Bob Dylan at Brighton Centre
The Guardian, May 6, 2002
The air is fraught with expectation, the crowd largely comprised of characters you never normally see at rock concerts: smart middle-aged couples, grim-faced fathers dragging children, a glut of paunchy, balding men, faces glistening with anticipation. They look more like people at a garden centre, albeit one where dippy women hawk homemade books called things like Voice of the Nightingale: A Poetic Interpretation of Dylan.
What draws them to an artist whose live reputation is so erratic? Aside from their memories, it is his mythic status. Dylan started talking gibberish in the early 1960s, then gave up talking entirely. This tour has been heralded not with the usual interview blitz, but with rock mags listing their favourite barmy Dylan tales. No extant star boasts such an impregnable aura of mystery.
The mystery remains intact tonight. Looking trim in a cowboy hat, Dylan never speaks. His singing voice bolsters the enigma. On record it has deteriorated into a terrifying croak; live it is literally beyond language. “Hesh a sheeshuuh unna shezz,” he rasps. “Unwah a shusheshah heeesh.” Legendary songs – Tangled Up In Blue, It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding – go on for minutes without a flicker of audience recognition.
The true Dylan nuts cover themselves by applauding the first few notes of everything, regardless. Subterranean Homesick Blues is at least identifiable, but Dylan forgets the words and fills in with noises: “. . . heeesh shuzzz unnnuuh, carry round a firehose . . .” The crowd love it.
Intermittently, you see their point. Some songs suit his ruined voice. Tweedle Dee is bleakly menacing. Masters of War, sung in a husking death rattle, sounds more foreboding than ever. His onstage attitude is legendarily wayward – solos are included, timings changed, tracks altered without warning – but it’s gripping stuff. Watching Dylan battle his back catalogue is infinitely more entertaining than seeing another super-annuated star glide slickly through their hits. At the very least, he is one legend from whom you can expect the unexpected.