Monday, July 11, 2011

Bob Dylan in Hyde Park

It was a last-minute decision to see Bob Dylan play at the Feis in Hyde Park. What he was doing at an Irish festival was unclear; the crowd was not ideal – testy, tightly-packed and loud – with lengthy beer queues. There were no large screens. Dylan’s recorded output over the last few albums hasn't grabbed me much, nor have live youtube clips from the last few years. Weighed up against this, however, was the fact he celebrated his 70th a week or so earlier. He had been feted around the world’s press for the previous month. In addition, his friend Ron Wood was in attendance, as well as musicians he admires such as Christy Moore and, the following day, Van Morrison.

So a magisterial performance began with Dylan in white hat playing the keyboard on ‘Change My Way of Thinking.’ His voice was strong, the choice of song made no concession to those unfamiliar with anything but the hits and, sung in this fashion, it sounded like the blues it was. He would later appear centre stage with just a hand-held microphone. Three songs in, I was thinking get in the studio! His voice sounded so strong (this is the beginning of a tour) and his phrasing attentive. The band played superbly throughout.

Greatest moment of the evening for me was ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ with a shimmering guitar-line, played by Bob on electric guitar, reminiscent of the Hard Rain concert from 1976 in its reinvention of Blood on The Tracks. Also of note, were the soulful harmonica stabs on ‘Forgetful Heart’, and great delivery in a carnie-esque ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’

Occasionally, some lazy traits crept into a performance, such as the regrettable staccato delivery of the last verse of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ which, before such melodrama, was imperiously delivered. The repetitive three-note harmonica solo also made an appearance or two. However, the closing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ said it all: shambling, a little shapeless, but nonetheless live to the moment, Dylan experimenting with its melody on electric guitar to make it new. Not great, but enough to see Dylan taking risks, and apparently in very good humour. Recent tunes included ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ and ‘Summer Days’ with its superb blues couplet:

The dogs are barking there must be someone around
The dogs are barking there must be someone around
I got my hammer ringing pretty baby but the nails ain’t going down

Dylan performed this song in Portsmouth in around 2003, and while tonight’s concert didn’t match those heights, it was an astonishing set. As he sings in ‘Floater,’ another song from “Love and Theft”,

Gotta get up near the teacher if you can
If you wanna learn anything.

Ryan Adams at The Barbican Centre

A sit-down acoustic performance from Ryan Adams.

While recent albums have been tempered with ballast (Easy Tiger), or too intense (29) live performances over the years,– of ‘I Taught Myself to Grow Old’ on David Letterman for example – have been as great as ever.

First impressions are okay. ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina,’ probably his most admired song. He’s tuning up and telling anecdotes – wittily – about building up to a harmonica solo with the wrong key harmonica in his rack, and literally ‘hitting a brick wall.’ More great songs from his most popular works ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Gold’ follow. His voice is perfect, as smooth as before the hard living seemed to derail his career.

If I had been listening to a recording of this performance I would have longed to be there. I think of a bootleg from The Exit Inn in which he is joined by Gillian Welch on a suite of songs by the Band and Gram Parsons. It is perfection, the kind of recording that makes a bootleg collector of you. It is punctuated by the sounds of beer bottles being dropped into a bin at the bar at the back. And this is what’s missing: we are sitting obediently, hearing a performance of a man attempting to demonstrate he is a dependable performer again. Ten years back, on the bootleg, he was fighting to win our attention, hungry. ‘Sylvia Plath,’ ‘Rescue Blues,’ these are songs I love and would love to hear him perform. When he does, I am studying them. You need to be standing with a beer in your hand to watch a gig, to be able to heckle, to be pushed out of your security zone.

And then he pulls some out of the fire – ‘California Rain,’ from 29. Now here is a song that seems, from a songcraft perspective, simply more accomplished than anything he had written before it. A couple of new songs are equally excellent. But Adams can’t resist goofing for the crowd, playing his schtick between songs. As he plays the opening guitar figure of ‘Strawberry Wine’ – equally beyond the ability of the writer at the time of his greatest fame with Gold – he criminally breaks it off to tell an anecdote. My heart is in my mouth. When he eventually gets back to it, we are delivered the highlight of the evening – a shimmering, focused delivery, the voice absolutely out there in the bridge. We are left speechless.

He hardly needs to come back for an encore of ‘Come Pick Me Up.’ Ryan Adams - he could have kept us mesmerised with later work to the standard of ‘California Rain’ and ‘Strawberry Wine.’ He could have played a forty five minute set without talking and blown our minds.

Prince at the Hop Farm Festival

My first festival – and it’s good to see how it all works. Some performers, like Eliza Doolittle, are put in their place by better performers, like Imelda May. Some demonstrate their next-levelness – Morrissey on a stunning ‘Meat is Murder’ and ‘First of the Gang to Die,’ and Stewart Lee expertly avoiding all pitfalls in a brilliant 20 minute set in the comedy tent at past midnight. Some make you feel physically sick and troubled – Lou Reed. And some leave you in no doubt you are in the presence of a superstar.

Hop Farm festival gives the opportunity to get up close to the performers. That is, if you are prepared to stand through several hours of Larry Graham (excellent in parts), Tinie Tempah (atrocious) and even, in a mad move, grainy videos of Prince’s less successful songs sung by artists like Taja Savelle, Family, Jesse Jackson and The Time. So it is that my girlfriend and I are five rows from the front during what is considered one of Prince's greatest performances. We were so close that it was easier to watch him than watch the screens. So close, we were next to people lip-synching to the songs by Taja Savelle, Family, Jesse Jackson and the Time.

Of a two and half hour set, highlights included:

‘We Live to Get Funky’ – the opener which Prince used as a soundcheck, calling out changes to the mixing desk.

‘Little Red Corvette’ – a beautiful rendition, with Prince finding meaning in the song again, slowing it down (as at Montreux in 2009), hinging on the line ‘slow down,’ Prince pulling some beautiful notes from the guitar. This version was about ten minutes long, and in general Prince did his songs justice rather than running through them.

‘Nothing Compares to U’ – as the crowd recognised the first bars of the tune, I couldn’t imagine how Prince could possibly deliver the opening line without somehow lessening the sense of excitement. He walked to the microphone and didn’t blink.

‘Purple Rain.’

A cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.’

An unexpected ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend.’

Two points to consider – one, Prince’s band did not actively annoy me as they have done on many occasions over the last two decades, since luminaries Mico Weaver, Sheila E, Atlanta Bliss and Eric Leeds left in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. His current, mostly female, band were superb, giving off a great, positive vibe. At the interval, the ‘female contingent of the New Power Generation’ performed Dylan’s modern standard ‘To Make You Feel My Love.’ It was beautiful. Secondly, Prince’s trouble with his hips has meant he cannot dance like he used to – no splits; he was wearing trainers and not high heels for most of the evening – and this has been much to the benefit of his singing and guitar playing. His solo at the end of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was, to my ears, note perfect. His singing on a live performance in 2009 in promotion of Lotusflower reminded me of Prince circa 1986 – real singing, not rap, no pose.

The jams reminded me of 1985, for some reason, and Prince seemed completely to be the man he was then – happy, firstly, and at ease with his old material: his shouts of ‘Aw-oh-a!’ from those days, his screams and yelps. His sense of humour.

He was in ebullient mood tonight. Hop Farm held 50,000 people, the sun was going down, and the crowd were wildly excited.

Following this performance, Prince can do no wrong in my book. All is forgiven.

Morrissey and Prince headlined the Saturday and Sunday. That’s two vegetarians, two who have pledged celibacy at one time or another. Two individuals often accused of being contrary.

A lesson there.

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