Bob Dylan in Dublin: in the shadows of Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Wilde and Behan.
The Point Depot, or O2 as it’s now known, is not my favourite venue. It’s cold, hard, with the feeling of a huge warehouse or converted factory, which made steamships for the river Liffey that is on the other side of the road. Ok, it has been refurbished, face lifted, jazzed up and renamed, but it’s still a barn of a place with bad acoustics. It’s the biggest indoor arena in Ireland, and it’s where all the big concerts are. After attending few gaga gigs there, I said never again, I didn’t care if Jesus and the 12 Apostles were playing there, but I wouldn’t go.
But then a few weeks ago I got a call from a good friend, he had a ticket to Bob Dylan for me, plus all the trimmings. All I had to do was get to Dublin…being a decades old fan, I couldn’t let Bob down. Memories of all the times I’d seen him over the years flooded into my heart — Dylan and the Grateful Dead in Oakland, CA in 1987…his 1990 US Tour when the Pogues played support and I was invited along for the ride…Tramore, when Van the Ram danced on the side of the stage while Bob crooned Ramona…The Greek Theatre in Berkeley when Neil Young played with him…Bob and Tom Petty in Sacramento…maybe it was somewhere else, the memory is hazy on that one. When push came to shove, I put prejudices aside, and went to see Dylan in Dublin at The Point.
We got to the venue about 30 min before the gig and were fast-tracked inside — connections, you see. I declined the balcony seat and went down on the floor, weaved and wriggled through the throng until I got to within about 25’ of the stage. Everyone was packed close as sardines ahead of me…all ages, the retired parish priest look alike, latter day hippies, girls with the giggles, serious dudes with very serious cameras, a few drunk cork guys wondering where the jacks were. Heavy breathing, perfume and alcohol, everyone waiting for Dylan. The lights dimmed, the punters erupted as shadowy figures crossed the stage and the show began with a bang.
Under a wide brimmed hat, black suit with yellow trim, Dylan, center stage on sunburst Fender guitar rang out ‘The Wicked Messenger’…an odd opening number. The vocals were muddy but the band was tight. Bobby’s voice was unmelodic, croaking, rasping and if you didn’t catch the words you could be forgiven for thinking he was singing ‘God Save The Queen’, or worse. His three guitarists stood stage left, dark suits and hats they were like the Blues Brothers. The drummer thumped as if he was in a stadium and the pedal steel guitarist beside him looked like he was ducking sniper fire from somewhere. They were an odd lot and they packed a steady punch, swampy blues with a touch of the Chicago Chess sound. Although I doubt a vast percentage of the crowd caught five consecutive words that Bobby sang, they went wild.
There was no word to the audience —he could have been a dumb plumber coming into someone’s house to fix a pipe — he unstrapped his guitar and stood off center stage behind keyboards…The vocals slightly improved and I recognized ‘Girl from The North Country’ from a run of words rather than the melody which didn’t seem to follow even the chord sequence. But what can you say? Bob is an artist, not an entertainer. He rarely does covers of his own numbers, and as they are his own, he’s liable to do anything he likes with them, including deconstructing the melody completely or matching words of one song with the melody of another…something I thought only Shane McGowan could do.
At a Dylan show you have to throw expectations out the window, preconceived notions out the door. Bob doesn’t stand still. He follows a star somewhere in the sky, like the Three Wise Men did long ago, and he relates his experiences to us poor mortal souls. He doesn’t want to be boxed in, labeled, categorized, rest on his laurels. With Dylan, it’s always Onwards, he takes the road less traveled, sometimes making a new road altogether and when people begin to follow, he gives them the slip and branches off somewhere else. You never know what he’s going to do or how he’ll do it, you may not like it nor understand it, but it will nearly always be brilliant and touch a chord, stir the heart, draw a tear and answer an unasked question.
Bob really enjoyed his gig at the Point. I was close enough to the stage that I could see him smile occasionally. He was rocking, vamping those keys and arching his body like a cat that had the cream and more. His guitarists watched him like hawks…. Bob typically rehearses at least 50 numbers with the touring band and they have to be ready for the unexpected, a change of key, a change of tempo, a change of style. That was the common thread running through the Point Gig — nothing sounded like it did the last time we heard him play it. Not even his great old classics — ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Desolation Row’, ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. But they were all brilliant.
After every number, he turned towards the audience and gave a slight nod, a hand gesture, then consulted his set list. He took his time, like a guy wondering if he’d have the soup or the salad. Then he had a word with the pedal steel guitarist and we were away on another mystery tour. Bob boogying, throwing out Georgie Fame sounds…creating chaos out of order like one of those musical quiz shows, until a string of words gave away the title of the number. Then the crowd sang along, many times singing the popular recorded version rather than the revisionist track Bob was on. The only song I recognized from the get-go was ‘Blind Willie McTell’, and that was because of signature piano solo intro.
The one part of the old Dylan sound that remained unchanged was his harmonica playing. Of course the audience swooned every time he blew the mouth organ. And how he blew it…or bluesed it for ‘Blowin’ in The Wind’. The audience sang louder than the band, but Bobby was singing a different version of the old chestnut…it seemed more relevant, not stuck back in the Sixties, a song for our times, a message between the lines.
Dylan and the band took a bow, he didn’t introduce them, didn’t say one word to the audience during the show. He appreciated his response with a nod and a wry smile, gave a flick of a wave and was gone. He’s got everything he needs, he’s an artist and he don’t look back.
Thanks Mr. Dylan, hope to catch you again around San Francisco in late August.
And Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Wilde and Behan? I’d say Wilde and Behan would probably have not seen the gig at all, they’d have hung out back stage, drinking their fill and avoiding each other…Behan might have staggered on stage for the encore —uninvited. Wilde would have tried on all Bob’s hats. Yeats would have been furious and stormed out after the first number, raged up the Quays composing a letter in his head for the Irish Times. Joyce would have been scared stiff by the noise and the crowd…Sam Beckett might have tried to persuade him that Bob was a fan and had read Dubliners…Joyce would have said ‘The hat worries me. Does he carry a gun?’
And of course Paddy Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien would have given the whole shebang a miss and hissed at each other in McDaid’s bar…