‘As great as you are man you’ll never be greater than yourself’
So Dylan sung on ‘High Water’. I guess this sums up the aging Bob Dylan. He is the most iconic figure in popular culture who is still actually alive, and this brings its problems. While other icons become posthumously idolised, ol’ Bobo just trundles on, reminding everyone how good he used to be, and how bad by comparison he is now. This would most probably be the case even if his live shows were actually all right, but, combined with his penchant for massacring his most beloved classics, it wasn’t without some reservations that I headed to Kent to see one of my all-time idols.
And in the wake of his performance, the usual rhetoric about how Dylan should give up and stop trying has resurfaced. However, having actually now seen him, I’ve realised how unfair it is – at least nowadays. Sure, in the past, for example on the much derided Budokan, he did try his best to destroy the spirit of his songs with sax solos, pan pipes, and gospel choirs. But in actual fact, his band is very good, and from swinging numbers like ‘Honest With Me’ to the heartfelt ‘Simple Twist of Fate,’ the expected instrumental abomination that I’d anticipated never transpired.
‘Christmas In The Heart thankfully didn’t feature’
This may have something to do with my second point – that is recent stuff has actually been… good. The last decade saw him produce some of the better albums of his career, again, with some of the best backing bands he’s had since Blonde on Blonde. He hasn’t recently found God, or headed into gospel, or ’80s production, or featured cameos from Slash. So he wasn’t tempted to go back to all of that. Playing a ‘new’ one meant actually a good song, and not a travesty. Moreover he eschewed tracks from his latest release Together Through Life for the better Modern Times and Love and Theft, which was welcome. Oh, and also Christmas In The Heart thankfully didn’t feature.
Otherwise, he just played some of his all time best songs. There were notable omissions, such has ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, and in fact he only played one song from Blood on the Tracks (which, as some of you may know, is an album I quite like…). But the band’s setup lent it more to the fuller sound of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and even outside of that the setlist was well-chosen – with even an outing for bootleg ‘Blind Willie McTell’, a brilliant song and the sole representative of his ’80s repertoire (thankfully).
‘He puts on a show which is as good as it can be’
Most of the criticisms of Dylan’s live shows nowadays seem to be centred around his singing voice, which is admittedly dire. But it’s not as if he was ever particularly good, and at least he knows it, so doesn’t try to hit the long notes. Instead, he tends to split each line roughly halfway down the middle, and mutter words at the beginning and end of the bar. It makes singing along hard, and only for the encore of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and ‘Forever Young’ did the crowd really get involved. But Dylan his just doing what he can, and in fact the crowd were very sterile, especially for a festival (rather than theatre) audience, and they could’ve got more involved if they wanted to. Incidentally, another bonus of the recent songs is that they were written with his voice in mind, so the effect is less noticeable.
So I thought it was great. But what about that perennial problem? As great as he was live, he’ll never be greater than the folk singer who made waves on the Civil Rights march to Washington, or greater than the rock-star who showed a proverbial two fingers to the folkies at Newport, or greater than the man who rolled into a New York studio in 1974 and laid down some of the most beautiful recordings of his career. How can he confront this? As Dylan himself continues, ‘I told him I didn’t really care.’ And he doesn’t. He doesn’t spend his live shows trying to recapture that anger, that beauty, that emotion. There’s no point, as he would fail (mainly because his voice is shot). So instead of worrying about it, he puts on a show which is as good as it can be. It doesn’t have the emotional investment of Mumford & Sons (‘this is the most people I’ve seen ever’) – that would clearly be disingenuous. It doesn’t have the attitude of Ray Davies (‘I’ll play all night if I want to!’) because frankly, it’s Kent, and Dylan probably has better things to do. All he needs is a cowboy hat, minimal amounts of chat, and, as the crowd carry the chorus of ‘Just Like A Woman’, a wry, knowing, but kinda creepy smile (a bit like a waxwork in a warm glasshouse). He knows all too well that he can no longer sing it properly, but the crowd can, and will. Of course, they might not, but then, either way, he doesn’t really care. And if you take a similar attitude, then you might actually just enjoy yourself as much as he does.