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Bob Dylan - Hammersmith Odeon, Monday 24 November 2003

Some years ago, a teenage son persuaded me to take him to see Chuck Berry. I was reluctant. I’d heard he wasn’t good ‘live’ and wanted to preserve the impact of his early recordings. I was wrong. We went and it was a memorable night. 8 years later, his brother persuades me to go with him to see Bob Dylan. As with Chuck Berry, I’d passed on this before. As with Chuck Berry, I was wrong. Apart from the odd revisit of old numbers which I tried to appreciate, much of the material seemed to be drawn from the recent ‘Love and theft’ CD and hence sounded more familiar and enjoyable. The numbers vary from blues with Dylan’s voice now sounding appropriately like Howling Wolf, to country swing and jazz foxtrots.

Hammersmith saw Dylan on good form, with a beezer backing band, who sounded very like the one on the afore-mentioned CD. However, I didn’t catch the musicians’ names and wouldn’t pay £10 for a programme. The bass player, who played double bass at times, seemed to direct the music. Drums were spot on and so subtle that you could only just hear them at times. One guitarist excelled in all styles, with frequent guitar changes and doubling on pedal steel for ‘You ain’t going nowhere’. The other stuck to rock and blues and doubled on violin. Dylan gave them ample opportunities to trade choruses. The resultant jam on the Western Swing-sounding ‘Summer days and Summer Nights’ (whose riff at the end of each chorus is more a reference to the piano playing on Big Joe Turner’s "Roll ‘em Pete") was magical and prompted Dylan "dancing" - walking across the stage, with his index fingers pointing upwards or waving his hands like Al Jolson. This prompted ecstatic audience response.

Reworked oldies included "You ain't goin' nowhere" and "Dear Landlord" and, from the acoustic days, "Girl from the North Country" and "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll". I don’t know what to feel about these. I can see that he might get bored churning out crowd pleasers in the same way, especially with the changes in his voice and delivery over the years, but such a huge portfolio of songs ought to preclude this. On a selfish note, the songs meant a lot to me the way they were when I was growing up and I didn’t even like The Byrds and others tampering with them.

Between songs, Bob walked across to the band, apparently to tell them what they would be playing next. He spoke to us only once all night, to introduce the band, making an insider joke about the drummer.

Having said that, Bob came back to encore with "Like a rolling stone" preceded by "All Along the Watch Tower" which sounded pleasingly like the Jimi Hendrix version.

He did look odd. Stage left, at a keyboard throughout, he had the boom microphone set at a height for him to sing into if he were sitting down. He wasn’t sitting down, but stood and hunched into the microphone. He wore what looked like evening dress with silver lame down the seams of his trousers. The band wore black, like all ageing rockers (why?). Lighting was minimal, but made good use of the backdrop curtain folds which were raised and lowered at various times. I couldn’t see any stage monitors - perhaps they all wore those in-ear monitors. But from where I stood at the back, near the sound desk, the sound was excellent and the view of legs uninterrupted. Dylan’s vocals were indeed clear, and the reason was a single large column speaker, suspended centre auditorium from the ceiling, with only his voice in it.

There were plenty of young people, of both sexes, in the audience where I was. Good to see that they and my son were right. They weren’t going to be influenced by middle-aged cynicism. It was a really good night and I’m grateful to son Dan and to Bob.


Copyright © John Scott Cree 2003

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