‘My dreams are made of iron and steel’ – Bob Dylan, 1974
Christopher Rollason, firstname.lastname@example.org
Luxembourg probably has the distinction of being the smallest country ever to host Bob Dylan live. The night of 21 October 2011 was not the first time Dylan has graced the Grand Duchy with his presence, but it was a premiere for Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second city, and the Rockhal, its 6000-capacity venue opened in 2005. Esch, located in the country’s industrial south almost on the French border, some ten miles from the Grand-Ducal capital, is increasingly positioning itself as a rival to Luxembourg city: the Rockhal is part of a complex which will be home to the new campus of the University of Luxembourg and is built around a former steelworks that now houses an industrial research centre. That titanic hulk must surely have meant something when he saw it to Dylan, brought up in Minnesota’s iron-mine belt, as the iron and steel images that appear in his songs from time to time show he has never forgotten. Tonight, it will be ‘dreams of iron and steel’, to lift a phrase from his 1974 song ‘Never Say Goodbye’. Here, the author of this review should add that it is in Esch-sur-Alzette that he currently lives, so indeed tonight Bob Dylan is … bringing it all back home …
The show is sold out: the standing-room-only hall is at capacity. The man from Duluth is supported on this tour by Mark Knopfler, who as leader of the emblematic band Dire Straits has sold more records than Bob Dylan and, as Dylan followers will remember, backed Dylan on his albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Infidels (1983). Not all Knopfler’s fans, though, may be so aware of the intimate connection between the songwriting and guitar legends, and tonight’s audience is no doubt a mix of devotees of Dylan, of the British musician and of both.
The doors open at 6.30; at 8 o’clock sharp, Mark Knopfler begins a 70-minute set. He plays, not Dire Straits stuff but his more recent material, some songs sounding like the classic band and others much more folk-rock or Celtic, with flute, mandolin and violin complementing his famously speaking guitar. He does concede one Dire Straits number, ‘So Far Away’, as an encore. The audience love Knopfler all the way through, and he puts the hall in a dancing mood which will prove the perfect prelude to tonight’s manifestation of the protean Bob Dylan.
At 9.45, as announced (this is a very punctual venue), Dylan and his band come on. The 70-year-old cultural icon appears in a white hat, dark jacket and green shirt, far right on stage. Tonight he looks and feels genial: his presence already suggests this will be an in-form night. He starts off playing guitar, will later switch to keyboard – and will enliven proceedings at regular intervals with his inimitable harmonica. A special treat is in store, too: for the first three numbers and for only the second time on this tour, Mark Knopfler will join Dylan and band on guitar.
The audience is mostly middle-aged or older, with a sprinkling of youth: largely male, though there are a fair number of couples; and, despite Esch’s large black population, almost entirely white. It is hard to tell who is there more for Knopfler and who more for Dylan: both ignite almost everybody, both get the public swaying and dancing – the couple next to me slow-dance through Dylan’s entire set! One thing for sure: the local press previewed the concert with the usual ‘folk music legend’ and ‘protest icon’ clichés, and anyone coming to see Bob Dylan tonight on that basis is going to be disappointed.
The setlists so far for this tour have not been that varied, and tonight as before, six songs out of fourteen are standard, i.e.: the opener, song number 9 and the last four. For the record, these are, in order: ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Thunder on the Mountain’, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (three of them, be it noted, from 1965 and Highway 61 Revisited, which is beyond any doubt this tour’s default album – and this concert’s too, since tonight we will also get that album’s stellar track, ‘Desolation Row’.
The luck of the draw has it that there is no song older than 1964 and Dylan’s fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. It really is a folk-free, acoustic-free, protest-free night: so much for the folk troubadour, conscience of a generation, etc, etc. This hasn’t been the case on other nights, but somehow tonight’s song selection does seem to fit the music. The musical discourse is one of hard-hitting, danceable blues-rock almost all the way through, with only a couple of slower numbers and others that are slowish on record speeded up. Dylan’s band are tight, inventive, and right there inside the songs. So too is Dylan himself. Most of the time he barks out the vocals staccato fashion, but one can hear that he also is inside his words and inside his images. Thank goodness, that is not a night of inattention or distraction or lyric-fluffing: Bob Dylan is there with band and audience, and audience and band are there with him. The songs all but segue into each other with scarcely a break: the ninety minutes feel like a seamless whole.
‘Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat’ starts the proceedings, suitably setting the night’s blues-rock tone, with Dylan’s vocals abrasive as they should be and the song’s heady mix of venom and humour intact, and close to the Blonde on Blonde original. Knopfler is up there in dialogue with Dylan’s own guitar, and will be there for the next two numbers. Next up is a very strong rendering of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue from 1964, the oldest song to be performed tonight, with Dylan spitting out its timeless imagery; and just as good is the third and last song with Mark Knopfler, and the evening’s first newer composition, a jaunty, defiant ‘Things Have Changed’. Here and later, those in the audience who (presumably) don’t know Dylan’s more recent material appear unfazed, and indeed stylistically the later songs gel perfectly with the ‘famous’ 60s classics, with no visible discontinuity: across half a century, the blues are in command.
Next, though, comes one of the evening’s (fortunately few) relative disappointments: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, speeded up perhaps not that appropriately, and bizarrely reduced from seven stanzas to only four (1, 2, 5 and 7), a pruning that deprives the narrative of part of his sense and hardly seems justified when, as we will see, other and inferior songs are done unlopped. Interesting, even so, is the lyrical recasting in the last stanza, with the ‘truckdrivers’ wives’ who have often been the performance substitutes for the Blood on the Tracks version’s ‘carpenters’ wives’ now becoming ‘doctors’ and lawyers’ wives’, the doctors harking back to the outtake version but the lawyers adding a new and, to my ears, sinister dimension (in Bob Dylan’s world, do you trust lawyers, even if you are married to one?). The following number is ‘Honest With Me’, a number which rocks infectiously but is, surely, not the strongest song from “‘Love and Theft’”, which album tonight it represents alone, and, curiously, has not been trimmed, its five stanzas standing uncut.
Now – ladies and gentlemen, your attention please! – we are regaled with The-Only-Dylan-Song-Ever-To-Be-Recorded-By-Garth-Brooks, none other than ‘Make You Feel My Love’, a song which I am not alone in considering by far the lyrically thinnest on its album, Time Out Of Mind. However, multimillionaire country singers apart, tonight’s slow-blues rendition, with Bob on keyboards, is certainly preferable to the album version, and even acquires a sinister edge, as if it were less a beribboned chocolate-box number than a darkly ambivalent declaration which might have been made by Dylan’s (as I see it) evil Modern Times persona. At which point we segue into a track from that album, ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ – frankly not Dylan’s best-ever piece of writing (and one which could have been cut without significant loss), but tonight far more convincing than on the record, with shrieking harmonica and thunderous keyboards courtesy of its composer: altogether, something of a transformation of a decidedly lesser song.
And now, the evening’s highlight: ‘Desolation Row’, the crowning glory of Highway 61 Revisited (this is already song 8 and three of the remaining six will be from that album), and, at least in this writer’s opinion, quite simply the best song Bob Dylan has ever written. Live versions of this song have varied greatly in terms of quality, arrangement and, indeed, length (Dylan might do anything from reproducing all ten stanzas of the original to reducing it to seven, six or even five). Tonight, he’s on keyboards, and performs it fairly slowly to the band’s discreet backing, snarling out the vocals and deep, deep into its characters and images. We get an acceptable eight stanzas, only the fifth (Einstein) and ninth (Nero) ones missing. Scarcely in motion, the audience fixes itself, with more than uncanny unanimity, on the maestro’s delivery. At a moment like this, all of Bob Dylan’s creative genius comes alive and burns alight, and anyone who still doesn’t understand why he is an eternal and (please note) serious Literature Nobel candidate, may I suggest you stop in your tracks and listen to him now, as he performs his greatest song.
After this glorious centrepiece, we are already into the known final sequence, as the band leaps into ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. Here too Dylan’s vocals find him deep inside his song, which he renders complete, including the sometimes dropped fourth stanza. Things then slow down, for ‘Forgetful Heart’, tonight’s newest composition and the evening’s only selection from his most recent album, Together Through Life. Violin – the show’s only appearance of this instrument, contributing a fugitive country feel – accompanies a reflective vocal, confirming this song’s status as a powerful lyric poem and one of Bob’s most successful recent compositions.
After that brief quiet interval, it’s back to no-holds-barred for what are by now familiar as this tour’s expected closing quartet of songs. Out rolls ‘Thunder on the Mountain’: I must confess I have yet to understand why Dylan thinks this Modern Times number is so good that he has to perform it every night, but as with its album companion ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’, this live version is at least more attention-holding than the original, fits well enough with the evening’s blues ethos, and gets the audience back dancing. Next, Ballad of a Thin Man returns us to 1965, and is as potent and abrasive as ever, though there is a confusing moment in the ‘professors’ stanza, which Dylan starts out singing with sardonic relish (does he know he’s on the future University of Luxembourg site?), only to commit (but I may have misheard ..) what I think is the night’s only serious lyric fluff, stumbling in the middle of the ‘great lawyers’ line (I will of course be happy to be proved wrong on this!). There follows, inevitably, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ – in, less inevitably, a gratifyingly strong version, apocalyptic and spinechilling, with on-the-edge vocals from Bob and coruscating guitar-work from the band.
And now, as it had to be: the song the audience was waiting for: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. We are used by now to Dylan cutting his signature song from four to three stanzas (tonight, 1, 2 and 4), but more important is the forcefulness of his delivery and the empathy between him and his musicians as, yet again, they bring the evening to a triumphant close with the unforgettable mid-60s classic. This is the one song tonight’s public are actually singing along with, perhaps the one song they have really, really come to hear. How does Bob Dylan manage to make ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, superb song though it is, sound so fresh after executing it a mind-numbing number of times? The only answer can be that it has stood up like this because it is one of the most powerful compositions by one of the greatest creators of our time. There is no encore. The dreams of iron and steel are over. I leave, straightaway but spiritually replenished by tonight’s re-encounter with the artist who has accompanied me together through life, who time out of mind ago said he accepted chaos but did not know if chaos accepted him, and who in our turbulent modern times may, at the age of 70, may definitively declare, yes: even chaos accepts Bob Dylan!