Sunday, 3 May 2009

Dylan: Edinburgh Playhouse Review

Maybe we got him on a good night. Maybe my expectations were so low that anything short of a live demonstration of how to contract swine flu would have seemed like a treat. I don’t know. I’d never seen Dylan before so I had couldn’t compare it with Bournemouth in ’02 and Earls Court in ’78 like all the proper Bobcats, all I know is that I spent two hours watching him perform at the Edinburgh Playhouse last night and not once did I think – Jesus, what am I doing here?

He looked truly extraordinary. Pipe cleaner legs, clad in black strides with a yellow trim. An odd mix of waistcoat and straightjacket up top, with some kind of diamante augmentation around the neck, the whole combo topped off with a wide brimmed black hat. When he was truly feeling the music – which was often; I saw nothing cynical or weary in what he was doing, and he played a lot of guitar, which I believe is A Good Sign - his left leg performed the strange, twisting, stationary dance of a man extinguishing a particularly stubborn cigarette. Afforded an extra insight courtesy of the Playhouse’s nifty opera glasses, I couldn’t take my eyes off his feet for minutes at a time.

I thought he played something close to a blinder. He popped on and lit straight into 'Leopardskin Pillbox Hat', which went off like a firecracker. His voice was clear as a bell and was obviously familiar with the parameters of the original tune. Over half the set was similarly blues-based, which did him a lot of favours – when you know instinctively where the tune is going, you can follow him there quite comfortably. It probably also helped that the Playhouse – as opposed to the O2 or even somewhere like the SECC – is an old-fashioned, shabby-genteel theatre, everything buffed up deep hooker-red. It holds only about 3000 people and the sound was superb. I can’t imagine the Dylan experience – not a word was uttered throughout, and the band hovered round their master in a semi-circle, like nervous footballers awaiting a half-time bollocking – looks or sounds any better the further away you stand.

A few simple truths emerged as the evening wore on. Dylan is a quite heroically bad electric guitar player. I have never seen anyone – certainly not anyone charging on the door – play quite so badly yet with such obvious relish. Half way through 'I Don’t Believe You' I realised his mouth and his hands were trying to renew their acquaintance with two entirely different pieces of music. The worse it got, the more he insisted on playing the same deranged little riff, and the more the crowd loved it. It was like watching some strange dysfunctional relationship unfold. And what about that organ sound? Usually only deployed during the octogenarian tea-dance at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, it became quite mesmerising after a while. He forgot the ‘You never turned around…’ verse on 'Like A Rolling Stone' and stabbed away at his keyboard for a couple of minutes, twitching like a trauma victim. The crowd loved that, too. From our seat at the front of the circle, virtually hanging over the stage, it was all great theatre.

But the core of the show was sound and solid. Near the end, I actually felt I was being cheated of some vital part of the Dylan live experience: where are all these incomprehensible versions of classic songs? Where was the sledgehammer revisionism? What was all this about people not recognising a tune until some stray syllable from the last verse left a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a spark of recognition. Really? I can’t help thinking, certainly on the evidence of Sunday night, that too much has been made of this aspect of his shows, that it’s yet another rung too-readily added to Dylan’s mythology.

What I saw was a 67-year-old man singing as best he can with the voice we all know he possesses, playing some songs – some great, some merely OK, a few genuinely superb ('Po’ Boy', 'High Water', 'Ain’t Talkin’,' a beautifully measured 'Just Like A Woman') - with a tight little bar band. The only song I initially struggled to place was 'Sugar Baby', but I was on its case within 90 seconds. 'Tangled Up in Blue' was certainly wearing an odd set of clothes, but there was nothing arbitrary about it; you might not have liked it, I’ll grant you, but you could see what he was trying to do: Dylan and the guitar players had some spooky little riff on which they were hanging the rest of the song. There seemed to me nothing careless or perfunctory about any of it.

He finished with a not-half-bad version of 'Blowin’ In the Wind', wandering centre-stage at the end, puffing tunelessly into his harmonica, limbs jiggling slightly in classic Zimmerman style, like someone above is gently jerking the strings on this stupendously odd little marionette below. He sloped off doing some kind of weird hipster comedy walk. I like to think he looked happy; everyone else in the place certainly did.

We didn’t pay for our tickets, but I’ve already set 50 quid aside for the next time he’s in town. I was wrong. He needs to keep going.

16 comments:

fmf said...

Awesome piece. I've just printed off my tickets for this weeks Dublin shows,(yeah, going to both, bit of a Bobcat) and this so whets the appetite. I'm kind of sorry I didn't head over to Edinburgh, but Bob always goes down well here so I know they'll be blinders.

Peter said...

That's actually the most original review of the whole tour.

aracee said...

That's a fair and grudgingly affectionate review. Well said. From an Earls Court attender in 78.

Richdar said...

Refreshingly thoughtful review. Nice work.

Anonymous said...

Finally a review that doesn't churn out the platitudes. (sigh of relief) You were actually there, it seems.

steve said...

Sorry, I did see him at Earl's Court in 1978, which felt kind of late on in the story at the time, but turns out to be earlier than I thought.
Great review, and I've read a few over 40 years of following Dylan...sorry I missed it, living in Hong Kong you have as much chance of seeing Dylan as you have of catching ....errr...Swine 'flu.. ?

Anonymous said...

It was a superb show, the best of the tour.

john p said...

I thought it was a lacklustre show compared to others, but not as bad as some,
The band looked and sounded burnt out, even Tony had a bill wyman look about him,bob's voice is in great form though and it carried the show,his guitar and keyboard playing was awful,
A bob gig can be a banquet
For me this was soup and sandwiches

Just Irene said...

Good to read a good review, I saw him in Cardiff last week and the only word I could come up with to describe the event was awesome. Not a word I use unless I mean it. And yes, I attended Earls Court in 78, every night in fact as I was working there, and was privileged enough to hear rehearsals and sound checks etc. I was walking on air for about a month after that. I've seen him a few times since, but last week was up there with the best, there something rare going on around Bob Dylan at the moment, and Im glad I got to experience some of that rarity, a truly awesome experience.

Amelia said...

Having been to five gigs, and not just one, I can vouch for the incomprehensible versions of familiar songs, and that the audience frequently don't recognise a song until half-way through. Genius.

Anonymous said...

Why is that "genius", Amelia?

EJK said...

I think that's a very fair and well written review. Bob's voice is very clear when he wants it to be. I think his band also deserve credit, especially his bassist Tony Garnier. It's a privelege to listen to the Bard of rock 'n' roll any time.

Ursie said...

I can only join in with many of the above comments: Easily the most spot-on, beautiful review of this years tour, and so full of love and originality, thank you! *LOL*

Sean McA said...

Excellent review. I'm just back home (Ireland) after attending the two Scottish shows. Glasgow was good but Edinburgh was special. The career-spanning choice of songs alone was jaw-dropping. Too tired to write any more. Need my sleep for 5th day of May Dublin gig.

aaslestad said...

thats the most spot on review of a dylan show that i've read in years

SamT said...

Really interesting to read you review as I was also a Dylan live virgin despite being a huge fan for over 30yrs. I'd heard a few live tapes/CDs from the 80s and 90s and it really put me off seeing him live - incomprehensible versions of classic songs very much in evidence there! It was the chance to see him in a relatively small venue that pushed me over the edge - I saw Neil Young at the Playhouse last year and he was awesome.

Have to admit that I also had pretty low expectations and was pleasently surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Seeing one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century playing Tangled Up In Blue, one of the greatest songs ever written, almost brought tears to my 52yr old eyes. Even if the music and arrangement strayed somewhat from the BOTT original, the words cut through all of that delivered by their author just as if they were "written in his soul".

I hate to make comparisons but something my 20yrs old son observed that seemed correct to me was that whereas Neil Young seems in total command of his music and band live, Dylan seems much more detatched - almost like he's not quite there. I have to admit that a few times he reminded me of the current incarnation of Brian Wilson but that's probably overstating things.

Oh, and the harmonica playing was awful!