Blackpool. Not necessarily a town associated with great art or never ending rock tours. But we got a bit of both last month when Bob Dylan’s latest tour-leg trundled in to the seaside Lancashire town. And more about the geographical significance later – keep reading, John Lennon fans!
I used to do a lot of Dylan shows. I do less now for one reason or another - but managed to make it over from Dublin for the final night of three shows in the gorgeous opera house at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. A great venue, and seemingly a great tour, with the biggest surprise of all being that, well, there haven’t really been any surprises! Other than a bizarre blip when he completely changed the set-list in Rome earlier in the tour, Bob has played pretty much the exact same set for this entire tour, which as Dylan watchers will know is very unusual. We are used to him mixing up the medicine night after night, but now? No. Bob has a plan, a grand design.
So, what is this plan? Well, he has designed a very specific new show, centred on Tempest, his most recent album. It is an introspective show, the band is much quieter, gone are the half dozen or so rocking blues-rock-rockabilly numbers you could count on in a Dylan set. It’s almost minimalist, very few solos by any band members, and very suited to the small theatre residencies he’s been doing on this tour. The audience is forced to listen (and they do) and Bob’s voice sits nicely on top of the band’s sympathetic backing. He doesn’t need to strain so much and thus seems to be taking great care with his vocal performance - as if he really cares that he makes the most of what’s left of his vocal chords, and what’s left of his touring years.
Plus - the band have really come in to their own. Despite the ‘ban’ (we presume?) on showiness, we get some really lovely playing - from the acoustic guitar foundations of Stu Kimball, to discreet subtle lines from Charlie Sexton on various old-fashioned electric guitars (often interplaying gently with Bob’s crude but effective piano), quiet brush drumming from George Recile (and slightly louder when required), to a more prominent than before Donnie Herron (fiddle and pedal steel), plus Tony Garnier playing some gorgeous stand-up bass on so many of tonight’s songs, it’s a real treat. And, well mixed, too.
But why though? Why this static quiet set-list all of a sudden? Is it to ‘put off’ the multiple-show fans? Is it to put off the hit-seekers? Is he aiming at a live album? My theory is that he has constructed it as a deliberate piece of work, a tale he wants to tell, with each song playing its part. And he’s happy to come out to the front of stage, sans guitar, to declaim his intent, on about a third of these songs. For the rest of the show, he stands behind his latest instrument, a Steinway baby grand piano, tinkling, dancing, noodling and wheezing away, informing us of his worldview via this strange cross-section of songs from his back pages.
He opens with ‘Things Have Changed’ a statement of intent if ever there was one. Spare, sprightly and one of the nights more up-tempo numbers, Bob’s Oscar-winning song gets everyone’s attention from the get-go. Then he’s quickly in to ‘She Belongs to Me’ a new staccato bass-drum oriented arrangement of the famous 1965 song complete with confident piercing harmonica solos which would remind you of the mid ‘90s, or even the mid ‘60s. There’s not much harmonica tonight, but when it’s there, it’s good, very good. Also there are not many ‘60s songs tonight at all, so if you want well-known songs on this current tour, grab ‘em when you can.
The show is excellently paced, and is still as much an exercise in genres as any previous legs of the never ending tour. We have rock, we have folk, we have country, we have blues, we even have jazz. Mostly centred around Bob’s piano, there are no long epic songs anymore and everything is to the point, nothing out of place.
After the opening brace, and a swampy ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’, we get a major show highlight with the stunning ‘What Good Am I? from 1989’s ‘Oh Mercy’ album. With this song, he seems to be setting up the story of the show, he is literally asking the audience ‘What Good Am I?’, laying out his stall, and then proceeding to answer his own question over the following couple of hours, telling us just how good he actually is, and what he has to say. This performance is one of the best of the night, and it’s great to see him singing it on piano, just like he wrote it. You could hear a pin drop in the room, sheer perfection.
The show is utterly authentic with themes of anger and sadness (just listen to the lyrics of songs like ‘Pay in Blood’, ‘Long & Wasted Years’) and after a modestly rocking ‘Duquesne Whistle’ he changes theme and plays ‘Waiting for You’. In a show full of new songs (seven from the recent album), this is an unusual one to throw in, a rare, even obscure, soundtrack song from about ten years ago, but in a funny way it fits in to the show. Maybe he felt the show needed a country-waltz with some lighter lyrics and this seemed to fit the bill. Then it’s time for a subdued ‘Pay In Blood’ which on the album rocked like angry late 70s Stones, but here is recast as a more brooding bitter piece.
‘Tangled Up in Blue’ is next, receiving its latest re-write, but is a bit of a mumble-fest tonight unfortunately. It’s interesting that this most perfect of songs has received so much tinkering from Bob over the years (usually pretty successful tinkering), while other songs he hardly touches. Another Blood on the Tracks classic ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ also gets a work-out tonight and is much more successful, with Bob giving it a very tender and expressive vocal, a lovely culmination of where he’s been going with this particular song in recent years.
Subsequently, in another new departure, Bob himself makes a departure (!) after closing the somewhat brief 45 minute opening set with a powerful ‘Lovesick’. Hardly the lengthy stuff of Grateful Dead or Springsteen or Leonard Cohen shows. And Bob is not known for having intermissions. But, he’s getting older, and as we know, he has a plan.
And when he comes back after the break, he proceeds with his plan in an even stronger vein. First we get a double dose of blues with the banjo-laden High Water and the Muddy Waters re-write that is Early Roman Kings, both very well done and played either side of that beautiful ‘Simple Twist of Fate’. These are followed by a heart stopping ‘Forgetful Heart’, from the perhaps somewhat forgetful 2009 album ‘Together Through Life’. This song is currently cast as a very slow very quiet violin driven ruminative performance that fully fits in to the night’s proceedings.
We’re now building towards the finish, as he bravely closes off the main set with several slow-ish songs from the new album. Not many artists would do this. The folky ‘Scarlet Town’ is followed by ‘Soon After Midnight’ - Bob’s gorgeous new 50s-esque country-pop ballad, and then, the stunner, the set closer, the finale that is ‘Long & Wasted Years’. It’s many people’s favourite song from the album, and surely most people’s favourite song in the show - he’s out front, declamatory style, almost Chaplinesque (Chaplin himself played in this historic venue almost exactly 100 years earlier, according to a roll of honour in the lobby), giving this bizarre and majestic little song the vocal performance it deserves, to a huge climactic sea of applause and ovation from the crowd. It’s an amazing finish, with terrific lighting - big bright white lighting (most of the set prior to that having been in subdued blues and reds). Bob and band take their now traditional stock-still long quiet bow, staring out in to the audience, seemingly soaking up the adulation. And then, without a word or a gesture, they’re gone.
Back they come then for the traditional two song encore. Due to the new static setlist, we know (or think we know) that it will be ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Blowin in the Wind’, a concession to the hit-seekers. And sure enough, we get a very pleasing new 2013 arrangement of ‘Watchtower’, this rock-standard which with its 3 chords has stood up to countless covers and arrangements since 1968.
Then, Bob spends what seems like an age before the next song, plinking and plonking on his piano, the band all looking anxious and conferring.
And, before we know it we realise he’s dropped ‘Blowin in the Wind’, wow, can it be? Yes, he’s playing ‘Roll on John’, a world premiere of his song about John Lennon, in a venue just 30 miles up the coast from Liverpool! Very piano-driven, and taking huge care with the vocals, it’s a lovely rendition, and sends the crowds in to paroxysms of pleasure, not just box-ticking (another rarity collected!) but a lovely emotional moment, and making a nice conclusion to this highly unusual rock concert – the final song being a local nod by Bob to a Beatle who has left us, and a man who I imagine still means a lot to everyone in the room.
One more bow, and he’s gone. This time for good. On, then, he goes, to London, and a return visit to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time since he was booed there fifty years ago. Blackpool was but a moment, a fleeting moment amongst many thousands of such Dylan concerts. But, for this audience member, one to treasure.
By Ken Cowley 2013