28 June 2006

Bob Dylan: Live and Masterful

Cardiff, Wales
Cardiff International Arena
June 27, 2006

1. Maggie's Farm
2. She Belongs To Me
3. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
4. Positively 4th Street
5. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again
6. Love Sick
7. Watching The River Flow
8. Ballad Of A Thin Man
9. Absolutely Sweet Marie
10. Girl Of The North Country
11. Cold Irons Bound
12. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
13. Summer Days

14. Like A Rolling Stone
15. All Along The Watchtower

For a Dylan fanatic, being objective about a live performance can be a very real challenge. There are times when you want to pull the set-list apart because you are disappointed that your own favourite obscurity was not included (I swear, one day, Bob WILL play ‘Sign On The Cross’); at other times you just want to heap praise on the man for merely showing up. I’ve spent the duration of entire concerts having a battle in my head between these two positions. Last night, I was determined to enjoy myself in celebration of the man’s 65th year on earth and nigh-on 20 years of constant touring. Having said that, I’ll try and be as objective as any Dylan nut can be.

This time around I turned up extra early and, after a very quick but large glass of wine in the bar opposite the CIA, I took my place in the queue at 2.45pm. The gig would not start until 7.30pm but I was already a few hundred places back from the door. Many of the usual suspects were around and you soon get to recognise the hard-core Boblings. Still, as I sat on the ground and got out by biography of William Blake, I was confident of getting somewhere near the rail when the doors finally opened at 6.30pm. ‘Time passes slowly’ indeed.

Around 6.00pm there was movement around the main entrance as the stewards got in place but we still has to wait a further half an hour before we would be allowed into the overgrown cattle shed known as the CIA. As ever we were warned about not taking anything to drink, cameras, recording equipment etc. into the arena. We then had to rearrange ourselves into lines of males and females for the obligatory body search, so you then find that people who arrived some time after you somehow manage to get way ahead of you in the bloody queue! At this point I was beginning to wonder if it was worth the hassle. CIA stewards really know how to flex their ‘muscle’ and abuse their power. They were loving it. Finally, the doors opened and we scrambled in and you lose all sense of dignity in the process.

To my dismay, once I was in the hall, there was already a very large scrum at the stage with many a grown man and woman pushing forward to gain best position. We should all know better. I managed to get about eight rows back and just to the right of centre, which was perfect for viewing His Bobness at his keyboard. For those who don’t know, Bob only plays keyboards on stage these days. Of course, Bob being Bob, these are very eccentric sounding keyboards (he seems to have them stuck on ‘Churchy Whine’ but I’m anticipating a switch to ‘Space’ or ‘Raindrops’ any day now!). For the next hour or so we were rammed together for the wait and the excitement was high. As ever, listening to the conversations going on nearby was hilarious and tragic in equal measure. ‘Yes, this must be my 100th Dylan show…’; ‘I’m seeing Roger Waters on Saturday…’; ‘I’ve come from Norway for this…’; ‘Mark Knopfler is great live…’; ‘ Does he still play harmonica?...’; ‘Hope he does ‘Hurricane’…’; ‘Oh, I must have at least six Dylan albums…’. Groan....
At 7.30pm the first strains of Aaron Copeland were heared over the PA and we all cheered. Still, the orchestral intro came and went for a further ten minutes or so until, finally, we heard those thrilling words of introduction that preface every gig these days:

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll; the voice of the promise of the '60s counter-culture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock; who donned make-up in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse; who emerged to find Jesus; was written off as a has-been by the end of the eighties and who suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia recording artsist...Bob Dylan!"

The roar of excitement and expectation from the Cardiff mob was truly wonderful. Bob and the current band, with whom he’s been touring for about 18 months now, slip easily into a grooving, if predictable, ‘Maggie’s Farm’. The first thing I notice is that Bob is in good voice. For the uninitiated his latter-day vocal technique can be a bit of a shock but, as long as he avoids too much of what the Bobophiles have termed ‘up-singing’, his cracked chords can be a thing of rare beauty. Next we were treated to a lovely version of ‘She Belongs To Me’. As with many of the versions that he does of his 60’s classics these days, Dylan is able to use his age and vocal limitations to highlight extra nuances in the song. This one now oozes sadness and some regret. As ever, Bob played with the phrasing in his wicked way and then blew his first harmonica of the evening. Dylan’s harp playing is not always ‘on the button’ but when he finds the right tone it works wonderfully. Tonight he was on that button more often than off it. Naturally, every time he goes near a mouth harp he gets an enormous roar of nostalgic approval from the fans. He keeps a host of the things on a table behind his keyboard and wanders over during song intros to get the right one. On more than one occasion I have seen him pick up a harmonica that’s in the wrong key only to realise this when it’s too late and have to put the thing quickly aside. None of that tonight, though.

During the third number I did find my mind wandering a little for the only time during the gig. Why he keeps playing ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’ so often is anyone’s guess. I’m sure it’s to wind up the Boblings. The song is fine and dandy on Love & Theft but is merely filler when played live. Still, we are then rewarded for our pain with a nice version of ‘Positively 4th Street’, which did include some quite odd keyboard from Bob but this didn’t really harm things too much. He sang the song with some conviction. ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile (With The Memphis Blues Again’ has, perhaps oddly, never been one of my favourite songs and it does little for me in recent live performance but I seemed to be alone in this and the Blonde On Blonde nugget went down a storm. I had the feeling that Dylan got as a little bored with it though as I think he declined to sing all the verses. Or maybe that was just me.

It’s always good to hear something from Time Out Of Mind and tonight we were treated to two gems. Album opener ‘Love Sick’, even with all its Victoria’s Secrets lingerie associations is still an atmospheric piece which tonight, whilst sticking closely to the album arrangement, was played with fresh conviction. Before we got to the other song from ‘TOOM’ we are witness to a jaunty ‘Watching the River Flow’, a touching ‘Girl From The North Country’ and a romp through ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’. At the end of the latter Dylan’s face broke out into the most enormous grin. I reckon the band had screwed up somewhere but he was enjoying himself so much he didn’t care. A lovely sight to see. In fact, all evening Bob looked to be in a very sanguine frame of mind.

The two absolute highlights of the main set were, for me, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, which, even though it has been performed many times over the years, was absolutely chilling and, even better, ‘Cold Irons Bound’. For ‘Thin Man’ Bob’s vocal was chock full of menace. You just know he still has a message for Mr. Jones. It was superbly sung. ‘Cold Irons Bound’ is sometimes considered to be one of the lesser tracks from his 1997 ‘comeback’ masterpiece, Time Out Of Mind but tonight the song was the centrepiece of the entire show. With a new arrangement that brought the song ever closer to the Mississippi Delta whilst, at one and the same time, managed to make it sound almost ‘post-punk’; this was Bob, as Robert Johnson would have put it, making the blues ‘walk like a man’. This was an utterly convincing and completely chilling performance. Unbelievable. Things were always going to ease up a little after this but ‘Don’t Think Twice’ was thoroughly enjoyable and had some nice harp moments. Also, at one point in the song, I swear Bob almost sounded like his 21 year old self; or maybe that was just my mind doing things to me. Whatever it was, it was lovely and included some nice guitar from Denny Freeman who played some excellent licks tonight. ‘Summer Days’ saw the main show out in rockabilly style before the demands for the inevitable encore began. Dylan has been encoring with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘All Along The Watchtower’ for some time now with little variation. The former was just great fun and gave the audience their chance to bellow out the legendary chorus but ‘Watchtower’ was something else. As with ‘Thin Man’ and ‘Cold Irons Bound’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was compelling, full of blues menace, exhilarating and fresher than I have ever heard it in live performance. This is what Dylan can do. He takes a song that one and all should be over-familiar with and turn it around in one performance to such a degree that you feel like you are hearing it for the first time. I’d bet even he felt like that about it. At the end Bob and the boys, all grey suits and hats whilst Bob was donned all in black with black cowboy hat, did ‘the line-up’ where they just stand in line at stage-front and stare into the crowd without a single facial expression. Very, very coo indeed. Bob acknowledged the hysterical cheers by holding up a harmonica between thumb and forefinger. This is a good sign, so he obviously enjoyed it too. If you weren’t there, you missed a treat. This was Bob Dylan, contemporary artist.

23 June 2006

As I Please (Rave On George Orwell) : Everyone's Gone To The Moon

When I look back to the late 1960’s there are two overriding themes that colour my memories of those times: the music and The Moon. With the music, I can never be certain that my memories do not sometimes play tricks on me, allowing me a bigger memory bank than my actual experience could really summon up. After all, I was only 9 years old when the decade ended. Could I really have known all those great songs? Wasn’t I really more interested in The New Seekers than Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles? Probably. Then again, I was extremely hip and astute! Still, I’ll concede that The Blue Mink rocked my world more than The Pink Floyd. One thing I am certain about, however, is the powerful effect that the Apollo space programme had on my imagination.

Before Man reached the Moon there was the ‘Race For The Moon' and I well recall the early Apollo missions as they first orbited the Earth and then made those initial, tentative, treks our to our satellite all those hundreds of thousands of miles across space. All this was transmitted to us via our black and white TV screens but the sheer enthusiasm behind the missions was sufficient to engender much excitement, even in a small, rather ignorant, young boy in the west of England. One sensed the enormous achievement and the very real danger that lurked behind each blast-off into space. It was all so exciting and new that every lift-off from Cape Canaveral/Kennedy (which IS it?) was shown live on the BBC. There was this feeling that once the human race actually got there, everything would change. This was ‘the future’ happening now.

I was very pleased to find that Andrew Smith felt much the same as I did. In his book, Moondust, Smith brings back to life those halcyon days of space exploration and, in so doing, examines the meaning of the moon landings for us now and what it may have meant back then. Smith spent a lot of time tracking down the surviving Apollo astronauts, hoping to get something deep from their individual psyches. He reminds us that there are now only nine people left on Earth who have ever walked on the Moon and, given their age, there will very soon be no one here who has ever been there. For some Moon veterans, like Buzz Aldrin, there is the disappointment that we have, as yet, not been back there. Aldrin campaigns tirelessly for a return but one imagines that economics and politics will dictate that any future missions are long way off. Of even greater interest, for me, is how it must feel to be the ‘second’ man on the Moon. One of Aldrin’s problems is, after all, that he is not Neil Armstrong. Smith tries to get under Aldrin’s skin and finds a deeply troubled man.

On a happier plain, there is Alan Bean (the first man to fall over on the Moon and, thus, the coolest Moon walker, in my opinion) who is far more sanguine about the whole thing and has basically dropped out and is now a highly successful artist. Mind you, he only ever seems to paint pictures of his Moon experiences, so one can only guess at the sheer depth of meaning it all has for him. Then there are people like Michael Collins who never actually set foot on the Moon but merely orbited it alone in the command module. Those singular individuals who were stuck up there while their colleagues gained all the kudos on the surface have a real tale to tell. After all, as they floated around to the far side of the Moon, they became more alone than any human being in history. How does that feel? Strangely, we never really find out. These fellows are allergic to too much probing. This isn’t really a problem for the book, however, as every bit of silence just seems to make our imaginations so much larger. Isn’t this what it all means for us now? The great dream of genuine human endeavour; the chance to truly ponder the unknown; the quest is as spiritual as it is scientific. I certainly felt that, to a certain degree, even as a child. Now the missions are part of history those feelings have grown ever stronger. I have always felt that there is gulf between those who can remember ‘before’ Man walked on the Moon and those to whom it is merely part of history. The younger generations lack the sense of awe and fear that went with just not knowing. After, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were telling us the world could end as soon as Armstrong set his foot down in the dust. I was never sure why they thought this (maybe Man’s hubris had something to do with it) but I remember being pretty scared as he bobbed down the lunar module’s steps. On the subject of the first man on the Moon not enough is really revealed by Smith. Armstrong seems to be a rather strange man but, who wouldn’t be, if one was carrying the historical baggage that he does? He seems to have very little poetry in his soul, which might disappoint us dreamers but is probably why he was chosen to do his particular job in the first place. They needed a job done.

There are, of course, those who would have us believe that the US never went to Moon at all. There are plenty of web-sites making such claims so I don’t need to provide any links, just ‘Google’ them. It’s easy to get drawn into the conspiracy theories but none that I have read really make any kind of sense. There are plenty of prosaic explanations for most of the anomalies in the photos of Aldrin and co. bouncing around up there. Others believe they went up there but still staged the event for TV in Hollywood anyway. I’m not sure why this would be a good idea. Some say the amount of radiation that would have hit them would have killed them. There are a million theories as to why it never really happened. Personally, I believe it all really did occur, if only because for the USA it had to happen. There was a perceived political imperative to get there before the USSR. Now, if the whole thing was faked, don’t you think the Soviets would have known about it and told the rest of us? If you still see conspiracy there then madness is just around the corner.

What ever made the Americans go to the Moon, I prefer to remain one of the dreamers and believe that, somewhere, the need to merely ‘reach for the stars’ made us look out into space and, for once, try to shake off our shackles and fly. Hopefully, we’ll reach out there again soon and do it in the spirit of the poet as much as the scientist. It seems that, for some astronauts at least, the process is so transforming that the scientist becomes the poet anyway and this is a pretty good

Spin Like You Mean It

27 Jumada-al-Ula - 1427 A.H.

I do enjoy watching politicians try to cover all the bases at once--then not seeming to cover any. It seems better to me than most "reality shows", where fame-hungry oiks get thrown into a room together and play typical domestic-primate territory games.

The latest attempt by a dogma-junkie to capture the imaginations of zombies, while demonising a handy scapegoat is by Conservative "leader", David "What-me-worry" Cameron. He appeared on the radio programme, Desert Island Discs, and gave a list of records he would take with him to the aforementioned desert island. Not a bad list--fairly plain, though--R.E.M., Pink Floyd, The Smiths, Dylan. He also included Radiohead and The Killers, in what seemed like a blatant shout-out to "the kids", saying in effect "See, I'm cool, I don't just listen to 'old-guy' stuff." He then went on to say that Radiohead played the song Fake Plastic Trees at his request at a Friends Of The Earth benefit gig. Radiohead themselves naturally denied this the second Cameron's quote left his mouth. I don't know what reaction The Killers had to the news. No word on whether his cache has improved with the rock-n-roll yoof. (Probably not)

A couple of weeks later Cameron was quoted as saying that DJ Tim Westwood's weekly hip-hop programme "encourages gun and knife culture". It's the same hysteria that appeared in the U.S. after Public Enemy and N.W.A. became hip-hop vanguards in the late 80s and later still with the rise of Snoop Dogg and gangsta rap--and it seems to be a cheap tactic to foster resentment at a chosen scapegoat. Don't get me wrong--most gangsta rap seems pretty shit to me--and I still don't understand how a white man absorbing-then-diluting black street culture makes said white man "cool" (a la Westwood). However, I still think that the media being the "cause" of violent behaviour due to 'copycat' actions "is" a political shell game that benefits only law-makers and the courts (and, of course, lawyers). As David Cross said: "Can someone tell me which violent video game Hitler was playing?..and uh, what was that slasher film that Genghis Khan used to like?"

I accept that there will more than likely be a few knuckle-draggers who will try and emulate 50 Cent & co. to the point of foolishly getting caught up in gangland idiocy--but to attack an entire fanbase of a certain music with that accusation seems far more disturbing to me.

Hopefully a lot of people are awake on this one and 'don't believe the hype'--but then, most people--especially those loyal to political parties, seem to be asleep 85% of the time. It has been entertaining watching Cameron open his gob wide and insert his Tory foot. I suspect there'll be more to this story. In the meantime, stay vigilant, kids. Would you buy a used Killers CD from this man?

21 June 2006

Sumer Is Icumen In

21 Pepper - 39 p.r.S.P.

Hello to all those in the blogosphere and welcome to Blog Is Not A Four-Letter Word. It's a collaborative effort, you see, on whatever topics the "groop" feel like posting about. I picked today to start things up as it generally seems to be the longest day of the (Gregorian) calendar year and the first day of the summer season. Could be a magickal day as well.

Were any of you lucky enough to see the "sunrise" in at Stonehenge? I was not, but would've liked to have been there. Hail! Hail! to all of you Druids who made the scene. The weather here in England isn't very summery at the moment--a lot of grey clouds and blustery wind--though this morning was pleasant enough.

If you're interested, here's a scientific over-view of the solstice--and here is a mystical listing of different cultures' view of the day. Just to be fair, a listing of various religious events associated with the summer solstice.

My solstice has been slightly marred by an e-mail I received yesterday from the Maybe Logic Academy . It reads:

"Warmest regards -
As many of you know, RAW's Neurologic has been cancelled at present. Bob Wilson's been sick, with deep waves of weakness. Today he's doing great."

I hope Robert Anton Wilson, one of my heroes, will get well soon--though the man is 73 and has been fighting the symptoms of post-polio for about ten years now. Though I don't "believe" it will help him, I'm sending out some "positive, get well" vibes his way.

Thanks to the other members of the "Blog Is Not..." team--and especially to Flaming Pixie, my Goodwyf and best companion, for the blog title. She can be counted on for brief, yet to-the-point reviews and commentary. Singing Bear always has some astute observations--on music, politics and anything he sets his steely wit to. Aloicious P. McGinnis will bring his sharp sense of humour as well as a practical knowledge of many things. Lend 'em your attention and you won't be disappointed.

You can also find us at Singing Bear's message board, The Bear Pit. Feel free to sign up and join in on the convos. Aloicious has his own blog, Demon Squad Local #77, which I hope he'll be adding to in the near future.

That's about all for today--I'll leave you with a haiku from Bob Wilson, included in the "Maybe Logic Academy":

"Well what do you know?
Another day had passed
and I'm still not not."

and also: "Tell the General, 'shit happens'" --Captain Ron

See you soon.