Blackpool and London, England 2013

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We arrive in Blackpool after a day of flying and then riding the train out of London and across the countryside, to find our hotel, the Grand Metropole, is indeed the only hotel on the beach side of Promenade St., as promised. Built in 1776, and it seems quite possible that she’s not had a fresh coat of paint since; a faded old lady she is.Despite travel exhaustion, the red sun starting to set into the Irish Sea out our 3rd story window calls us for a walk out on the pier. It’s quickly evident the neglect this city has suffered; Mr. Jinx aptly dubs it ‘Atlantic City after the apocalypse.’ But a setting sun makes everything pretty, and even the crumbling concrete benches along the boardwalk take on a romantic glow, enhanced by the pleasurable anticipation of more than a week’s holiday ahead.   We laugh at posters for local talent Joey Blower and others (and is there really an upcoming music show extravaganza called Blo-Fest!?), as we stroll amongst the gulls and dodge old people in motorized chairs buzzing in and out of our hotel, and watch the neon of a Friday night in Blackpool burn against the sunset sky.


Cheers to the good people of Blackpool, a fun-loving and friendly bunch who get a real kick out of meeting Americans in their little seaside town. As in, “What the fuck are you doing here?!?” My guess is that Bob being here has brought a higher concentration of Americans and out-of-towners in general than they’ve seen in quite a while, maybe ever. Special thanks and appreciation to the one hippie we meet who hooks us up with a little party favor that adds a nice twist to the rest of our stay. What a kick we have going out and partying with the locals after the Saturday night show. For a neglected little town, Blackpool has itself a hopping nightlife on Saturdays, with packed clubs open ‘til 4 AM. Though we don’t quite manage to close the place down, we hang at Soul Life with blasting Stevie Wonder and Aretha tunes until some wee hour, posing for photos with the locals, who tell Mr. Jinx he looks like Woody Allen and both of us that we’re “real Woodstock Hippies”.  


Of course we have a great time hanging out before and after the shows with our good friend Romy and assorted German, Czech, Italian, UK and other fans.  We go to the Galleon Bar before the show on Saturday to see Simply Dylan, led by singer John O’Connell from Liverpool, doing all Bob covers. It’s a cool bar, with posters of Bob, old blues and jazz guys, the Who and others adorning the walls and ceiling around the disco ball. Lovely conversations and rowdy sing-a-longs with an international array of Bob fans over pints of beer and free ‘crisps’ that the manager hands out since they are a day past the sell-date.  Good times. We discover another local haunt, the Walkabout, run by Aussies and featuring the best food and drinks we’ll find in town, so we return there a few times for dinners and libations. Fairy Wings (“I got a date with some…”), an absinthe floater in a glass of Red Bull, is a favorite of Mr. Jinx; I’m partial to the Bundaberg, basically a Long Island Ice Tea, made with the Australian rum of that name – well, that and four other liquors.


Of course all roads during our time in Blackpool lead to and from the Blackpool Opera House, or Winter Gardens, a quite nice old place with marvelous acoustics to my ears. From wherever we end up – last row in the first balcony, about half way back on the floor, or all the way back on the floor in the last row, behind all the seats so we can stand and dance, the sound is spot on and crisp, with Bob’s vocals nicely up front and a fabulous mix all around. 


London is bursting with Bob when we’re there, with the wonderful Halcyon Gallery (actually two physical spaces across the street from each other) displaying not only Mood Swings, Bob’s ironworks exhibit, but also his Revisionist Art; Gangster Doors, a collection of wall-mounted card doors , each accompanied by a news clip connecting them to a specific gangster, the doors rusted, shattered and shot up (it’s fun to picture Bob creating these, standing back to shoot holes in the finished product!); and three rooms of paintings and prints, including, I am thrilled to see, the original painting of my favorite, Two Sisters, greeting us on the wall as we walk in. There is also Face Value, an exhibit of Bob’s portraits, on display at the National Portrait Gallery and, on the level below, some of Barry Feinstein’s photographs. It is truly a multi-media Bob Dylan extravaganza going on in this city, and it makes planning each day easy – pick an exhibit to go to, then spend what’s left of the day wandering and getting lost in the surrounding neighborhood, finding cool places to drink beer (and sometime absinthe) and eat! Fortunately we wait until our last day, when there is no Bob show, to get truly off-course in our wanderings of these great old streets, walking at least 3 miles out of our way trying to find Euston Tap Room – but even though our feet are killing us and then the place is so small, in an old carriage house, that we first walk past it before we realize we’ve finally arrived and are a bit… skeptical… it is totally worth it! As I’d read, rows and rows of taps with some fantastic, hop-forward choices, unlike much of the beer in England. Our favorite is the wonderful, coincidentally named Thornbridge Halcyon Imperial IPA, with which we happily and repeatedly toast our time in England.


Bob has a darn good show worked out. Heavily weighted with newer material, particularly Tempest, which seems absolutely correct to me. I want to hear the now Bob, sharing with us the most recent tales he’s conjured up.  It’s a wonderful and engaging journey through a range of tempos, textures and shades of Bob. We get waltzes, tangos, marches and shuffles. On any given night, a song will be infused with a dose of humor that wasn’t there the night before, a measure of spookiness that’s been heretofore lacking, or an extra ounce of adrenaline that has Bob barking orders like a drill sergeant. To those who would be inclined to complain that Bob is not switching up the set lists, or even to those who would not complain but feel compelled to ask, “Why?” as if owed some explanation, I say: This is what Bob is doing now. Enjoy the tightness of the performance; behold the particular painting that Bob has chosen to create with these colors, selected from his vast palette; immerse yourself and key in to subtle shifts and differences to be found from night to night. And for those who always feel the need to point out that Bob doesn’t say anything to the audience… now he does, each night before a short break: “Thank you friends! We’re gonna go away for ‘bout 10 or 15 minutes, but then we’ll be right back.”


Stu’s opening guitar riff heralds that things have not changed, as it glides into the intro of the opening song, Things Have Changed.  It’s an upbeat, jaunty way to start a show, which has various undercurrents depending on the night. Bob uses the pauses as well as the lines in this song, messing with the phrasing from night to night. When he’s feeling a bit feisty right out of the gates, or perhaps just in a Socratic mood, he’ll throw in a “Why?!?” after singing, “Don’t get up, gentleman.” It seems only polite to shout back, “I’m only passing through!” The song is often peppered with Bob saying “Uh-yeah!” at various points throughout, and when it’s Spooky Bob there will be long drawn out syllables like, “You can’t win with a looooooooosing hand” and “wheelin’ her down the streeeeeeeeeeeeeet.” And sometimes it’s a chuckle thrown in here and there that signals it’s joker Bob taking the stage tonight.


She Belongs To Me continues to be a staple, this version that is both reverent and slightly ominous, a march and a dirge, more one or the other depending on the night and how Bob wants to play it. First harmonica of the evening comes soaring through, shining and quivering notes that make their way sharp and straight to the heart like an arrow ready to pierce. Like nothing less than the heavens opening up, these sparse yet searing harmonica notes definitely fall into the ‘less is more’ category.


Beyond Here Lies Nothing is a slinky dancing tune, a wild tango, and Bob often gets moving behind the piano on this one. This song is accompanied by lights on the stage backdrop that look like twisting tree branches and vines, suiting the hot jungle rhythm of the song.


What Good Am I is possibly even more breathtakingly beautiful at these shows than when he brought it out a couple tours ago in the US. Bob has mastered the vocals here. There are nights, like the third Blackpool night, that I get chills at Bob’s singing on this one, where he himself seems so moved by the words as he sings them. He lets the ends of lines go with an exhalation, more like he is breathing or sighing than singing, punctuated by plinky-plonk piano accents. I noticed also the version of this song on the third night of Blackpool, Bob reverts to ‘look right through you’ lyrics vs. the newer ‘run right over you,’ or perhaps it’s a hybrid ‘run right through you’.  These are the things you take note of when you see six of ‘the same’ show.


Duquesne Whistle is a lively, upbeat tune with an old-timey feel. Charlie gets some nice soloing room on this one. At the second Albert Hall show which, along with the third Blackpool, was my favorite of the six, Charlie is quite unleashed and the interplay between he and Bob on Duquesne Whistle is fantastic, both attacking their instruments with vigor and creating some enthusiastic interplay.


I could go on and on about Waiting For You.  I am thrilled that Bob has brought out this song. A first for Mr. Jinx but not for me, as I was in attendance at the Brixton shows where Bob played it for the first and second times (as well as hearing a sound-checked version on one very special occasion in 2002). I’m just completely enamored of this song and can’t put my finger on one specific reason. Lines like, ‘it’s the middle of summer and the moon is blue’ are so simple but so steeped in mystery and romance. The most gorgeous and intoxicating of all, ‘the night has a thousand hearts and eyes, hope may vanish but it never dies.’ Just beautiful. I think it’s a perfect song for Bob’s voice now too, kind of understated and lets him caress the lines and sweetly sing. On some nights, Charlie plays some jazzy little licks in between verses. Maybe Bob’s feeling amorous the second night of Blackpool because he makes a subtle lyrical change with, “Well it’s been so long, since we held each other tight, it’s been so long, since we kissed goodnight.”  Fragments of this song stick in my head long after each show and I find them rolling round and round in my dreams all night long, and I wake up singing it each day.


Pay in Blood. When I saw my first versions of this song Bob was at the grand piano; now he does it center stage sans instrument and the result is that it seems a completely different animal. I guess the arrangement other than the lack of piano is more or less the same, but it somehow has a much starker and apocalyptic feel that really suits the song. There are some lyrical changes from the album version, including, “Life is short, it don’t take long, they’ll hang you in the morning and sing you a song.” A potent dose of modern Bob at his best!


Coming where it does in the set, right after an intense performance of Pay in Blood that is hurled in our faces, I think of Tangled up in Blue as playing the role of comforting old friend.  A breather, a respite from the intensity, a brief come-down.  But lest it seem too familiar, the lyrics have been shaken up. For the past year and more we’ve been watching Tangled take on new lyrics in combination with lyrics from various incarnations from the past, and it’s been fun!  Here are the latest new lyrics:


She lit a burner on the stove

Then she swept away the dust

You look like somebody that I used to know, she said

You look like somebody I used to trust.

Then she opened up a book of poems

And she said to me, “Just so you know

Memorize these lines

And remember these rhymes

As you’re out there walking to and fro.


Now I’m going on back again

I got to get to them somehow

Yesterday is dead and gone

And tomorrow might as well be now.

Some of them went up on the mountain

And some of them went down in the ground.

Some of their names are written in flames

And some of them, well, they just left town.

Me I’m still on the road

I’m trying to stay out of the joint

We always felt the same

Dee-pending on your point of view

Tangled up in blue!


Then it’s back to Bob stalking center stage with Lovesick, another song that takes on a downright spooky intensity and always features interesting and varied phrasing from night to night.  


It’s a bit disorienting at first having Bob take an intermission because I’m not used to it. But what the heck, it’s a good time to make a break for the bathroom and, if you’re at the Royal Albert Hall, run to the bar to procure a couple more glasses of champagne served in real glass flutes – no plastic concert cups here! I enjoy the down time provided by the break just to take in the experience of being at the Albert Hall especially; it is as incredible a place as I imagined it to be inside, and more. Lush, opulent and gilded, like being inside of a giant tiered cake – red velvet, of course! Our seats go down a level closer each of the three nights, but I think I like where we are night two the best, in the Circle boxes which have just 4 seats in them, and we are the front two seats.  If I have to sit during a concert, let me be sitting in a plush chair with not only a cushioned bottom but cushioned arm rests as well! And honestly, this is not a place to stand up and dance, as the railing only comes up to about my knees and I get some serious vertigo just sliding into my chair. We’re just a bit shy of half way around the circle and one of the other occupants of our box points out that we are in fact positioned right above the Royal Box in the Grand Tier below; we can lean over the edge (dizzying) and see the crown insignia indicating that is indeed where the Royals would go, should they be in attendance.


Stu kicks us off for set two with opening chords that are joined by Donnie on banjo and it’s into High Water, a rowdy rocker with fiery harmonica and a false ending or two to make sure the crowd is paying attention.


Simple Twist of Fate is unfailingly gorgeous each and every night, one of my favorite points of the show. Surely in my top 5 favorite songs, and did I ever think I’d be so lucky to hear it at six shows in a row? The way that Bob says, “I must have been born too late,” with a resignation that is both matter-of-fact and endlessly sad, gets me to the core every night. To me, hearing the phrasing of this line epitomizes what a master singer Bob is, that he can be so understated yet convey so much with a single line. 


I’ve started to think of Early Roman Kings like Honest with Me, in terms of the role it takes in the show nowadays. A song full of swagger that lets Bob be his bad-ass self to the max. I like yelling out in agreement and approval when he sings, “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings!” Ding Dong, Daddy!


One of the starkest changes from one song to the next in the show comes with Forgetful Heart out of Early Roman Kings. It’s a credit to the UK audiences or perhaps to just the mesmerizing quality of the performance that most nights you could hear the proverbial pin drop during this song. The violin, the soft harmonica, Bob’s voice – it all blends perfectly and you can just feel everyone in the room hanging on each moment.


Spirit on the Water: the pleasant and fun surprise of the show, in that for whatever reason, especially at the RAH shows, it’s a highlight of each night and the audience really gets into it. I’ve always loved Spirit, and have called it my favorite song on Modern Times. I’ve always felt it’s very personal, Bob singing in his own voice about his own stuff vs. taking on a persona or different point of view like in many other songs. I always imagine him riding on his tour bus looking at the window during the lines, “I’m travelin’ by land, travelin’ through the dawn of the day; you’re always on my mind, I can’t stay away…” Anyway, those London audiences loved it too, and we saw some spectacular and, shall I say, spirited versions of this song! I’ve mentioned the middle night at the RAH as one of my favorites, and it’s because Bob was in a spunky mood this evening. It’s one of those nights that I hear laughter lurking around the edges and just behind much of Bob’s phrasing, like he’s got a great joke going on in his head.  From the opening song Things Have Changed Bob was chuckling in between lines, he had some fantastic back and forth with Charlie on Duquesne and was really hopping around behind the piano, and his feistiness peaked during Sprit on the Water, with several outbursts in between sung lines. The first: “I’d forgotten ‘bout you… How COULD I?!?” Followed by a chuckle, Bob cracking himself up. And a bit later: “Sometimes I wonder, why you can’t treat me right” and followed immediately by an anguished cry “OH!” Perhaps Bob’s own antics throughout this number inspire the audience to respond more than I’ve heard to this song in a long time, particularly during the part that begs for a reply: “You think I’m over the hill, you think I’m past my prime?” He gets a hearty chorus of “Nooooo!” from the otherwise quiet audience.


Scarlet Town starts and the people sway. There’s a nice and natural transition into this song from the last, sliding from the lightness of Spirit on the Water to a song steeped in mysterious imagery and populated by shadowy characters. I love this one for almost the opposite reasons that I love Spirit on the Water. Whereas I think of Spirit as a window into Bob and like evolving from notes that he might jot down and turn into a song, Scarlet Town seems to come from somewhere else entirely, a haunted past that’s not easy to pin down.  Nice piano plunking from Bob and nuanced replies from Charlie add to the mood of the song.


Soon After Midnight is a brilliant song. It’s got a ‘Teen Angel’ or ‘Beauty School Drop Out” kind of feel to it, accompanied appropriately by a stage background lit up like twinkling stars, but it’s totally updated, as Bob is always able to do with his songs that are in an old-timey genre yet somehow completely modern and like nothing anyone before him has ever written.  It’s got lines that are hilarious in an understated way, like ‘A gal named Honey took my money,” followed by lines that are completely disturbing, yet the goriness of them slips by almost unnoticed, swathed as they are in the lightness and innocence of the music: I’ve been down on the killing floors; they’re lying there dying there in their blood… I’ll drag his corpse through the mud. You’re wrapped up in the sweet melody and then you’re like… wait, what? It’s brilliant. Confounding in the way only Bob can be.


Long and Wasted Years. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the first set list from this tour and Bob was playing THIS, my favorite song off Tempest and one that seemed rather unlikely to ever take on a life in live performance. I was secretly fretting that it would be dropped from the set list before England. It is always a rush and a thrill to hear Bob do a song live for my first time, and that thrill didn’t really subside for me on the consecutive five times either! What an amazing song to close the show, what an astonishing performance each night. Words can’t really capture it. You get the feeling Bob’s really giving us a piece of his mind here, the way he shouts the words at us. It is funny, too, like most of Bob’s songs are at some point.  Again I’ll refer to night two of the RAH, because I swear Bob is chuckling to himself as he begins, “It’s been such a long, long time, since we loved each other and our hearts were true, a-ONE time, for one brief day, I was the man for you.” He seems to speak these words very directly to his audience, with a laugh under his breath, as if referring to his relationship with fickle fans, or at least fans who want him to be a certain way.  I’m sure this is just me thinking stuff, but it was an entertaining interpretation for me at that moment.


And then, the encores. There’s All Along the Watchtower which is, you know, what it is. Bob is obviously attached to this song and people like it. You and I, we’ve been through that. It’s worth repeating and provides a final chance for the audience to shake its collective booty; unless you’re in the Royal Albert Hall, in which case you keep your booty on the plush and comfy seat, just bouncing a bit. Blowing in the Wind assumes a stately and reflective demeanor, particularly, for me, as the last song of the last night at the RAH. It’s one of those moments in life when I’m able to intensely feel where I am in both time and space. I’m listening and looking around and taking it all in – the sweeping grace of the Royal Albert Hall, the rapt audience, the majestic beauty in both Bob’s voice and harmonica playing, the historic feel to it all as we wind up Bob’s most recent visit to this stage. The champagne, along with the other little gifts we picked up along the way and imbibed tonight, augments the intensity, and I float in one long moment. On the other end of the spectrum, on Bob’s feisty and silly middle night of the RAH run, he gives a reading of this song I haven’t heard before: “How many times must some guy look up before he can see the sky?” Mr. Jinx and I look at each other in surprise and crack up. Really? That kind of takes the stateliness of the song down a notch. You just never know with Bob. These ‘identical’ shows can actually be so different!


On two of the six nights we have the privilege of hearing Roll On John as the final song, for the first and second times ever played. We’ve been… expecting it? For sure in Blackpool everyone’s been talking about it and predicting the likelihood of the debut, being so close to Liverpool and all. I was definitely leaning toward believing it would happen and when it did, it was just awesome, a bit surreal, and emotionally huge.  Reverently Sung, Bob near-whispering words, sounding sad.


Both nights, Bob changes a lyric in one verse:


I heard the news today, oh boy

They hung a wreath upon your door

Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy

They hauled your ship up on the shore

(in London Bob sang, they put a wreath upon your door)


And these verses were omitted:


Put on your bags and get em packed.

Leave right now you won’t be far from wrong.

The sooner you go, the quicker you'll be back

You've been cooped up on an island far too long


Roll on John, roll through the rain and snow

Take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam

They'll trap you in an ambush before you know

Too late now to sail back home


The Royal Albert Hall crowd seems more understanding and in the moment with the song, with everyone cheering at each repeated utterance of “Roll On, John.”  Bob sang it brilliantly each night but somehow the full emotion of it really hit me solidly at the Royal Albert Hall. The way Bob sings, “Come together right now oooooover me” and holds that note so long, as if not wanting to let it go. I think maybe because it was my second time hearing it that I was able to just relax and be a bit more fully present than when listening in Blackpool – where my listening was accompanied by that inevitable ‘holy shit’ feeling of hearing a song for its very first time ever. Or maybe in London, also accompanied by the awe of being inside the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, way up there in the ‘cheap seats,’ gave the whole experience an even bigger emotional wallop, goose bumps up and down my arms and tears in my eye. There’s a hush when it ends, felt inside even as people cheer, a holy hush that follows us as out into the darkened streets.



The Galleon Bar in Blackpool
Disco Bob on the Celing, Galleon Bar
Me n Mr. Jinx outside the Winter Gardens after the show
Mood Swings at the Halcyon Gallery in London
Mood Swings truck
Mr. Jinx going to check out some more Bob art
Royal Albert Hall
Me at Royal Albert Hall
Crown indicating the Royal Box, just below us
Mr. Jinx meets the Mad Butcher of Brompton Street
More cheers to Bob and the Royal Albert Hall!