sat 20/07/2024

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


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Those 1978 concerts included classic songs that had been radically rearranged. They also would have been followed by reviews in a similar tone to this one. Expressing the view Dylan doesn't respect his own songs or his audience. I think it is more disrespectful to the songs and the audience to go through the motions and render the material as inoffensive as possibe. I would have loved to have seen Dylan In 1978. Then as now the songs that where most consistent with the records where the more recent ones and the rest where rearranged in a way that was relevant to him. The reason he does this is not because he has earned brownie points for being " the man who took poetry off the bookshelves and loaded it on to the jukebox".The songs are reconstructed so that they retain there meaning for him. I never got the sense last night that he was tossing away songs or taking the piss out of anyone. I wish I could go even further back to 1966 and see one of those shows but I'm glad Dylan is still challenging his audience just as he did back then. .


What a well written article. At last,some truth amongst the adulation. Ive seen him at his best. I was at Blackbushe-one of the highlights of my life. I am certainly not paying big money to see someone portray a poor pub crooner. I put on my records and remember the great days.

I took an old friend who had longed to hear BD sing live. Third time for me. I had hoped for a smile.

Dylan is an artist who always has and always will perform his art the way he wants. Did van Gough always paint the same pictures in the same colours? No! Can a 75 year old perform the way he did when he was 25? No! he doesn't ask anyone to go and see him but he still manages to sell out arenas. The reason being not everyone is that disolutional to think he's going to turn out the same concert he did in 1978! Christ I wasn't even born then. "There's something happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Liz Thomson"


Yes, quite

Van Gogh

Delusional. (Disolutional is not a word.)

If you consider Dylan now, 2017, as a "folkie", you deserve to be disappointed. He's not like he was 40 years ago, what an outrage. Besides, the music on the 78 tour wasfor my 71 year old ears shit compared to nowadays, the flute, the flute, the horror, the horror........

I first saw Bob Dylan live in the late eighties on the tour that he was backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I was eighteen years old ... a mere child and bitterly disappointed that he sounded nothing like his records. Since then I have seen Dylan live somewhere close to fifty times and he and I have grown older together. Over those thirty years or so I have come to appreciate that Bob Dylan is the quintessential free spirit; to try to contain him or label him is a mistake that will only lead to your own disappointment. the trick is to sit back close your eyes and let the poetry of his songs flow over you like a warm breeze, a babbling brook or fingernails on a chalk board. His music and of course especially his lyrics touch me in a way that I have few words to describe and yet I have learned that Bob Dylan is not concerned with that. He makes music to make himself happy and why the hell not? I was at the show last night fearful that as said in turning seventy-six in a couple of weeks this could well be my last opportunity. I loved every minute of it. His voice was I think at a particularly high point in comparison to some years gone by and to be honest he hasn't spoken to us for years so it's not like anybody is truly looking for a social interaction. Bob Dylan live makes me happy but more than that he makes himself happy. How many people can say that going to work at the age of seventy-five? Good luck and long life to him. I pray for just one more time!

I couldn't agree less, apart from the bow sound (which I also noticed sounded rather like a fart). From my seat in A3, the sound was clear and crisp, and Dylan looked and sounded energised. Some of the performances last night - especially the Highway 61 songs - were inspirational, more committed and inventive (in a good way) than many others I've seen over the last 35 years. You can pick any point in his performance history and describe a vocal as 'mannered', 1978 being a good example. 1978 is also a good point to draw a line, and make a case for everything being downhill since then. It clearly isn't, as concerts in 1988, 95 and 2003 (amongst others) show, but if you want to make 1978 your benchmark, that'll work. You can then describe everything after that point as a travesty, because from one perspective it is. Perhaps everything after 1966 is a travesty to other people. Perhaps everything before 1966 is a travesty. Perhaps you prefer the Carole King album 'Travesty'. Personally speaking, I find this line of journalism is boring, really boring. Unlike Desolation Row and Ballad Of A Thin Man last night, which were exhilarating. But because he wasn't backed by Alan Pasqua on the piano, it clearly wasn't good enough.

You went to a Dylan concert in 2017 expecting it to be like 1978??? You deserve to be disappointed. I loved last night's gig. Just a pleasure to see the master clearly enjoying himself and giving his audience a wonderful concert. Each song was played perfectly and the vocals delivered with real effort - not something you can always say for Bob. Personally I'd feel rather uncomfortable if a 76 year old delivered 'blowing in the wind' the same way as he did 50 odd years ago.

Concert just finished 2 hours ago in Winniipeg, Canada. My wife got tickets. I'm sorry but for me was by far the worst concert I have ever seen in my life. Not 1 song was recognizable. All stagelights shone from the back so all faces were in shadows. Arena was 1/2 empty and no surprise why. Unless you are some die hard fan that knows what to expect please SAVE YOUR MONEY. So utterly disappointing.

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