Bob Dylan live at the O2

26 April 2009

Last night was the sixth time I’ve seen Bob Dylan perform live. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that I revere the man. I don’t hide the fact that I believe him to be a poet and the premiere musical genius of the last 100 years. And probably longer than that. There, my predilection laid bare.

The last two times I saw Bob were at the Brixton Academy; that was a super venue in which to see a legend. This time it was at the O2, and much less than ideal (there’s another show tonight at the Roundhouse but I’m not able to make that one). There was no opening act. Despite the Jubilee tube line being down this weekend, I made it in plenty of time.

Bob’s performances have taken the same format for some time: the band strolls out and plays and not much else happens. A few songs get some background projection imagery – stars or lines or what have you – and there are a couple of floodlights. But that’s it. They don’t show video (so if you’re in the top tier of the stadium you probably see nothing but dots). There’s no smoke or flame or lasers. There’s no opening or between-song banter.

All you get are the greatest songs ever written, performed live by a genius, in new and exciting presentations.

Last night’s setlist:

1. Maggie’s Farm
2. The Times They Are A-Changin’
3. Things Have Changed
4. Chimes Of Freedom
5. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
6. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
7. ‘Til I Fell In Love With You
8. Workingman’s Blues #2
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Ballad Of Hollis Brown
11. Po’ Boy
12. Honest With Me
13. When The Deal Goes Down
14. Thunder On The Mountain
15. Like A Rolling Stone

16. All Along The Watchtower
17. Spirit On The Water
18. Blowin’ In The Wind

Commenting on that setlist is difficult. It’s obviously a brilliant set of songs. If you look at previous nights’ setlists you’ll see that – unsurprisingly – he changes it up a lot every night. Every night has something to be jealous of. There are a lot of recent songs, also understandable. I did overhear the couple next to me say that last night’s show was much better than the previous night’s in Sheffield.

Bob sounded good, though that is a relative term. I recognise that if this was the first time someone who didn’t know the songs by heart heard a live Dylan performance they’d be baffled at his vocals. C’mon: he was never velvet-throated, he’s lived quite a life, and he’s 67 now. Sure he’s rough and nasally and indecipherable in places, but you get used to it. And he still gives it passion and wicked humour. He’s an old blues showman, a country gentleman crooner, a winking Dixieland object of our worship. It’s okay for him to sound dusty and worn and wise.

All of the old songs are treated so differently live: they change tempo, get different rhythm sections, have compressed lyrical cadences. Songs are very often unidentifiable until you hear the words. I imagine this is as much a respite from tedium for Bob as it is to make them easier for him to sing. I like this: I rarely want record-duplicate performances.

I was glad to see Bob play quite a lot of harmonica (on “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “‘Til I Fell In Love With You”,”Highway 61 Revisited”, “Spirit On The Water”, and “Blowin’ In The Wind”).

“‘Til I Fell In Love With You” swung so much it almost fell over. “Highway 61…” had a big sexy finish. I was pleased to hear “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, an early song I’d not heard him do live before.

Some of the newer slower songs aren’t so impressive. I could have done without “Po’ Boy”,”When The Deal Goes Down”, and “Spirit On The Water”, which all felt sluggish rather than pretty.

As a few years earlier, “Honest With Me” and “Highway 61…” absolutely rock. “…Watchtower” was amazing; it was like the soundtrack to a western movie set in the Russian steppes, with a crazy, jangly, riding rhythm propelling it along. “Thunder On The Mountain” also had a great keyboard solo by Bob.

The closer, “Blowin’ In The Wind” was handled with a light touch. Too light, I initially thought. Its bouncy swing seemed to rob it of its power. But as the band played on it felt more like Bob once again denying any accountability as a prophet of protest. It felt like a purposeful deflation of his own self-importance, turning a song about warning into a singalong goodbye.

The wonderful, perverse old bugger.

Photo from Tristan Legros under Creative Commons license

Photo from Tristan Legros under Creative Commons license


  1. Great review. I have seen Bob four times; the last time, he put on a somewhat lack lustre performance. When I saw him on the Love & Theft tour, he was really feeding off the energy of Charlie Sexton and George, who was new to the band. I am still hopeful to hear him play “Blind Willie McTell” I agree with your description of Dylan being the great poet; he is an artist in every sense of the word. The new album is out this coming week. Excellent!!!

  2. Bob Dylan is undoubtedly one of the greatest modern lyricists, if not the greatest, to ever perform. Having said that, I cannot say I enjoyed the entirety of the concert. Like you point out, this actually was my first time going to a Dylan show, so it was strange to hear his voice howl and growl as it was throughout the night as opposite to his recordings; although I understand he likes to change his songs around in order to keep creative- I found, that by doing this, some of the music isn’t the same at all- they are almost different songs!

    I guess what I’m getting at is that, albeit Dylan is a genius, by constantly alternating his songs and changing styles, his performance deteriorates. Some of the songs were not all that great-in All along the Watchtower, he just spoke…”Give it some passion man! It means so much, it’s everything!” is kinda what I wanted to shout at him. But he must have his reasons. I mean, even some of the guitar playing was repetitive- I’m glad I saw Dylan, and I thank him for his wonderful music which is some of my favourite- but man, is that guy strange!

  3. […] Bob Dylan live at the O2 Last night was the sixth time I’ve seen Bob Dylan perform live. If you’ve read this blog before […] […]

  4. My 3rd Dylan concert but the 1st for more than 20 years. The set didn’t really hold any suprises but was completely ruined by the appaling sound in the O2. If I could have actually heard the music instead of just feeling it through the floor I think it would probably have been great. A very dissappointing experience and I will never return to the arse end of London to see another gig at that venue.

  5. You make some interesting points, but “denying any accountability as a prophet of protest”? Do Radiohead play a piss-take version of Creep as their closing number every night?

    I suppose like even the most nonsensical Dylan lyric, it’s possibly to rationalise why all his performances are high art. I think the joke’s on us. Except when the band rocks out – then they’re seriously good.

  6. @Francois Le Grand: Have you read Chronicles Vol 1? In it, Bob says that he couldn’t sing live the way he used to, and he’s adopted this style of singing and breathing, where the phrases often become rushed. There’s more necessity to it, I think, than artistic choice. In some ways it’s a disappointment, I agree. But it’s something I can live with.

    @Chris: Really? You think so? As far as arenas go I think they’ve done a good job at the O2. Do you go to a lot of other concerts (you mention this is the first time seeing Dylan in 20 years). Because I think there has been a general trend of increasing bass in all live music over the last couple of decades.

    @Snook Dogg: I actually bet Radiohead would like to play a piss-take version of Creep every night, and I wish they had the balls to do it. I think refusing to buy into the self-importance – or of being willing to eventually forsake it, a la Dylan’s Victoria Secret advert – is a great thing. But whether I do or not, I stand by my guess that Dylan’s got no problem turning a song that fans regard as a hopeful anthem of social change into a hopeful New Orleans swing ditty.

    • Been to more gigs over the years than I could count, everything from small clubs to major festivals and Saturday at the O2 was close to the worst sound quality I’ve ever heard. Maybe I was unlucky with my position in the arena, and certainly the sound would have been better with the full O2 system, but where I was the volume was low and the echoes were awful, making the whole band sound disjointed and out of time!

  7. […] rhythm gtr Denny Freeman – lead gtr Donnie Herron – steel gtr, violin, viola, banjo, mandolin “The Plummet Onions” Blog: “Bob sounded good, though that is a relative term. I recognise that if this was the first […]

  8. […] Up In Blue”, and “Simple Twist of Fate”). That’s OK, I’ve seen plenty of the classics […]

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