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.