Sunday, 13 November 2011

Things Have Changed ~ Bob Dylan in Florence

Bob Dylan Nelson Mandela Forum, Firenze 11th November 2011.

Anticipation heightened after my sister pronounced the Nottingham, England gig "bloody brilliant". A Dylan afficianado from an early age, she's not an uncritical fan. I remember her take on an early 90s gig, "chronic" - the Black Country equivalent of pretty awful. Dylan on a bad night can be like watching a car crash in slo-mo, but on a good night he can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. So which Dylan did we get?

Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat opened the proceedings. Stripped of sardonic humour, reduced to a bar-room boogie warm up and not even bothering to bark the title line - clearly, he was phoning it in. Muted applause followed and the twenty-something Italians around me, here to witness a legend, scratched their heads. Next up Girl From The North Country was executed (in both senses!) at a brisk pace ill-suited to the sentiments. Seemingly unable to carry the melody, Dylan spoke the lyric and still managed to sound like a seal with laryngitis. Mark Knopfler's incongruously crunchy Les Paul meanderings were like taking a machete to marshmallow. Oh dear.

Then, just as things were about to tip into the realm of 'chronic' something happened. Things Have Changed - and from this point they literally did. Sans guitar, centre stage and displaying a vocal range nowhere in evidence on the first two songs, Dylan rose like Lazarus from the dead and I kid you not - began to dance. He crouched, almost knelt and, sent assertive, sustained, piercing harmonica assaults reverberating around the cavernous venue. I've never seen Dylan so manically animated, so wild-eyed in his delivery. The peanut crunching crowd were brought to attention.

From this point Dylan took control and rolled out a whole repertoire of tricks that define 'dylanesque'. Tricks of phrasing and timing and improvised lyric variations like the “doctors and lawyers wives” that tonight replace the “carpenters wives” in Tangled Up In Blue and somehow ring truer as “all the people I used to know”. Sorry, they bring out the Dylan anorak in me! Again the harmonica breaks were a delight, audacious, melodious and spine tingling.

Best of the evening was Forgetful Heart which began with a solo plaintive harmonica from Dylan with his back to the audience conducting his ensemble as each instrumentalist joined until a melody slowly gathered itself together. Against a mournful double bass, bowed skilfully by Tony Garnier, Dylan sang – really sang – his heart out and played the best harmonica solos I've ever heard him play. In a sort of musical deliquescence each instrumentalist faded out leaving Dylan alone with the harmonica which gradually retreated until the song disappeared like smoke. A magical goose bump moment.

Occasionally there were some pedestrian moments. I could've done without the twelve bar stodge of Highway 61 Revisited, Thunder On The Mountain and the egregiously long Levees Gonna Break. On the latter Dylan compounded the error with unremittingly dull instrumental breaks – endless repetition of the same musical figure on the carnival organ. Like the worst jazz jamming, it might be interesting for the musicians, but it signals refreshment time for the listener. I don't object to the carnival organ per se as some do. It was entirely appropriate to Desolation Row with its cast of freak circus characters. It was almost a complete version too. Only Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, the fishermen with flowers and the calypso dancers were given the night off. Vocally it was terrific with Bob vacillating with ease between the high nasal whine at the start of lines going down to a sonorous bass at the end.

Towards the end Ballad of A Thin Man was a tour de force a demonstration of dylanesque phrasing and timing sui generis. The “tax deeeeductable cha-ri-teeee ooorganisaaation” of the middle eight stretched phonemes out like bubblegum across several bars of music. Dylan grinning with delight strutted around the stage with one hand waving free and the mic in the other. In his black suit and black hat I half expected Ginger Rodgers to come out. Even that old curmudgeon Larry Adler would've loved Dylan's harmonica on this one.

All Along The Watchtower and Like A Rolling Stone wrapped up the show – crowd-pleasers for the casual attendee.

“The poet laureate of rock'n'roll, the man who forced folk into bed with rock, the voice of the sixties counter-culture who disappeared into a haze of substance abuse and emerged to find Jesus, who was written off as a has been in the eighties and shifted gears in the nineties....” This was the announcement heralding his arrival on stage. Sardonically delivered cliches from newspaper cuttings - but they do show how many different things Dylan means to people. He called himself a song and dance man whose songs were “exercises in tonal breath control”. Tonights exercises were pretty good.


  1. November 2011 at 11:29

    " Pretty Good " !! were we at the same venue ? Bob was on top form, I & my two friends travelled from england to see him & share a little florentine culture , we were right at the front , three 60 something ladies and had a ball with bob smiling and nodding at our antics we call dancing, he was dancing & hand on hip stancing.It was one of the best Bob nights in years all the young Italians surrounding us loved him and his voice sounded great!where were you ?? It was a fabulous gig!

  2. I was stage left about 5 metres from the front... and I agree it was a cracking concert with Bob more focused than I've seen since 2002. I thought it was a fair review. There was an over-abundance of 12 bar blues with the same texture. Status Quo have an audience, so somebody likes them but I found them tedious. Forgetful Heart alone was worth admission price.