“Don’t go to see Bob Dylan, you’ll regret it”, warned a friend, sternly.
Strong words, but ones that are fairly easily ignored when an entirely different friend produces a ticket bearing the words ‘Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall’.
I have lived a life strewn with more regrets than the average hedgerow is littered with McDonalds wrappers, but I felt pretty sure that Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall would not be among them. It’s a phrase that is in itself iconic – conjuring up images of the Pennebaker film of the man in his pomp when he was unquestionably the coolest human on the entire planet. Shades and sunglasses. “Give the anarchist a cigarette”. The misattribution of the ‘Judas’ chant. “Play fucking loud”. And, my personal favourite: “Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half”.
A less iconic soundbite echoed through the maroon and gold corridors as we arrived – ‘Please take your seats, Bob Dylan will be taking the stage in three minutes’. The last time I heard this type of announcement, back in the summer at the Royal Festival Hall, it was applied to Iggy and the Stooges and preceded what sounded like a forty megaton nuclear explosion being detonated in the main hall.
Tonight, we politely take our seats and within seconds, the lights have dropped, someone walks onto the stage strumming an acoustic guitar and then – bang – there he is, twitching at the microphone, legs straddled, a scarecrow’s silhouette. Singing….. something off ‘Tempest’ (I think).
The first thing that hits you is, of course, the growl. You don’t hear it so much as feel it. It occupies frequencies so nefarious that it feels as if it is emanating from your own stomach – the last time I felt like that was when My Bloody Valentine permanently damaged my hearing five years ago. Its a sound that seems to sink into your bones, and the bass player cannot hope to compete.
The problem is, of course, that you can barely make out a word of it. Of course no-one but a fool expects to go to a Dylan concert and hear renditions of songs that resemble the originals, but recent laboratory tests have revealed that 42.6% of the appeal of his songs (at least in the 60s and 70s) is rooted in his dazzling lyrical artistry. Remove this, and the rest of the show has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Luckily, the band are superb. With everything woven together, no instrument rising too far above its station, they are fluid, warm and vibrant. They bring liquid delicacy to ‘She Belongs To Me’ (I think) and creaking, drama to ‘Lovesick’ (I think) – the latter being unquestionably the highlight of the night, with the band giving space for that growl to inhabit the entire hall to the point where it sounds like the ancient soul of the building itself.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for ‘Spirit on the Water’ (I think), one of the highlights of ‘Modern Times’, pointlessly tossed away in the second half, slightly too fast but not in a way that succeeds in raising the pulse, just in ruining the gorgeous melody. ‘Dusquesne Whistle’ (I think) on the other hand rattles along beautifully, gloriously ramshackle, busting and shaking.
While the audience lap it all up, rising to their feet to applaud every song, raising the roof, I’m not sure if it’s a bit like when you go to see Shakespeare and people laugh a little too hard at each joke to show everyone around them how clever they are, or whether I am genuinely missing something (it wouldn’t be the first time). There are many moments when you lose yourself in the brilliance of the band, but there are also too many moments when you start thinking about getting up in the morning. After debating the issue for two or three songs, we eventually left after ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (I think), under a polite hailstorm of ‘how could you’ glares and tuts.
Flashes of brilliance, a remarkable voice and a wonderful band. Not the stuff of regrets, then, but not The Greatest Night in Human History either. Just a tick on the list, which isn’t really what a Bob Dylan should or could be.