Bob Dylan at the Roundhouse

Posted by Ken Edwards on Tuesday, April 28, 2009 Under: music
I promised to report back from this. I am not a diehard fan, except for his high water period, in my opinion, between Highway 61 Revisited - John Wesley Harding. I last saw him (in the distance) at Earls Court, 1981, a mostly terrible gig. The recent albums have been quite good, though.

Sunday 26 April in Chalk Farm, London, was a bit of an ordeal. Having endured the crashing Roundhouse  website a few weeks ago to obtain tickets, picking them up at the box office (and being wrist-tagged) was the least part of the process. What we should have done is then queue up for hours to secure a good vantage point at the front of the standing-only main arena. As it was, we found ourselves about two thirds of the way back, in an admittedly more intimate venue than the ghastly O2 Arena (he'd played there the previous night).

Ran into poets Gavin Selerie and Frances Presley outside Chalk Farm tube station earlier. Gavin is a much more hardcore Dylan fan than I. He'd been unable to crack the box-office website and was waiting for a friend who had managed to get him a ticket, with whom he needed to be tagged.

Finally get to the front of the queue. My partner's water bottle is removed by a Roundhouse bag searcher - letting it in would have compromised the venue's commercial right to sell us a plastic beaker of water for £1.50. A notice informs us as we enter that the gig is being recorded, and our presence at that point is retrospective proof that we have permitted ourselves to be filmed. That water would have been handy; it's getting increasingly crowded and hot in the darkened arena. A circle of cast iron pillars. Above them, the corporate entertainment spaces.

At 8.25, another big roar, this time with reason. The introduction that booms out is not the "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Bob Dylan!" that I was expecting, but a peculiar circumlocution; I paraphrase from memory: "And now, an artist who was a legend in the 60s and quite successful in the 70s but then his career slumped when no-one liked his Christian phase but he came back in the 90s to make some of the best music of his career - Bob Dylan!"

Stage lights up, it gets off to a good start. Band crashes into "Leopardskin Pillbox Hat", to huge cheers. Stage left, two guitarists and bass player (who swops between bass guitar and stand-up) wear matching black homburgs. Drummer in black cap. Dylan, right, bobbing about at the keyboard, in pale sombrero and buttoned-up dark jacket which he does not loosen at any point in the evening. The only unhatted one is the musician lurking behind Dylan playing pedal steel guitar and occasional banjo and violin.

High-energy versions of "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" and "Tangled Up In Blue" follow, eliciting more cheers and a galaxy of forbidden camera-flashes. Then we're into the more recent stuff, hailed by rather more muted applause. A woman in a polka-dot top angrily challenges anyone within reach of her who attempts to take a picture. A tiny Oriental woman is entirely dwarfed by persons larger than herself, and can see nothing at all; her sympathetic partner lifts her, and she gets a three-second glimpse of Bob.

The "new" songs are from recent albums, eg Modern Times and Love & Theft, but I read later that he sang absolutely nothing from the newest album, which has been heavily promoted over the past week.

The band are slick, bluesy, propel the music forward infectiously. They would definitely be appreciated at the Hastings Arms on a Monday night. Dylan is on a slightly different planet, stabbing at his keyboard, growling, slurring words together. Occasionally he takes out his harmonica and blows, which is very popular.

The set comes to a climax with "Like A Rolling Stone". At times it is, amazingly, almost like the record. But Dylan wilfully plays with the scansion, cramming words together oddly, throwing away the best lines. "How do you feel?" is more a polite enquiry than the original sneer. He plays a one-note solo on the keyboard.

He actually speaks to the audience to introduce the band! I can't understand a word, though.

I know from perusing the online setlists for this tour that, while the bulk of the set has varied from night to night, the encores are always the same. We are getting ready to edge to the back for a quick getaway after "Blowin' in the Wind", which I know he has invariably finished with. As it happens, he is two verses in before I realise he is singing it - as a jaunty shuffle with a really cheesy keyboard riff. Is he being subversive? Is he taking the piss? (and so on, and on, see Dylan blogs passim). He comes to the front and blows harmonica. More cheers. And out.

As Elaine said, it was worth it just to see a 20th century legend. Just to say you've been there, that you occupied a certain time and place. Musically, it was good, but not a patch on David Byrne a week previously (see below).

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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at