So many people have asked “How was Bob?” that maybe a full blow-by-blow is in order. Well, I was away when tickets went on sale and so missed out. But as the day grew nearer, my head began to fill with romantic, and probably completely wrong, ideas that maybe it was his first visit down here since the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1969. Something was drawing me to this show, probably all the good reviews from the rest of the tour. I drew the line at the tickets on secondary sites, some costing hundreds of pounds, and approached my trusty friend Pat Muldowney, guru of all things Southampton related. Within hours, he had found someone who had a face value ticket to sell. All I had to do was find this guy and pay him sixty quid. Easy.
And easy it was. You know those days when everything goes right (as opposed to the more common ones, where everything goes wrong)? Well, this was one of the former. I love travelling by bus so wandered down to Shawford to catch the Bluestar Number 1 to Southampton. Birgit can’t understand why I didn’t just drive, but it’s part of the adventure. Besides, it’s free! This journey was a great advert for the UK’s dire transport system, as the double decker was clean, modern, punctual and had both wi-fi and phone charging docks.
As we meandered though Chandlers Ford, the bus got fuller and fuller. These were people returning home after work and none of them had English as their first language. As a linguist and devoted multiculturist, I loved listening to the various languages and trying to work out what they were. The bus deposited me outside Turtle Bay, the bar recently notorious in the press for a violent assault. This was where I was supposed to meet my ticket provider and luckily all was quiet. After rejecting the red carnation option, we had agreed we’d each wear a blue hat, and it worked impeccably as recognition was instant. Pat had charmingly told me he’d rather insert a cactus in his foreskin than listen to Bob Dylan, but my seller’s reason for selling the ticket was more mundane: His girlfriend had a cold. I didn’t really see what difference that would make, so grabbed the ticket quickly before he could change his mind.
Heading over to Burger King for something to sustain me, I was saddened not only by the huge number of very drunk people around at seven o’clock but also by much larger numbers of homeless people on the street than I’ve ever seen in Southampton before. I resolved to increase my annual donation to Crisis, for whom my friends Phil Campbell and Kati Turner work tirelessly each Christmas.
A quick beer was taken in what used to be The Cellar (scene of the infamous Chuck Prophet stolen folder). It’s now a burlesque bar and was doing Carlsberg for £2.50 a pint. How does that work? Outside the Guildhall was Bob’s transport: Three full size artics, one smaller lorry and a coach. The production turned out to be quite low key so it was hard to imagine what these vehicles contained. I arrived at 7.31 and the show had already started. I immediately got into big trouble for not noticing the sign that said no photography as I tried to get a snap on my phone and was immediately berated by a terrifying security guy who looked as if he was about to rip my head off. People all round were sniggering and pointing, so I took my blue hat off in the hope that it would act as a disguise. And on the subject of people, it was the usual motley collection caused by the lottery of who had been quick enough to buy tickets. The majority were male, old and scruffy – just like me. A few had brought their kids and – yes – there was a healthy smattering of people talking throughout the entire set. This really did seem sacrilegious to me, after spending all that money for a one-off experience, so I had to move around a few times to find a quiet spot. Almost everyone seemed uncomfortable in a standing venue, with some looking as if they wouldn’t make it through and the queue for the interval loos (the male ones for the bladderly challenged) about a mile long.
One excellent thing was the sound engineers’ ability to overcome the notoriously dire acoustics of the Guildhall. This they did by keeping the volume right down, and all credit to them for that. The first set was a precise 45 minutes, the interval a precise 20 minutes, the second set a precise 45 minutes and the encore a precise 10 minutes. Bob was heading for his bed by 9.30, something which I guess, at 74, is highly recommended.
I am by no means an expert on Bob Dylan. I did see him once before, in an afternoon show at Glastonbury Festival in 1998. He was going through a country blues phase and played a Telecaster throughout and was great. Tonight, he switched between statuesquely singing without any instrument but a harmonica and walking over to a grand piano between songs. This was done to the accompaniment of tuning-up noises from his band. I was attracted to this tour because normally the critics have complained about his concerts being shambolic, out of tune, his voice shot away, etc., etc., while in this case he’s being praised for subdued musicianship and professionalism. The vibe reminded me of shows I have seen in recent years by Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison, with a band of immobile session players in uniforms playing deliciously tightly controlled music with little sense of emotion. The contrast with the previous night, where vintage musicians Dan Baird And Homemade Sin, despite their advancing years, were hurling themselves round the stage like teenage punks, was very clear. That was a lot more exciting, but somehow I love both approaches. There is so much to admire in the mournful sound of a languidly played pedal steel guitar. Being in the presence of a world legend of music felt good too, and I felt quite tearful at some of the beautiful standards from “Shadows In The Night” (“What’ll I Do?” is still in my head 24 hours later). The approach to these songs just exuded honestly and integrity. It was also fun trying to spot the two Dylan classics included in the set (“Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowing In The Wind”), rearranged almost beyond recognition but still brilliant.
And then they were gone, and some of the audience, perhaps less versed in what to expect, were feeling short changed on the hit record front. That was very sweetly sorted out by a Dylan tribute busker playing at the front of the venue behind the artics after the show, attended by probably about a quarter of the audience. I had fifteen minutes before the return bus so hung around as well. The atmosphere was great and all credit to the Guildhall and Bob’s people who could easily have moved him on but didn’t. Unless, of course, he’s on the payroll and it happens every night but that I do not know.
The Number 1 deposited me punctually back at Shawford in time for a quick pint at The Bridge. It had all been fabulous.