heart”. Accompanied by a plunging violin line, Dylan uses the pauses and the chilly silence of a stormy London night to dramatic effect, creating a resonant reading that blows the studio version out of the water.
“The Ballad Of A Thin Man” comes close to stealing “Forgetful Heart’s” thunder, as Dylan offers not wry sarcasm, but a scathing, direct and accusatory rendition, that could strike fear into even the most harden critic’s heart as he vilely spits, in between devilishly delivered pauses: “Do…You…Mr…Jones”.
By this point, Dylan had already won over the doubters he was capable of turning (some will never forgive a 70-year-old for not sounding like a man 27 aged), and he returned to the stage for a countrified rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” complete with the underlying original strumming pattern keeping rhythm. The crowd sang the old cadence, and Dylan wisely inserted a dual guitar and piano showcase, where he instrumentally performed the track’s main melody, allowing the audience to bellow the chorus as if it were 1965.
The night’s biggest shock, however, was saved till last, as Dylan ditched “Forever Young” to give “Blowin’ In The Wind” an incredibly rare airing. Remarkably, it wasn’t the sing-a-long that astounded, but Dylan’s sliding guitar line that brilliant transformed the sweet acoustic ballad without depriving it of any of it’s stripped down beauty.
Strictly Our Opinion: Naturally Dylan isn’t the man he used to be, and he never will be again, but if you approached the show accepting the fact that you are seeing a 70-year-old road weary veteran, you found yourself treated to an artist enjoying a late career purple patch; fully capable of performing his new materiel, and offering a series remarkably well-thought-out reimaging’s of his pre-1980 works. There are some clangers of course, and when he’s bad or the arrangement doesn’t click, it really doesn’t click, but these moments are too fleeting to sink an thoroughly competent show that left the crowd chanting: “We want Bob”.
However, I still can’t fathom why he persists with “Highway 61” when we know he can play “Maggie’s Farm” perfectly (see 2011 Grammys), but then it wouldn’t be a Dylan show, if I didn’t leave somewhat perplexed.
Craig Brooks: So when this free ticket offer for London Feis was announced and knowing that Bob Dylan was headlining I simply had to get hold of tickets. Why? I couldn’t name a single one of his albums, had never attempted to go and see the guy live before, and the only songs of his that I knew of his were a handful of classics that everyone knows; but Bob Dylan is a special artist, everyone knows the name and everyone knows how legendary the guy is and how much of an influence he has been on so many of today’s artists. For those reasons I wanted to take this great opportunity to see Dylan.
The weather wasn’t looking too great and it only added to my sense of apprehension that I might find it hard for my attention span to last throughout his entire set. Headlining sets when you know only know an acts classics can drag a bit but I can honestly say I wasn’t bored at any point and enjoyed every minute of Dylan’s set.
You can clearly hear how much the passing of the years has altered his voice but I felt the aged gravelly voice really added something to the performance. The songs that he’s been singing for decades suddenly had a sense of extra added truth, feeling and experience behind them.
As alluded to in review I read in the build up to Feis, I had read there would be no showmanship and no talking in between songs. He came on stage, did his thing and belted out some of his greatest hits in a way that only Bob Dylan can. Classic Dylan tracks such as ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’, ‘Cold Irons Bound’, ‘Blowin In The Wind’ and many others were sang along to word for word by a really appreciative crowd.
Obviously anyone who has been to festivals and watched live music has seen audiences singing along and enjoying an act, but I got this real sense of hero worship from the Dylan crowd. I went to the Feis with the biggest Dylan fanatic I’ve met in my life and, as clichéd as it sounds, I could really see how much Dylan connected with her and the rest of the audience. It was truly something to be in the middle of this special moment that so many thousands of people were sharing.
In conclusion, this is a performance I wont ever forget; Bob Dylan definitely earnt himself at least one new fan on Saturday, and probably many others too.
The Gaslight Anthem
Being a huge Gaslight Anthem fan I enjoy it when they go down well with an audience and was happy to see a few fans sporting their t-shirts. Even though some of the acts at London Feis weren’t just straightforward Irish Folk outfits I was apprehensive about whether the Fies crowd would take to Gaslight Anthem as they were quite different to everything else on the bill.
To my surprise, and delight, a large amount of people moved forward when they came on and many appeared from around the site to check them out. The sound was somewhat iffy during their set, but they were so sharp that it actually didn’t take anything away from their set and didn’t seem to affect the crowd’s enjoyment. The Alcohol was flowing, which was to be expected at an Irish Festival, and Gaslight are one of those bands that are just so appealing to get up and enjoy with a Beer in hand.
I was actually more excited about seeing them than I was Dylan, and they didn’t disappoint. The only thing they really could have done to enhance the performance would have been to play “Drive” or “Great Expectations”.
Strictly Our Opinion: “The 59 Sound”, “Cowgirl” and “Wooderson” were played with the same exciting energy and enthusiasm that we’ve come to expect from a Gaslight Anthem set. I’ve always thought this band were perfect for the Summer but even the dreary weather and a crowd unfamiliar with their material didn’t hamper the performance as the audience clearly loved what they were seeing. They’re such a likeable bunch of chaps; you really need to check them out if you haven’t already.
Lee Jeffrey’s our Download and Sonisphere correspondent will be around tomorrow to round out our coverage with reviews of The Cranberries (yes they played “Zombie”), Christie Moore and punk legends The Undertones.