thu 20/09/2018

Bob Dylan, Wembley Arena review - mannered vocals, poor sound, upsetting | reviews, news & interviews

Bob Dylan, Wembley Arena review - mannered vocals, poor sound, upsetting

Bob Dylan, Wembley Arena review - mannered vocals, poor sound, upsetting

Stormy weather but no hard rain for 76-year-old Nobel Laureate at SSE Arena Wembley

He came on wearing his hat, which he removed for certain songs – the rationale was hard to fathom

I’ll never forget the first time: Saturday 17 June, 1978, Earls Court. The concert lives on in my mind’s ear still – those not fortunate enough to be there should listen to Live at Budokan (on which, that autumn, in Liverpool’s Probe Records, I spent more than a week’s grant money), recorded on the same tour. A month later, Saturday 15 July, Dylan headlined at the Picnic, at Blackbushe, which felt like our Woodstock.

1978… The summer of Bob Dylan. I’d been a fan for years, when my classmates were screaming for the Osmonds and David Cassidy. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that summer, and where it took me, altered the course of my life.

Practically every concert since – and there have been very many – has been a disappointment, yet still I go. He’ll be 76 later this month – it could be the last time. And so it was last night, at the SSE Arena Wembley. He was loudly cheered, the audience (on the older side) holding up their glowing mobiles where once it was lighters, even matches.

“People are crazy and times are strange/ I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range/I use to care, but things have changed,” he sang, in the opening song, written for the movie Wonder Boys and released as a single in 2001. Well indeed. There was Dylan, in a sparkly black jacket and trousers, go-faster stripe down the sides – a bit like trackie bottoms – and what, from a distance, appeared to be spats. He came on wearing his hat, which he removed for certain songs – the rationale was hard to fathom.

We have to remember this is the man who took poetry off the bookshelves and loaded it on to the jukebox

As is now his custom, he alternated between the piano – playing the rockier numbers from a standing position, legs splayed – and mic for the Dylan-as-Sinatra moments. It’s said that arthritis has made it all but impossible for him to play guitar and he certainly moves with a stiff gait, which is sad (Saga really does need to find a way into rock sponsorship.) The set – almost two hours long, not a single word spoken, and no interval – pivoted between the Dylan songbook and the great American songbook which he’s now covered very extensively on CD. With some success, an acknowledgment of the music he grew up with and the tradition of which he is a part. Nevertheless, it’s not what most people want to hear him sing. Rod does is better.

He stayed with his own material for the first four songs: “Don’t Think Twice” was followed by “Highway 61”, both recognisable (not always the case) and then “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”. But the best that can be said is that they did not improve on the originals. The vocals, as on all his own classics, were mannered, and not in a good way

“Why Try To Change Me Now” was the evening’s first dip into other songbooks and there were creditable versions of “Stormy Weather”, “All Or Nothing At All”, “That Old Black Magic” (bass and guitar riffs borrowed from Presley’s “His Latest Flame”) and “Autumn Leaves”. He brings to such songs a sense of conviction and seeming enjoyment, nostalgia perhaps – an understanding of what his parents saw in such music, which all of us come to later in life. His voice is gravelly, but he uses it expressively and treats the material with due reverence.

And then he returned to the piano to destroy his own songs. “Tangled Up in Blue” (which in 1978 made the back of my neck prickle, Dylan’s vocal set against an exquisite arrangement) was a travesty. “Desolation Row” – its lyrics compared to Pope and Eliot by Professor Christopher Ricks, who believes it to be “a whole new vision of a civilisation falling apart…surrealist art… combining exact draughtsmanship with the amazing or the impossible to visualise” – felt like a piss-take, its melody line reshaped into cliché, words inappropriately reset to scalic runs. The encores of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” were tossed away.

None of this was helped by poor sound, over-amped and distorted, lead guitar and pedal steel often lost in the mix. The bowed double bass on “Autumn Leaves” sounded like an amplified fart. The sound in ’78 was pristine and the technology was much more primitive then – so what’s the problem?

On the train back from Wembley, I spoke to a thirtysomething British Asian, clutching his £15 programme. He’d been a Dylan fan for years but had never seen him live – he’d seized the moment and managed a third-row seat.  And he’d loved it, thrilled to see and hear in the flesh a figure who casts a long shadow over 20th- and 21st-century culture.

That’s great, because when all is sung and done we have to remember that this is the man who took poetry off the bookshelves and loaded it on to the jukebox, giving us phrases that are as much a part of our lingua franca as Shakespeare. Those perplexed by the very idea of Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate, should go back to those great 1960s albums, and to Blood on the Tracks, an album suffused with the pain of love gone bad (of which “Tangled Up in Blue” is one of many high points) to understand why he deserves it. The imagery, the symbolism; the metaphor and allusion; the rhyme and half-rhyme; the assonance and dissonance; the collision of the ordinary and the extraordinary…

That’s why, despite the almost inevitable disappointment, Dylan still sells out auditoria around the world and why, when he trashes his own great songs, it is so very upsetting. He remains a troubadour working in time-honoured fashion and he'll surely die in harness – please God, not yet – just like the old bluesmen.

It’s said that arthritis has made it all but impossible for him to play guitar and he certainly moves with a stiff gait

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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