Bob Dylan’s live set at the Expo with the Modern Times band proves that he really does get better with age… and his concerts are still full of groovy sublimity and musical surprises
Dylan gave the audience at Zaragoza, Spain a great two-hour set of old and new songs, June 23, 2008.
We crossed the desert to see Dylan play a car park, my wife Ester and me.
Zaragoza, Spain lies just on the edge of the Monegros Desert. Dylan was booked to play as part of the Expo, “Hard Rain” being the official theme song of the event. The venue, according to the tickets, was ‘la feria de muestras’, a trade-fair. I had something like the Birmingham NEC in mind, but no: the stage was set up outside — in the car park!
June 23 is an important date in the Spanish calendar: San Juan, the commencement of summer. Coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of my seeing the Stones in San Sebastian, but that’s another story…
It had been nigh on two decades since my last live encounter with His Bobness, and I confess to being more than a little nervous. He’d been lookin’ so frail in recent photos, just didn’t know what to expect. You never do with Dylan at the best of times! He took to the stage at ’round 9.30, resplendent in black, a silver stripe down his pants — and a bigger, whiter hat than even the Desire model (often in danger of blowing in the wind). His two literary honour medals, Spanish and French, proudly dangled from either side of his equally shiny buttons. The five piece Modern Times band, predominantly in black, with a variety of headgear:
George Recile: drums and kangol cap
Tony Garnier: bass, double bass, cowboy
Donnie Herron: steel guitars, banjo, violin, electric mandolin, silver suit, no hat
Denny Freeman: lead guitar, cowboy
Stu Kimball: rhythm guitars and pork-pie
As tight ‘n’ loose as you’d expect after more than two years as a unit, and havin’ a real good time one ‘n’ all!
El Se or treated us to a trip upon the magic swirling ship of his career (just over 2 hours with the encores), with many super-radical reworkings. They played a bit of everything: from country-blues to blues-country, a touch of jazz to boot, but the key feel was some of the kickingest rock ‘n’ roll boogie I’ve ever witnessed live. Hadn’t known what to expect, but didn’t expect that!
Smack-on sound system — and no matter how hard the band pumped, Bob’s perfectly phrased croakin’ and growlin’ never got lost in the mix. Despite my calling “Play us some geetar, Bob!” a coupla times, he remained firmly planted behind his electric piano the whole night.
With the big desert sky as their backcurtain, the band kicked in with an elaborate country intro. Took me a while to work out what it was: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” — an arrangement as intricate as the original is simple. Bob havin’ a lot of fun with the lyric: “Why dontcha just bring that bottle over here?” A sign of things to come…
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” The rib-rattling stand-up bass makes its debut, and a mighty cheer when Bob’s harp does too. Great poppin’ vocal to keep up with the pickin’ — and a masterful tempo change to finish, Vegas cabaret style!
Another one that you couldn’t really suss till the first vocal. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, remodeled as a full-on funky blues, with enormous drums and no less than three blistering guitar solos.
“The Levee’s Gonna Break” Bringing us up to more ‘modern times’ (thanks Wook!) with an absolutely mental swamp-stomp rendition: all the players — Boppin’ Bob most of all — were well off it! Electric mandolins are cool things, man…
It was just getting dark enough to lift the lighters for a mellowed-down ballad version of “Shelter From The Storm” (Spanish punters love doing that!). Very lovely, bit more harmonica too: came across something like “Lay Lady Lay”. Clouds were gathering on the desert-sky backdrop, the air getting stickier by the minute.
“Cry A While” Considerably beefed-up from Love And Theft, almost encroaching upon leopard-skin pillbox territory at times. Some truly excellent near-straight blues harp from The Man for good measure. Banjos are cool things too…
Lapsteel and cymbals, joined by acoustic guitar, provide a long rolling intro which dropped sweetly into “Just Like A Woman”. A heartfelt creaky talk-through, with the audience more than happy to help out with the refrain. And more butane.
“Things Have Changed” The Oscar winner got taken apart and put back together like some kind of surreal Tom Waits/Beefheart construction. Electric fiddle in the cocktail this time. Got Bob’s ass movin’ and it sure as hell got ours, but there was ‘mucha gente’ not quite sure what to make of it…
“Beyond The Horizon” A country waltz to calm things down a little, the double bass and drums not being able to resist some incongruous twangs and snaps, however. Bob’s cheesy organ and husky Harry Nilsson phrasing worked a treat!
A ripping intro into “Honest With Me”. Full-tilt get-down boogie, open savagery on the drum kit in particular. Even raised a smile from Don Zimmerman: there were just a few, and — aside from introducing his “friends” a little later — not a spoken word. Par for the course!
The double bass got bowed for “When The Deal Goes Down”, perfectly complementing the lapsteel and a genuinely warm and mellow delivery from Dylan.
Bob Dylan concert ticket stub from Zaragoza, Spain (June 2, 2008)
Now almost too dark to even see my notebook, wamm! “Highway 61 Revisited”, reconstructed over a mental jungle rhythm, with a creamy lick of “Crossroads” thrown in for good measure, closing with Classic Rock Ending #235: Enorme! We came to dance, and dance we did.
“Hard Rain” Inevitable outing for the Expo’s anthem. Much more faithful to last year’s country re-make than the feisty folk of the original, electric mandolin included. Beguiling backing, hypnotic vocal — a different way to address the “blue-eyed son” each time.
Back to the boogie: the appropriate “Summer Days” had Bob bobbin’ round again. One of those smiles between drummer and bass that says “Look: The Man’s enjoyin’ himself!” And lo: he too flashed a smirk while snappin’ out the vocal. At times I was convinced they were gonna medley into “Shake, Rattle an’ Roll” or somesuchlike: wild!
“All Along The Watchtower” Acoustic levels owing more to JMH than JWH: an immense, loping, menacing vision! Dylan in great voice: actually singing, albeit with a wildcat growl. Shimmery tremolo guitar solo before repeating the first verse at the end. And off they walked…
A goodly wait for the encores: Bob in particular looking suitably ‘relaxed and refreshed’ as they slammed into “Thunder On The Mountain”. A last-ditch attempt to call down the rain. The heavens fortunately remained intact, though not for lack of effort on the band’s part (an almost Who-like intensity), nor for Bob’s — thundering the keyboard like Jerry-Lee!
“Like A Rolling Stone” You can imagine how it felt! That snare crack, His Bobness Himself actually laughing as he re-kooperated the classic organ refrain and continued to ‘wiggle wiggle’. Amazing vocal: he hit every note he went for, and twisted a different inflection into each “How does it feel?” while the audience carried the original cascading melody. A gleamingly clean guitar solo brought to mind Randy and Frisky.
There’s a good quality floating around on Youtube, probably from the guy stood next to us. Big finish, wordless gestures of thanks, and away…
Showing no signs of gathering moss at 67, we saw his bus roll out less than 10 mins later. Next stop Pamplona: same show very probably, but no repeat performances fer sure.
The paltry 5,000 who were at this show had witnessed, without a doubt, a legendary performance from the legend. Many of them didn’t seem to’ve entirely appreciated the fact, but hell man, Bob’s used to that! (I didn’t hear any ‘Judassing’, at least…)
Me and Ester? We got our €25-worth… Thanks Bob: may you stay forever young!