Sunday, 4 July 2010

Review: Bob Dylan at Hop Farm Festival

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Here's a bit of a feature about my six hours spent at the Hop Farm Festival yesterday. There's some stuff about Ray Davies, Mumford & Sons and Seasick Steve, but the accent is on Bob Dylan. If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, I'm sunk.



In a fug of weed smoke, in the baking heat, where water was like gold dust, festival bonhomie was in short supply. But some of the music was sensational.

We came down for the day, skipping the early acts to catch up on sleep and fill up on water. Delicious, delicious water.

To us, this is a Bob Dylan gig, with a couple of support acts. Our shuttle bus from Paddock Wood station zooms into Hop Farm just as promoter Vince Power is welcoming Seasick Steve to the stage. Clip – fluorescent wristband on. And in we go...

On our right is a massive stage, watched by 15,000 people – stood, sprawled or else sunbathing on tatty-looking blankets. Almost everyone is stripped down to the bare essentials. Nearby, a village of portable toilets start to quietly hum. The periphery of the field is wall-to-wall stalls. We go to investigate and to get veggie burgers, soundtracked by Seasick Steve’s boogieing, fast-fingered blues – a fun intro.

***

Then the crowd parts and we get in, 25 rows back for Mumford & Sons. The rest of the newsdesk has been raving about them, but I’ve gone under-prepared, having heard just two of their songs.

They’re pretty good: nice tunes, odd syncopations and an air of ecstasy that they are on this bill at all. “Does anyone else think this is the best line-up of the summer?” enquires singer Marcus Mumford. Naturally, it’s got Bob Dylan on it, and some other people. Keyboardist Ben Lovett is similarly wide-eyed: “What have we done to deserve this?” he asks. “We’ve fooled them all.” Their 'slow sensitive bit/fast with odd rhythms' formula never gets tired – at least in this hour-long set – even if they’re ultimately upstaged by a pair of boobs. That big-screen flasher elicits laughs and applause, and temporarily throws the band off their stride. During the same song, Seasick Steve distracts the sun-addled crowd by poking his head out from the wings. “What were you laughing at?” asks Lovett. “Steve!” shout some people. “Cheese?” he asks. “Titties!” yell some others. “Everybody likes those,” Lovett acknowledges. It's a good set, with Marcus a compelling, impassioned frontman and the four-strong band displaying strong interplay and chemistry, lined up as they are across the stage. The title-track of their 2009 record, Sigh No More, goes down particularly well.

***

A few people disappear and we edge forward. A loo break takes half-an-hour, when you factor in the queues and having to negotiate the labyrinthine, tightly-packed crowd. I’ve just about given up hope of finding my girlfriend or ever seeing my home or family again when I hear shouts from my left. Ah, there's the girl I came with, in a white sun hat. Hurray.

Seconds later, Ray Davies takes to the stage and a guy in front of me threatens to punch out an equally bad-tempered chap, who’s been trying to shove in. That epitomises the easy-going atmosphere, not dissimilar to a pressure-cooker. “Welcome to Hop Farm Festival. Peace and love. Now get your head out of the way, or I'll thump you, I’m trying to see Ray.”

The former Kinks frontman and songwriter delivers a varied set that ignores the previously-maligned Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur – now being reappraised as his masterpieces – providing instead a mixture of ‘60s and '70s hits (You Really Got Me - as great as ever - backed up by Dedicated Follower of Fashion, All Day and All of the Night, Sunny Afternoon, Low Budget and the cod-Caribbean Apeman) and recent tracks (The Tourist and the anti-American Vietnam Cowboys), along with the odd nondescript rocker. I like the fey, headily-English Ray Davies, who didn’t seem to care what anybody thought of him as he peddled an idiosyncratic, individualistic furrow. Conversely, the Ray Davies we get here tells us he’s “sex-crazed, ha ha ha” before spraying beer all over the stage. Well good for him.

He also delivers an apparent broadside at Dylan, suggesting the headliner lives in a “gated community” and starts slagging off Vince Power for being “rude” – after he’s asked to leave the stage early. Davies quickly backtracks in sheepish fashion, dedicating a song to the organisers of the festival and saying that he hopes it will “go on forever”, a theme he returns to later. He adds that he used to pick hops as a boy, prompting some 18-year-old girl in the audience to start patronising the 66-year-old borderline genius. “Aaaaah,” she coos.

His (shortened) set is good, with one moment of utter greatness, a near-definitive version of the wistful, wonderful Days that carries us all away. Davies ends with Lola, though the contention that he’s “not the world’s most physical guy” is at odds with his pumped, surprisingly muscular performance.

***

A 20-minute wait (including more screenings of the most typo-ridden Powerpoint presentation in living memory: “AFTER BOB’S BE ON WHATS THE HURRY”, “ITS HOT IS SUNNY ITS FUNNY”…), then the main attraction appears.

Dressed in white cowboy hat, grey suit, sparkly pink shirt and pink bow-tie, trailing his smartly-dressed band, the titular wizard Bob Dylan strolls onto the stage. This is the fifth time I’ve seen him over the past eight years and every one - to differing degrees - has been a joy, with the two Sheffield shows (2007 and 2009) standing out as being among the most memorable concerts I’ve attended. If this gig can’t consistently scale those heights – and is three or four songs lighter than a standard Dylan show – it has some glorious moments, and it’s great fun to see Bob outdoors, singing direct to the crowd and grinning as – despite his best efforts - Like a Rolling Stone becomes a mass sing-along.

Before we begin, let’s first acknowledge a fact and explode a myth. The fact: Dylan doesn’t talk to the crowd, except to introduce the band. Don’t like it? Then go see someone else, or affect a Dylan voice and talk to yourself. As for the myth: I heard a festival-goer on the train back saying the guy can’t sing, or never could. Well there isn’t anyone one earth who can sing a Dylan song like Dylan, and from his eponymous 1962 record to Modern Times, taking in such differing material as The Times They Are A-Changin’, Blonde on Blonde and Good As I Been to You, his back catalogue is littered with stunning vocal performances. He has a one-of-a-kind voice and it’s among the most distinctive, singular and important within the whole spectrum of popular music. He doesn't sound as he did in 1966, but his changing musical style, along with chain-smoking, playing around 100 gigs a year and the fact he's now 69 (rather than 25) will have that effect. Following four stages that we can roughly classify as folk/rock/post-'accident'/bleating, he has entered a weathered fifth that I think's pretty damn great, defined by economical phrasing and the odd broken growl. That's how he's sounded for a good 10 years now.

He kicks off with a knowing Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35, its central refrain of “everybody must get stoned” serving to further encourage that guy with messy auburn hair who’s chain-smoking weed directly into my face. Dylan strung the song out (pun intended) to 25 minutes in Manchester in 2002. Here it’s done in seven. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – is given a faithful (albeit electric) reading, as is Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, the vocals somewhat drowned out by the band. Three of the first four numbers are from Blonde on Blonde and Bob seems to enjoy everyone joining in with Just Like a Woman, though they give it a touch more welly than he does, before he marches through a fairly functional Honest With Me.

It isn’t until Dylan delves into his seminal break-up album, 1974’s Blood on the Tracks, that the concert really catches fire. His touching take on Simple Twist of Fate signals – perhaps a little belatedly – that Bob has brought his A-game, though it’s what happens next that’s truly exciting. High Water (For Charley Patton), perhaps the key track on Love and Theft, is simply breathtaking – approaching the classic live version on Tell Tale Signs. It’s punchy, despairing and comical in turn, like a monochrome Depression-era disaster movie, its diverse vignettes playing out as the flood levels rise. It comes complete with Dylan mugging to his band as he implores a boat’s passengers to throw their panties overboard.

It's the highlight of the gig, along with the follow-up track, Blind Willie McTell. The version left off 1983’s Infidels and finally released eight years later on The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 is a peerlessly atmospheric, dystopian fusion of nostalgia and bitter observation as Dylan wanders the haunts of the old bluesman, imagining plantations on fire as the spectre of slavery tempers the crumbling grandeur and sensory overload of the Deep South. He said the song hadn’t turned out as he wanted. It turns out that what he wanted was the simpler blues the song has now evolved (devolved?) into, its chorus of “And I know no-one/Can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell’ adapted into the less poetic though admittedly rhyming: “And I’ll tell you one thing/Nobody can sing/The blues like/Blind Willie McTell”. It sounds fantastic: regretful, respectful, tender; justifying that howl of delight I let loose as the opening line rang out.

It’s followed by a decent Highway 61 Revisited – not the ebullient, organ-led stomper that even Dylan began dancing to at Sheffield ’09, but pretty fun. After that there’s a fine, plaintive reading of Workingman’s Blues #2, a song presumably inspired by Dylan’s upbringing in a mining town featuring the memorable pay-off line “some people never worked a day in their lives”, which I’ve always considered might be self-critical. Thunder on the Mountain, formerly a staple of the singer’s encores, is now a feature of the main set. It’s an unexceptional version, though lit – as ever – by the lyric’s amusing preoccupation with Alicia Keys. He follows it with a blast from the past, a laid-back reading of the excoriating Highway 61 Revisited album track Ballad of a Thin Man, memorable as the penultimate howl of his 1966 tour, a warm-up for the paint-stripping Like a Rolling Stone. It leads into that song here too – albeit with a brief pause – as Dylan exits, then returns almost immediately for a two-song encore.

Despite Bob’s staccato singing of his most popular song, which borders on the conversational, the crowd – fingers pointing stagewards – stick doggedly, loudly to the original version, adamant that this is going to be the defining moment of the festival. I’d go for that guy threatening to deck that other guy, but it’s a close one. There’s time for an introduction to the band, followed by just one more song, and it isn’t the one with which he finishes every gig, All Along the Watchtower. Instead, it’s Forever Young. “May God bless and keep you always...,” Dylan begins. “Oh no way,” says a guy a short distance away, shaking his head in awe. A few people who’ve apparently wandered in from an Elton John gig get their lighters out, as Bob opts for a timeless reading of the set-closer, written for his son Jakob. It’s a bit of a mawkish song, but no matter how much I tell myself that, it still speaks to me – and to just about everyone else here. A Chinese lantern sails through the sky and Bob comes to stage front, taking a bow with the band. “More,” we humbly suggest, but the great man has gone - and the mis-spelt Power Po!nt be returnd.

We all file out, walking along the main road in the pitch black to Paddock Wood station. And I go home, tucked up in a hotel bed by 1.30am. I'm not really the festival type.

***

Setlist for Bob Dylan:

1. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
3. Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
4. Just Like a Woman
5. Honest With Me
6. Simple Twist of Fate
7. High Water (For Charley Patton)
8. Blind Willie McTell
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Workingman's Blues #2
11. Thunder on the Mountain
12. Ballad of a Thin Man
Encore:
13. Like a Rolling Stone
14. Forever Young
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To read about the definitive Dylan documentary, directed by Martin Scorsese, please clicky here.

16 comments:

  1. Excellent review -- summed up the day really well. Many thanks :)

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  2. :D The typoful (it IS a word if I say so) power point made me laugh. Aside from the heat (and I suppose we'd have complained if it was cold or had rained), it was a brilliant day, with an amazing line up, and despite having read other reviews elsewhere online slating Bob's performance (not to mention overhearing the couple standing behind us who seemed practically on the verge of a break up because of their differing opinions on it), I thought he was fantastic. I saw him for the first time not long ago at the NIA, and, for all my starstruckedness, I must admit I was a little disappointed then. Part of that I think was bad acoustics, and being on the second row from the back, but I did feel that the performance then was much more self-indulgent. Even the more well-known songs he did play were virtually unrecognisable as such. If I'm honest, I wasn't expecting much more this time, but in fact he blew me away. Partly, perhaps, he just works much better in a festival environment, but I think there was much more than that. It was a great choice of songs. My boyfriend and I were especially excited to hear Blind Willie McTell - wonderful stuff. I think he also talked more to the crowd in his slot last night than he did in the whole set when I saw him before. And without wanting to dwell on the technical and away from what was down to Bob himself, the sound levels were so much better - I could hear everything he was singing! Hurrah! We did wonder if for that we had partly to thank Ray Davies' cantankerousness - he seemed to be telling the soundy people off a lot (sounding off, as it were) and sorting it out (it was definitely more difficult to hear stuff before him, except for Pete Doherty, who you could hear because he didn't have a band, see below).

    Sad for you though, it sounds like you missed Peter Doherty, who was also wonderful. He came out completely solo - just himself and a guitar, and still managed to carry it - I'd say he performed equally as well as the last two acts, and I was just as excited to see him. Like Ray, he picked a good mix of earlier and later stuff, some from his old bands and some solo work, and like Bob, he was on much better form and played the crowd a lot more than I would have expected.

    All in all, having been there from pretty early on, it was a fantastic day, and I wish I'd been able to go on the Friday too. I am super glad I got to see Bob on top form (when I went to see him the first time, I didn't expect to be doing it again so soon). I even liked the crowd more than at any other festival I've been to. You mention a few people getting fighty in the heat, but I'm used to bottles, feeling like you might be crushed all the time, fists out for the hell of it, and half the people not actually even seeming to even be there for the music....comparatively, everything just seemed lovely there and I was able to float around feeling hippieish in my fairy wings and sit/lie on the ground without fear of either me or them being trampled on or squished. There was a good mix of people, but most seemed to genuinely care about the bands. The only thing that was pretty irritating was the prices, especially the drinks, but hey - we felt like we cheated the system a bit: those cups that they were obviously banking on people not taking back and reclaiming the deposit for? We returned them, by going up in the break to buy our drinks, getting straight back in the queue and finishing them off just as we got back to the bar. Win.

    Good to see another positive review of the performance anyway.

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  3. Great review. I had a fantastic day with my parents, it was the first time i had seen Bob and i thoroughly enjoyed it. It had a great line up, Pete Doherty was entertaining with his Chaz and Dave 'When you go hoppin down in Kent'
    The only let downs were the very poor organisation compared to other festivals. I admire that Vince has tried to leave the corporate sponsorship out of it, but it really felt like it needed the big boys running the bars properly, at least that way I may have caught some of Johnny Flynn rather than spending an hour waiting for a beer, and what happened to that local ale I was promised on the website!
    Can't complain with that weather and that line up though, and thank you to the man that I shared a much needed smoke with. It made my afternoon far more enjoyable and the queues seem insignificant.

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  4. Many thanks for all the comments.

    Anonymous #2 - Great post, thanks. Being an old, closed-minded man trapped in the body of a young, closed-minded man, I'm not that familiar with Doherty's stuff, so missing him was a calculated risk (I was bloody knackered when I first crawled out from my womb-like bed early on Saturday - and yes I am only 26). Good to hear that he was on top form, though. As for the crowd, I think I've probably been spoiled by friendly audiences the past few years (aside from people hurling beer and wee during The Pogues, and punching my girlfriend in the face) - a touch of mardiness probably isn't as bad as it gets! Wandering into the mists of time, The Charlatans had memorably annoying fans when I saw them in '97, including a guy who kept thumping me in the arm (I'd just had my BCG, so cheers to him for that), while NIN at Brixton was also a mite rowdy. Most of the people at Hop Farm seemed OK, and the heat probably didn't help. Perhaps if I'd have been down for the whole weekend I might have seen more camaraderie. Where do I start with Doherty? The first Libertines record?

    Anonymous #3 - Cheers for that. It sounds like I missed out on Doherty. I don't really have a handle on the logistics, but people did seem pretty miffed at having to miss their favourite acts (or one who might emerge as a new favourite) in order to have a wee or a beer.

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  5. Enjoyed your beautifully written blog. I last saw Bob Dylan at the Picnic at Blackbushe in 1978. Great he is still going strong.

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  6. Enjoyed your excellent write-up.It was a great day but I agree about the poor organisation and it'd need a very big star headlining next year to persuade me to go again. The worst aspect of the day was the solid two hours from 11pm til 1am waiting to get out of the car park - outrageously bad planning.

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  7. All of the Libertines stuff is excellent, imo, and they only released 2 albums, so it won't take you long to listen to both. ;) Don't Look Back into the Sun isn't on either, though, and that's a top track. Probably the most well-known single is on the second, self-titled album.

    It's a bit of a universally accepted truth that neither Pete or Carl are as great separately, but Pete's solo work and stuff with Babyshambles is still very good, and I did enjoy Dirty Pretty Things' (Carl Barat's band) first album (though I think it became quite clear which side of the duo the talent had been weighted on...), less so their second.

    Definitely go for the Libertines stuff first though. I think as well, even if they don't turn out to be to your personal taste, you can see (or rather hear) how influential they've been on an awful lot of bands over the last decade, which is interesting in itself if you're a bit nerdy about these things...

    I'll stop hogging the page now.

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  8. Hi

    A great review of the hop farm festival, you seem to have missed Pete Doherty which I found to be a great set from the lad.

    I actually had no complaints for the whole festival, though this can be due to the fact that with a bit of cheating such an unfair system it more than made up for it. Me and my friends kept skipping the queue for beer and would pick up the £2 deposit cups and sell them back to the bars in order to get more money for beer!!

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  9. this sums up everything I wanted to say about Dylan's set. Thank you. I've read so many bad reviews, but really believe that any real Dylan fan would have felt privileged to be there, and touched that he was doing his best (for once) to bring out the songs that would please us.

    It makes me sad that some people have failed to recognize how truly lucky they were to be there on Saturday night.

    I, for one, will never forget his performance, and although I couldn't see him so well, what rounded it up so perfectly for me was waking up to find a picture taken of him grinning away whilst playing.

    Moody, stubborn Bob Dylan? you what??

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  10. love love love this review, thanks! beatifully written. i was there most of friday and all of saturday, devendra was probably my highlight (amused that he might have been cause of delay of big tent stage...to not clash with bob..diva!) but was also DELIGHTED by bob - having not seen him since 2004 in brixton academy (and not enjoyed it as much as i wanted to - cheesy song arrangements being main prob) i definitely loved seeing him at this festival instead - much preferable!

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  11. Thank you to everyone who's posted a comment, it's really appreciated.

    Anonymous #2 (if that is your real name) - I'll get on those right away. Well, after I've watched Holland v Uruguay.

    David - Looking at responses on the Hop Farm Blog (http://www.hopfarmfestival.com/2010/7/5/does-it-have-to-be-over!.aspx#comments and http://www.hopfarmfestival.com/2010/6/30/two-sleeps.aspx#comments), I can see a lot of people had similar problems. Despite 15 years of serious gig-going, this was my first experience of a festival. Apparently they're not usually such a mess.

    To the second person praising Pete Doherty - I missed him, I'm afraid, as I only arrived about 4.30pm. Perhaps the wrong decision, but at least I was still infuriatingly buoyant and well-watered at half-ten! I had a nice walk round Canterbury too, in the early afternoon, which is where we were staying.

    To the chap saying he will never forget Dylan's performance - I'm really glad to hear that. I'm mystified by the negative write-ups elsewhere. I can only assume that the reviewers turned up to watch the 25-year-old Dylan and were baffled to find a throaty 69-year-old dressed as a cowboy. Don't worry, though, as long as you took from it what you wanted, then that's all that matters. And yes, he did seem cheery.

    And to the lovely fellow praising Devendra Banhart - Perhaps we should have stayed around for that, but I had nightmare visions of being trapped in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, so I made sure I got on that train! I wondered if Devendra would have any crowd at all due to the timings. Were there many watching?

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  12. Exactly what I've been trying to tell people! I was shaking my fist at my friends trying to emphasize how important it was to remember and appreciate Bob Dylan. It's painful how little exposure his late work gets, especially now the songs have been rearranged to suit his voice.

    I'm so damn chuffed I got to see this; being 20 it's frustrating hearing of great performances before my time but truthfully, this was as good as it gets. Having slaved away listening to every era I was both prepared and pleasantly surprised by the set list. Just perfect. I hope you Dylan veterans are reassured that some of my generation listen to Modern Times with as much enthusiasm as Blonde On Blonde.

    On Pete Doherty, it was a breath of fresh air seeing him do a great performance in front of such a diverse crowd. Watching parents dance to Don't Look Back Into The Sun with their kids on their shoulders made me hope he got some much-needed exposure.

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  13. Thanks for the post, great stuff. It's always well worth doing that research before a gig - I think you get immeasurably more out of it that way.

    I didn't see Dylan in concert until 2002 myself (I'm only 26), but I've made sure there's enough in the piggy bank to catch him once on every UK tour since then, and they've been some of the best nights I've ever had. My girlfriend's a massive fan too.

    I especially liked this line from your comment: "I'm so damn chuffed I got to see this; being 20 it's frustrating hearing of great performances before my time but truthfully, this was as good as it gets." I feel that way too - really blessed to have seen Dylan play - though I'll admit I sometimes wish I could wake up and be in Manchester's Free Trade Hall at about 8pm on May 17, 1966...

    As for Modern Times, that's such a fantastic record; especially Nettie Moore, though the album makes a coherent whole. It's one of my Dad's favourites too. He starting playing Dylan to me when I was four.

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  14. Haha, I have a feeling the guy in awe may have been my friend.. We had been discussing dream setlists and Forever Young was at the top of his. I also heard a man near me get a little heated when some girls in feathery headbands shoved in front of us during Ray Davies, entirely blocking our view and getting feathers in people's noses, ha!

    I've seen loads of bad reviews of Dylan at Hop Farm and to honest I'm not sure why. I went specifically to see him, keeping it in mind that I've heard on many occasions that he's terrible live, and was amazed. 3 people around me nearly fainted, and I don't think that was just down to the heat!

    His voice is different now, yes, and the growl works better sometimes than at others, but it seemed Bob had maintained quality by placing greater emphasis on the music; he and the band were all fantastic. Maybe if we'd had just Bob and an acoustic guitar, the over-the-top criticisms would be a bit more justified.

    The festival definitely had it's faults (water problems, cheeky camping costs, etc) but I thought the sound quality was great and the main annoyance I had was all the people my age (I'm 20) going on about how 'shit' Dylan was, whilst demonstrating no knowledge of any of his music. I'm not sure if they'd even watched!

    Thanks for writing a review of Dylan's set that was closer to what I was hearing! I think Ballad of a Thin Man was a highlight :)

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  15. Wow, I'm glad you had a great time just like I did. I'm not enjoying all these bad reviews of Dylan at the Hop Farm recently! Thank you for posting, you should have a look at my recent (and first) blog about the hop farm if you ever get the chance!!

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  16. excellent festival,

    anyone know what the story was, being told about someone called dean, just before dylan came on, ????? marco.lamb@yahoo.com

    oh and the local ale, or "festiv-ale" was nasty

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