Jeremy Malies in Dorset
10th November 2022
In August I reported on the wonderful character actor Pip Utton being Bob Dylan at the Edinburgh Fringe. There have been multiple runs of Conor McPherson’s play Girl from the North Country featuring Dylan’s music, and Dylan himself enlisted playwright Sam Shepard to co-write “Brownsville Girl”. So, let’s just slip this into a theatre magazine from left field.
A personable if slightly schoolma’am-ish usher speaks to the upper tiers telling us that at 4,000 capacity, this is a tiny auditorium compared with the huge arenas that Dylan has been playing and isn’t it time that we all settled down if we hope to see him perform? Bring a phone and you are obliged to carry it in a pouch which is a slick modern version of the Faraday cage though all this has been administered so smoothly it can’t be blamed for any delay.
From blackout with no warning, not even a percussive trill, the stage is flooded with light the colour of a digestive biscuit as a milky white beam shines up from beneath the floor. Just in case we were in any doubt that this will be a sizable slice of americana, there are a few bars of lush orchestral music by Stephen Foster. The general tone is that of an elegy.
Oozing tranquillity, Grammy-winning Nashville guitarist Bob Britt circles his leader as if seeking succour from a mothership. Dylan’s still profuse curly hair protrudes over an upright piano as he propels us into blues-rock territory with “Watching the River Flow.” When animated, he rises and descends almost like a cinema organist. The wood of the piano is unfinished at the back as though it has just been dragged from a wall.
“I Contain Multitudes” follows with its profusion of cultural references. The Hampshire audience is responsive though, bizarrely, mention of William Blake excites them more than a reference to the Rolling Stones. Dylan says he wrote the song in a trance-like state and I’m so in the zone myself now that I could rival a Taoist contemplative.
It’s an engrossing set of 100 minutes with the songs following on rapidly with only brief pauses. Dylan speaks to us rarely but when he does it’s a spontaneous reaction to the mood of the crowd – heartfelt and in the moment.
Newest recruit Charley Drayton on drums is presumably the engine room and will be setting the tone of the evening but he refuses to have light thrown on him and is a spectral figure stage right next to the willowy Tony Garnier who swaps between bass guitar and a jazzy double bass. Garnier is ageing a little but he is still a whirling dervish of a man who springs in and out of the wings.
If Dylan is going to be genre-fluid, then each one of us really will make him in our own image so I’ll continue to see him in a jazz context. The rhymes are as crisp and as expressive as anything by Pope or Cole Porter. Rhyming “track” with “Kerouac” amuses me greatly. The voice is mellower and in no way nasal these days; after an arduous schedule in the UK and Europe with two extra dates (this one in Bournemouth and a small theatre in Oxford) you might expect the vocal cords to be raw. Only on “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” does his voice trail off and almost disappear into an alcove of the convention centre.
Roused from a reverie by the discordance of “Black Rider”, I focus on a father and his two thirty-something daughters beside me. (The audience talks freely after each song.) One of the women says she will be distraught if Dylan doesn’t play the harmonica. Absorbed in the many illicit YouTube recordings for weeks, I tell her pompously that he will play it once and once only on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”
Rule one for a Johnny-come-lately with a small amount of dangerous knowledge: Dylan is unpredictable. The song comes and goes (I receive a dirty look) but my blushes are saved when the harp is produced from nowhere for “Every Grain of Sand”. Dylan stands, a diminutive doll-like figure with jerky movements, luxuriating in the instrument and what it is triggering collectively within us. The sound alternates from mournful to psychedelic; it is remarkable for volume, depth and resonance.
I had talked to men of my age in the queue who have mapped out their lives in terms of album release dates. “So, when was your daughter at Sussex University?” “Can’t remember. Let me look in Google. I know it was the years between Good as I Been to You and Time out of Mind.” Star of the queue is a six-year-old boy. A veteran Dylanologist gives him a pat and says: “This is my fortieth Dylan concert and you’re the youngest fan I’ve seen. The right age to start!” I’d agree. A noviciate to this, I regret all the concerts I’ve missed. Like measles and the compulsion to play golf, the Dylan bug is best caught young.
The audience shuffles out into the rain a little stunned by what they have witnessed. I find it moving that there are no formalities here; we are already a cabal. Total strangers assemble in groups to discuss what they have experienced. I’m approached by three people in as many minutes selling books and now believe the claim that over a thousand books have been written about Dylan.
Above all I will treasure the memory of Donnie Herron constantly gliding into slides on violin as well as playing a variety of steel-strung instruments. He is at the heart of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a 1971 number now totally reworked with many of the lyrics having been tweaked three times over the decades.
And this was the piece that most in the audience were discussing as they left; it had spoken to the greatest number of people at the deepest level. In its original form, it has a young lovelorn Dylan in Rome wandering around the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps. This is the boy who has taken extra Latin classes a few years earlier at school in Minnesota and come under the spell of Virgil. The song is about the difficulty of producing your true masterpiece so it suggests that Dylan will continue to push himself.
And the six-year-old? Much to his disappointment, none of the merch t-shirts are small enough. Naturally, he doesn’t write anything down (there are numerous bloggers of all ages) but I would wager that the experience is seared in his mind. And, however he expresses it, he will convey to his grandchildren that the man he saw this evening did indeed contain multitudes. Even if it becomes fainter, that message and the lyrics will go through generations like a latter-day Aeneid. Dylan is consummately modest. But as a classicist he would love that.