Limerick’s Thomond Park is a magnificent setting for a concert. With the sizable festival stage dwarfed by the twin arched stands and flanked by a colourful flags shipped in for the occasion, this is a great spot for a singular Bob Dylan Irish show for 2010. Before the living legend rolls back the years, though, we’re treated to an entire mini festival of support acts.
Alabama 3 are on stage when State strolls in amid a mid-afternoon burst of sunlight, and well-suited they are, too. Larry Love’s having it large down the front, hopping from foot to foot and blasting out his soulful witticisms next to The Reverend’s spoken-word blues. -Vietnamistan’ – from their latest -Revolver Soul’ – is a clear stand out, a single that cleverly references -Country Joe and the Fish’ in paralleling one of their many 60s anti-war efforts and redirecting it at Afghanistan. Still, in the most part, the Londoners sound smooth but fail to really connect with the crowd.
Seasick Steve – who has to be one of the most interesting back stories in modern music – could connect with a crowd just by sitting and swigging a bottle of screw-top wine. The former homeless, busking storyteller from California has lived the kind of colourful life most of us can only dream of: befriending Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain and (slightly) more recently producing some of Modest Mouse’s finest work. Steve’s blues-rock is littered with sidesplitting lyrics, and sounds remarkably crisp for music produced largely on a guitar made from two hubcaps and a broomstick, or a homemade, battered stringed-up piece of two by four. Witty, offbeat and performing like a man who’s genuinely overjoyed to be there at all, Steve is a comic and unbridled pleasure.
David Gray, though, sends half the crowd back to sleep. Midway through the Englishman’s set it’s clear the frustration is building, when he pops his head up over the piano parapet and tries to swear his way into waking up -the West of Ireland’. Those White Ladder tracks are still by far the stand outs and none of his other material even edges into the territory of -Babylon’, -Sail Away’, -This Year’s Love’ and -Please Forgive Me’. There can’t be many gig-going souls with any interest in David Gray who haven’t seen these tracks several times over the past dozen years, and the show – from Gray’s odd head-shaking tick to the Babylon-sing-along finale – is all very stale these days.
There’s little danger of Bob Dylan‘s material getting stale, though, and whilst the singer’s live reputation precedes him (though not, perhaps, in a sense that he’d particularly like), this is certainly not a man whose music is in any danger of losing its charm. Stepping out from the floodlights after a quaint extract intro from Jack Kerouac’s -The Road’, Dylan is dressed in a dapper black ensemble, and backed by the same tan-suited band that he rarely leaves these days.
It takes all of half a song to realise where Bob’s detractors get their ideas from: there’s no doubting that his voice is a gravelly, bordering on croaking version of the one that wowed the world on his seminal 60s and 70s albums. That’s something that’s been taken into account on his newer material, which fits well with the style that Bob’s undoubtedly been pushed into adopting. Tracks from the newest of his incredible 46 albums feature heavily, with the likes of -Jolene’ and -Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ offering more comfortable vocal peaks.
In many ways, a lot of respect is due to a man who so pointedly refuses to rest on his laurels. Bob very rarely performs a straight up version of his classics, and his newer songs are delivered with a self-belief and strength of poetic song writing that pulls him a million miles from the -strum and hum’ tours many of his older compatriots routinely roll out in the new century. While he regularly misses the mark, Bob’s songs are living, breathing beasts that change depending on his mood. His set list – often noted for included no more than a couple of his real mega-hits – is similarly elastic.
The classics are what many of the fans are here for, though, and we’re given a decent selection, with Highway 61 Revisited featuring particularly heavily. -Just Like A Woman’ offers a high point, and has the entire standing area indulging in a rapturous sing-along (far from the only part of the night during which the crowd compensates for Dylan’s weaknesses extremely effectively). At the other extreme, -Lay Lady Lay’ is unrecognisable and throaty to the point that it takes until the middle of the first chorus for State to clock it. Closer -Blowin’ In The Wind’ is equally poor, performed in the form of a vocal splurge over the top of some oddly unrecognizable chords.
In truth, to expect anything else from Dylan these days would be highly naÃ¯ve. Even when an imbecile at the back of the crowd starts shining a laser-pen into his eyes during the last few tracks, Bob never addresses the crowd. If anything guitarist and close friend Charlie Sexton is the defacto front man, despite spending much of the set knelt in front of Bob and having to walk to the edge of the stage every time he wants to press a guitar pedal.
The highs and lows come and go, and when traditional closer -Like A Rolling Stone’ is thrown in just a few songs early we all get our Dylan memory, and the variable quality of his 130 minute performance seems somehow beyond the point. Vocally, Bob would arguably be outperformed by many of his substantial legion of cover bands (State, despite only vaguely knowing our way round a guitar, could probably have surpassed his rendition of -Blowin’ In The Wind’ tonight), but there can’t be more than a handful of songwriters who even get close to this kind of poetic lyrical beauty. What Dylan’s lost over the years, his loyal crowd has compensated for. While Dylan’s peak is so far behind us that you’d struggle to spot it across a large open plain, inside Thomond Park tonight, there aren’t many who don’t love him despite of it.