"Things Have Changed" - Bob Dylan - Hopfarm, 30/06
Tony Garnier’s bass solo rang across an expectant crowd. They cheered his musicianship, but most were expectant for the arrival of the 71 year old “song-and-dance man”.
Over the course of Hop Farm, festival goers had witnessed performances by true musical greats. Some lived up to their esteem. Patti Smith’s rabble rousing performance of “Gloria” would not have felt out of place in Max’s Kanas City 1975.
Some were tragically playing in the shadow of their past greatness. The former-Kinks frontman Ray Davies delivered a particularly geriatric set due to a drawnout style that drained The Kinks’ short pop masterpieces of their energy. As I stood there, knowing that within seconds the stage would be graced by Bob Dylan, the last thing I wanted was another “Lola”-style disappointment.
He walked onto the stage without acknowledging the audiences’ overwhelming cheers. Dylan’s band, including a brilliant Johnny Sexton on lead guitar, watched over their lead singer with incredible attention. But these men were not in awe, they were concentrating on Dylan’s next move. He may have played a wonderful selection of his back catalogue, but in a completely new and partly improvised way.
Dylan has gone through more changes of style than many bands have gone through albums; from acoustic folk, electric rock and roll, to full on gospel. The latest incarnation of Dylan is a playful, reflective, rhythm and blues style, fronted by a voice like a flu-ridden Tom Waits after a particularly heavy night on the town. This style has defined all his albums since Love and Theft in 2001; including his sadomasochistic Santa Claus album Christmas in the Heart made in 2009.
The opening song, 'Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat', was an excellent way for Dylan to introduce his new style. The song had originally appeared on Dylan’s 1966 magnum opus Blonde on Blonde and, rare for the time, was recorded in a Chicago-blues style. Therefore the distance between the original and the reinvention was not huge. Dylan’s voice, and a particularly tight performance from the band, gave a relatively dull song a new found value.
Many songs (some fans were disappointed to hear) were rendered completely unrecognisable by their arrangement, their performance, and predominantly by Dylan’s voice. For example, 'Tangled Up Blue' was sung and performed at double pace with added mumbling. The brilliance of that song comes from the narrative that it tells. Being unable to hear all of its words is like hearing a performance of Beethoven's Ninth on a keyboard. The general feel is there, but ultimately so much is lost.
In terms of his more modern work, Dylan’s growling tones and back-to-basics music worked well. 'Love Sick' was a highlight of Dylan’s set. Yet, these more recent songs simply do not have the same mystical appeal of his earlier work.
'Like a Rolling Stone' summed up Dylan’s performance at Hop Farm. During the chorus the crowd was screaming the lyrics at their writer; who may have been singing the same words, but at a very different rhythm. The incongruent relationship between Dylan and his followers has been one of the only constants that has spanned his long career.
Admittedly, I may not have seen the Dylan that I truly wanted to see. But if he stopped changing, stopped confusing and frustrating fans and critics; then he wouldn’t really be who he is.