Picasso Painting Your Living Room: Bob Dylan at the Barrowland

Bob Dylan & His Band
Glasgow Barrowland, June 24 2004

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Whatever happened to the Hampden Roar? I think I know. It took some time off. It travelled a bit, learned to relax and get sweet, gave up cigarettes and drank tea and honey to soothe its ragged throat. Then, on Thursday, it came back home and managed to sneak into the greatest concert I’ve ever seen.

This happens four songs into Bob Dylan’s second night in town. By now, he’s already zigzagged coast to coast across the great dark continent of his songbook, from a vicious, stop-start prowl and howl ‘Drifter’s Escape,’ and a cat’s-paw playful ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ – which turns out to be his statement of intent – right into the new century with the absurdist newsflash ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.’ Then, just when he’s made sure you don’t know where he might go next, his band starts this pattering, descending-rising figure, and he’s playing ‘Just Like A Woman.’

And when he gets to the chorus – “Aw, she takes…”– it happens. The Roar jumps alive, the building starts to sing. Nothing new, of course; people always sing at Dylan shows. Tonight, though, the place is so much smaller, the sound so much bigger, so much more together, it’s like a new presence has entered, hovering over the 1900 souls cramming this small, sweating room.

It astonishes everyone. When it hits, you see the effect it has on the band breaking across the stage like dawn. Tony Garnier, the zoot-suited bassist who’s been Dylan’s bandleader since the late 1980s, suddenly has this huge, helpless grin, is turning to the other players – Larry Campbell on guitar, cittern, slide, fiddle and John Carradine riverboat gambler looks; George Recile on intuitive drumming; Stu Kimball on maths-professorial guitar  – as if to say, “Can you believe this?” You know how bands roll into town and whoop, “Hey, Nowheresville, it’s great to be here tonight”? They are liars. These smiles are genuine.

Dylan is standing chording away at his keyboard, leaning into the song now, listening, and – did this just happen? – a surprised grin flashes across his face, too. Anyone who knows anything about Bob Dylan will not believe this, but, by the end of the song, just for a moment, the man famous for wilfully restructuring the DNA of his songs until they actually change species, seems to be singing along with the crowd, not vice versa.

Flash back to the night before. Dylan had appeared at the horrendous tin cattle shed that is the SECC, his regular Glasgow haunt for the past decade and a half. In 1989, I saw Garnier struggle through one of his first concerts with Dylan there, as, wearing a lumberjack jacket, a porkpie hat, and spats, Dylan charged like Custer at a suicidal set, leaving his band scattered behind. This new band, though, run together like mercury and spit on a hot plate, ready for anything. On Wednesday, Dylan put on possibly his best ever SECC show (rivalled by a miracle night in 2000). Those present, who didn’t get to Barrowland, may console themselves with the knowledge that, of the 17 songs he played both nights, 10 were different, and that on that first night he unveiled a version of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ as  fragile as antique lace.

The SECC, however, everyone penned in and miles away, was a job, well done. Barrowland does not seem like work at all. The band are close enough to smell the audience’s breath, and feed on it. The audience is so surrealistically close to Dylan it’s like having Picasso paint your living room. ‘It’s Alright Ma’ is a storm approaching a city. ‘Girl Of the North Country,’ with Garnier gently bowing his double bass, is chamber music to make the silverware shiver. ‘Summer Days’ -the only juke-joint-jive to reference Gatsby – a roadhouse rumble, driven by Kimbal’s splenetic work.

Dylan is definitely back into one of his “periods.” You can tell by the way he looks. He always looks great when he’s at his best: the 60s cigarette punk alien; the beat-gypsy of the 70s renaissance. Now, in Clark Gable moustache and Civil War duds, he just looks incredible, cosmic cowboy vampire bluesman. He’s beginning to jiggle to the music, and he walks like a bopping boxer, hands held before him. With one hand, he’s rediscovered the harmonica, producing runs more forceful, sinister and plaintive than at any time since John Wesley Harding. With the other, he paws out these big, warm, gospel-inflected chords on his keyboard.

People have wondered why he’s given up guitar this time around. Some have speculated arthritis (though, last month, he was playing guitar with Willie Nelson). But Dylan has always played piano and, notably during late 70s tours, has abandoned guitar before, to concentrate on singing. And he is singing tonight. That exotic pet of a voice is something up from a mysterious swamp, a husk covered in scales, but filled with skeletons and jewels. Sometimes, it’s a spook show; he puts these high inflections at the end of phrases, so words linger and drift. Sometimes – ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ – it’s that old put down sneer. Sometimes – ‘I Believe in You’ – a lover’s prayer.

We eventually get to the hate-hymn that is ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ The Roar rises up on that chorus, redoubled. After it, the grin can’t be hid. Dylan comes stage centre, shaking his head and – that rarest thing – talks to us. ‘We musta played that song a thousand times, an’ no one’s ever kept up like that.’

Bob Dylan pays us a compliment. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ sounds a warning. Then, it’s over.