All of the omens were positive leading up to Nowlan Park’s big outdoor concert of 2019 with Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Let’s see – the weather was co-operating, Kilkenny’s hurling team won a big match in Dublin earlier in the day, the town was buzzing with not a hotel room to be had, no ‘golden circle’ VIP sections down the front, ticket prices were reasonable when compared to the same artists’ Hyde Park (London) prices two days earlier – so what could possibly go wrong?
Well – it’s true to say that neither Neil Young nor Bob Dylan put on much of a visual show nor even barely get around to speaking to their audiences, meaning that the two guys would have to deliver purely based on their music in order to engage this stadium-sized audience. So, could they? Would they?
And some. Opening the day’s proceedings at 5pm sharp was a well-received 40-minute solo set from Glen Hansard before Neil Young took to the stage with his backing band Promise of The Real. Comprising two of Willie Nelson’s sons amongst their number, POTR are a noted band in their own right and over the last few years have shown enough breadth of musicality and flexibility to be able to support most of Neil’s genre-dipping proclivities, and are thus capable of being ranked reasonably close to some of Neil’s other bands and collaborators throughout the decades such as Crazy Horse, Stray Gators and CSN.
Tonight though, Neil was very focused on his heavy and loud guitar-based material. For example, offering us long burning versions of the likes of Over and Over, Love to Burn and Throw Your Hatred Down. From where Goldenplec were standing, the sound was a shade too loud and the bass a shade too high, but not enough to really detract from any enjoyment.
And to be fair, there were sufficient lighter and quieter songs to balance things up, particularly during Neil and band’s semi-acoustic countrified mini-set halfway through the show, giving the crowd their first (and possibly final) opportunity of the day to really sing along with well-known classic songs, for example Heart of Gold and Old Man. Lovely moments all.
After this Neil straps on his famous guitar ‘Old Black’ once more and the volume is cranked even higher for the final electric section, the highlight of which was a slow searing Cortez The Killer, Neil truly showing us here how much he lives these songs each night on stage and how much he relishes playing them with a band he is highly in tune with. No matter how many Neil shows you see it is rare that you could accuse him of going through the motions, as his body racks and rocks in time with his attempts to seemingly force the music (and the muse) out of his guitar.
The show ends with a predictable but highly enjoyable Rockin’ in the Free World, concluding an excellent 2-hour concert, but perhaps not the last we would see of Mr Young on this fine Kilkenny night?
Up next was our other co-headliner, and Bob Dylan starts out proving that things have indeed changed by opening with Ballad of a Thin Man, instead of Things Have Changed, this being only the 3rd show for almost a decade where the opening song was NOT Things have Changed (his Oscar-winning song from 2001).
Anyhow, the change is welcome and Thin Man gets a rousing reception, as indeed do the next few songs where (for the moment) the ‘hits’ keep coming, such as a thunderous Highway 61 Revisited and a pleasant tender Simple Twist of Fate with some amended lyrics. Next up ain’t no hit though, as track 5 of the concert is the song Can’t Wait. Here, one should mention, as indeed many commentators regularly do, that Bob Dylan does like to radically rearrange his songs, including even his most recent songs.
This song is a case in point, Can’t Wait being one of four songs tonight from 1997’s ‘Time out of Mind’ album, now turned in to an absolutely stomping funk work-out, if not worthy of James Brown, than at least a nod to the Rolling Stones’ Miss You. Also on this song, Bob Dylan comes out from behind his piano, and affects a kind of dance/shuffle routine, surprisingly effectively too. And nobody holds a mic stand quite like the 78 year-old Bob Dylan.
A word now on the band. Bob himself these days is playing a baby grand piano situated centre stage. Since late 2018 Stu Cimpball on 2nd guitar has left the band, meaning that some spaces have opened up in the arrangements. This is mainly a good thing, as it not only allows Bob to tinker a little more with his stubby but effective piano chops, perhaps more importantly it allows the talented Charlie Sexton to expand somewhat on his various guitars. Like all of Bob’s musicians Charlie can switch effortlessly from rock to jazz to blues to country and many shades in between.
Indeed if you listen very closely to a Bob Dylan concert you can hear these multiple genres being constantly played with and affectionately messed with, across many of the songs. Also benefiting (if that’s the right word) from the loss of Cimpball is bandleader Tony Garnier who played some lovely bass throughout the show, particularly noticeable on the quieter numbers, albeit always in service to the song.
Donnie Herron is also highly prominent these days and his contributions on pedal steel, slide guitar, dobro and fiddle were all much welcomed. And George Recile remains one of the great Dylan drummers, flexible, subtle, yet powerful when he needs to be.
If a minor quibble was to be made about the current Dylan concert presentation it would be that there are just one or two too many up-tempo rock/rockabilly/jump-blues songs that are either; (1) completely unknown by the audience, and/or (2) played in a similar arrangement. Actually, it could be argued that the arrangements of Honest with Me, Thunder on the Mountain and Gotta Serve Somebody are almost interchangeable, and for an artist/band with such high levels of musical and arrangement-creativity, they could probably drop, swap, or rearrange a couple of these numbers.
After the opening section, the concert goes in to not so much a lull, as a slightly quiet period in terms of audience engagement. The new piano-driven quiet arrangement of When I Paint My Masterpiece is a brave effort though, and Pay in Blood (from 2012’s Tempest album) is shown off in yet another re-arrangement, plus perhaps not everyone in the crowd twigs that Bob is playing Adele’s big hit Make You Feel My Love (indeed many may not know that Dylan wrote it) until at least a verse or two in – but it is at least a well-known song which is welcome news for a stadium audience on a co- headlining bill where to be fair not everyone will be a Dylan fanatic.
But soon the audience gets a big reward when our other co-headliner Mr Young comes back out unexpectedly. Naturally Neil comes on completely unannounced by our reticent host Mr Dylan! But it’s a lovely moment as the two old mates give us a spirited rendition of the folk/country classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Why Kilkenny got this treat, and the bigger show in Hyde Park two days earlier did not, is a mystery which will probably never be solved. Maybe the two boys just felt at home here in rural Ireland and said to each other ‘why the hell not’. And the chemistry between them was palpable.
Anyway before we know it, Neil has departed the stage, and Bob is straight in to Like a Rolling Stone, his most famous song. The crowd love it, despite a new eccentric slowed-down bit at the end of every verse. Well, why not.
Now we are galloping towards the end of the show, with the audience hoping for a few more ‘wins’ prior to hitting the pubs of Kilkenny, and after a stomping Early Roman Kings they are rewarded with a show highlight in Girl From the North Country. This is played pretty much solo on piano and vocal by Bob with some minimal accompaniment from a couple of the band members. As a vocal
performance it proves that, not only yes, Bob can still actually really sing, but also that he seemingly took plenty on board throughout all those years (circa 2013-2017) when he was recording and performing great American songbook songs. True, he still ain’t no Sinatra or Crosby, but he can get a song across when he wants to. Another great moment.
The show wraps up with a few more rockers and a wistful Soon After Midnight (also from the 2012 Tempest album), before bringing it all back home to the 1960s with a steady two-song encore of Blowin’ in the Wind and his classic blues song It Takes a lot to Laugh, it takes a Train to Cry.
This brings the night’s proceedings to an end, four hours of enjoyable no-frills, no-compromise music from two artists who have been doing exactly what they want for almost 60 years each, with many of us still going along thankfully for the ride. Neil looks stronger than ever. Bob perhaps a little frailer but still vibrant, still doing his own thing and doing it well. As of now, he has no further concerts scheduled. We may not get many more days like this. But what a day it was.
Revisit Bob Dylan’s classic album ‘Blonde On Blonde’