For a while at the tail end of the 90s/beginning of the 00s, Bob Dylan went through a wee phase of revisiting his religious period. Not in the full-on way he had done with the ‘Christian Trilogy’ of Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love 20 years previously, a trio of albums packed full of religious imagery, the odd gospel arrangement and a complete and utter declaration of faith. Bob likes to wrongfoot his audience, so in a career that had thus far packed in blues and folk, electric guitars and drugs, motorcycle crashes and stream-of-conscience novels, Mick Ronson and panstick make-up, turning to the power of the Lord was as good a move as any.
After several years in the wilderness (the leather gloves and top hat combo while wandering around Camden like some sort of Dickensian pied piper for all and sundry being the zenith of that particular phase), he kick-started his return to relevance with his Never-Ending Tour, a tour that still zig-zags across the planet to this very day. As a way of hitting the ground running, he’d often start these shows with a giddy run-through of an old Christian foot stomper. Short and sharp, they often wrong-footed the audience (again) who maybe expected a Maggie’s Farm or Dignity as the opener. They also served as a sort of second sound-check; as any sound engineer will tell you, the sound in a room changes dramatically once the audience are in. That wee two minute skip through at the start provided the engineer one last chance, as Depeche Mode might say, to get the balance right.
One such nugget he often kicked off with was his frantically scrubbed take on the Stanley Brothers ‘Somebody Touched Me‘.
Bob Dylan – Somebody Touched Me (live, Portsmouth, England, Sept. 24th 2000)
Tight and taut, the song gives Bob maximum mic time. His band stretch their backing vocals for all they’re worth with ragged yet righteous harmonies. There’s a couple of wee breaks in between the verses for the band to break loose like Led Zeppelin III gone country, while the engineer, fingers hovering over faders and switches, fine-tuned the mix. By the time of the second last verse in the version above, Bob is audibly breathless, high on the music and running at full pelt just to keep up with the backing band.
Having witnessed Bob in concert around this time, I can practically see his wee tip of the hat to the audience and the twinkle in his eye as he shouts ‘Thangyew!’ at the end, with an audible smile in his voice, ready to lead his band into the heavyweight double whammy of To Ramona and Visions Of Johanna, two guaranteed crowd pleasers.
Bob in 2001, his Oscar perched atop the amp on the right.
That wee Oscar went everywhere with him for a while.
Lazy writers will often go on about Bob’s songs being indecipherable until, like, the last verse, or they’ll snort that they didn’t even know he’d played Mr Tambourine Man until they got talking to a knowledgeable Bobcat on the train home afterwards. Rubbish!
He may play games with the arrangements and phrasing, but his voice is as clear as it ever was. He e-nun-ci-ates perfectly. Anyone who tells you his songs are unrecognisable in concert is a moron, plain and simple.
He’s due back on these shores in a few months time. Whether I go or not remains to be seen; the last couple of times I’ve been to see him I felt he was a wee bit mechanical in places and going through the motions. Much of the night, it could’ve been any pick-up barroom band that was being let loose on one of the greatest canons in popular music, Bob stuck stage left and standing behind his keyboard like a Thunderbirds puppet hanging from invisible strings, but there were still flashes of undeniable brilliance to suggest he still has it. It’s those wee flashes that keep us hoping he’ll pull another cracker out the bag, as he did at the Barrowlands in 2004, my favourite Bob show of all.
There’s also, morbidly, a faint chance that the next time may be the last time he plays. And you wouldn’t want to miss that. Just like the tour though, I hope ol’ Bob is never-ending.