Tossing a Baseball Bat in the Air

‘Tossing a Baseball Bat in the Air’: Bob Dylan at the MEN Arena, Manchester, 2011

Bob Dylan, supported by Mark Knopfler, MEN Arena, Manchester, October 10th 2011. The Never-ending Tour continues…

by John Carvill


Most reviews of last night’s Manchester show will inevitably make reference to the ‘hard rain’ that’s been falling on the city for days now. I’d spent years repeatedly assuring my brother (and anyone else willing to listen) that Manchester’s reputation for rain was undeserved and really just a wildly over-exaggerated stereotype, so imagine my embarrassment when we found ourselves soaked to the skin within minutes of leaving the shelter of the Lass O’ Gowrie pub, having made the brisk walk to what remains of the Free Trade Hall – setting for the infamous ‘Judas’ heckling concert in 1966 – now the Radisson ‘Edwardian’ hotel, where the barman offered a sombre, head-shaking apology for the inclement weather. A couple more pit stops in pubs of variable historic interest were made to keep out of the deceptively heavy drizzle, but we still arrived at the MEN arena with clothes several shades darker than they’d been when we set out.

We caught the very end of Mark Knopfler’s noodlings. Who knows the mysterious ways in which Bob works? If he wants Knopfler supporting him, so be it. There were of course semi-rumours, or maybe just wishful thinking, that the pair might take to the stage together and do something more interesting than the standard ‘support then headliner’ format; a quick run through ‘Infidels’, say, from ‘Jokerman’ to ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight’, would have delighted the faithful (so long as they omitted ‘Neighbourhood Bully’ and tacked on ‘Blind Willie McTell’). Now, given that we all thought of that, there’s no doubt they must have done too; for whatever reason, though, nothing of the kind was attempted: Knopfler played, then stopped, then Bob played. Good night.

Knopfler, as has already been widely noted, is intricately skilled yet phenomenally lethargic, with a stage presence more suited to practising alone in his slippers than playing in front of an arena full of Dylan fans. Still, the crowd were politely enthusiastic for him, which was a lot more than he was for them.

Dylan, to my ears, didn’t begin well. The voice, in particular, sounded incredibly harsh – yes, even by the standards of latter day Dylan. Was it him, or the acoustics, or the equipment? Don’t know. But it really did not sound good, in fact during the second song (Don’t Think Twice…) I was finding it painful to endure, and began to get a nasty sinking feeling in my stomach. I’ll leave it to others to second guess what went wrong, but it somehow came right in the third song, ‘Things Have Changed’, and stayed right thereafter. There were many magical moments, and no matter how wrecked Bob’s voice might be, what really matters is whether he *tries* to make the most of what’s left of it. And last night, he did.

I never thought I wanted to hear ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ live again, but the radical reworking he applied to it did, for once, actually work, and he kept the momentum up through a blazing ‘Honest With Me’ (the teddy bear/baseball bat in the air couplet a particular delight), ‘Summer Days’, ‘Highway 61’, then slowing down for ‘Forgetful Heart’, a performance that’s going to send me back to my neglected copy of ‘Together Through Life’. The pace picked up again for ‘Thunder on the Mountain’, through ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and into inevitable closer ‘All Along the Watchtower’. I can’t remember which bit belongs to which song, but I know that somewhere in there was some loud, exuberant, bluesy guitar playing, and quite a lot of satisfyingly screechy harmonica action.

We had pretty good seats, given that we bought quite late on sale day, and we had the aisle so we could observe the continual ups and downs of people who seemed to be carrying drinks in from the bar, but also, less explicably, back out *to* the bar. Maybe they were leaving, but that thought didn’t even occur to me at the time.

There were a few empty, discreetly curtained off sections. The insultingly high ticket prices are a drag; couple that with having to sit through (or carefully avoid) Knopfler and it’s no wonder this show didn’t sell out. A pity, because although it may not rank up there with the best of the century (so far), for my money it was a solid show, with Bob actually giving himself to it and offering an effortful performance which enthralled for probably 75% of the time.

There are many factors – rain, costs, Knopfler, the dreadful soullessness of the MEN arena – that might put you off going to see Dylan when he’s in town, but they’re far outweighed by the chance to watch the great man at work, and to bask in that inimitable glow, just one more time. Long may he run.

5 comments to Tossing a Baseball Bat in the Air

  1. Julia says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. We were so disappointed by Dylans performance and frankly dont know how hes got the cheek to call that professional. Surely only die-hard fans could find any enjoyment and even then only in terms of nostalgia. Mark Knopfler was infinitely better and was the only act worth turning up for. Incidentally, wonder how you can comment on Knopfler when you couldn’t be bothered to turn up to watch him?! forward to seeing Knopfler in the future, but on his own!

  2. admin says:

    Hi Julia, thanks for your comment. I can’t really address the points you make, about Dylan’s performance, without knowing some details of your involvement with Dylan. If you’re not a long-term Dylan fan, and/or if you’ve never seen him live before, I can certainly sympathise with your point of view. I know that the first time I saw Bob live (RDS, Dublin, 1989) I was confused, frustrated and, if I’m honest, hugely disappointed.

    As for Knopfler, you’re right: I was prejudiced, and didn’t give him much of a chance. If I could, I’d have arrived in my seat just after he had finished, so as not to see him at all. When I heard that he was supporting Bob on this tour my heart sank. So no, I’m not best placed to provide an unbiased review of his performance, but then I’m not primarily concerned with doing so here. I did see the tail end of his set, though, and found it every bit as dreary as I’d expected.

    Dylan is an odd duck, he always was. These days, paying for a ticket to see him is an expensive gamble, but I accept that. For me, his performance was worthwhile, not just as nostalgia. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

    Again, thanks for commenting. Hope you give Bob another chance some day. All the best,

  3. James says:

    After a mediocre show at the same venue back in 2005 I was fairly confident that I could go without seeing Dylan live again, a claim that was backed up by the few bootlegs I had heard from the last couple of years, his voice sounded all but shot.
    Monday night, however, was a bit of a u-turn. A friend offered me a ticket as a birthday present to the Manchester show, and since Knopfler was opening, I gratefully accepted. While I disagree with the general consensus that Knopfler was a bit rubbish, I do go along with the point that he would be so much better in a more personal setting. That said, however, I was quite impressed, and since I was not expecting much from Dylan I turned to my brother who had come along with us and said that Dylan would have to exceed our expectations. About ten seconds in to Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat we turned to each other and grinned.
    Throughout the show there were highlights, not just from Dylan, ranging from the almost rockabilly guitar of Things Have Changed to the vocal phrasing in pretty much every song, and taking in between all of Dylan’s idiosyncratic twistings and turnings behind the organ, (which you could actually hear, unlike the last time I saw him), and harmonica. A couple of songs were a bit rushed or just plain bad, though; Thunder on the Mountain, in particular, was unintelligible musically and lyrically. The surprise of the concert was Ballad of a Thin Man, a song which I usually find quite boring, be it live or on record. Monday’s performance of it, however, was as good as I think he can still be.
    The continuing use of the tuneless version of All Along the Watchtower that he insists on closing with, however, is mystifying, particularly after the crowd pleasing Like a Rolling Stone. It wasn’t that good when I saw him back in 2005, and it was the one aspect of the show that Time, and a break, hadn’t healed.

  4. Julie says:

    I agree with Julia. I have been a fan of Bob Dylan for many years and was very disapointed with the performance of monday the 10th. The sound was awful i thought, pretty much throughout the set. Mark knopfler on the other hand had a great balance on his sound, so why couldnt dylan get the same? To me this was a money gig for Dylan, i would much rather see him at the Apollo,where i saw knopfler when he was a guest with eric clapton. I couldnt even make out the names of the band when he introduced them at the end. Sorry but Bob now needs to think about these gigs, it seems to me, hes on auto pilot. I popped out to the loo for 5 mins when knopfler was on stage and couldnt believe the amount of people stood around just waiting for Dylan to come on stage, what is wrong with seeing another great artist whilst waiting, too much music snobbery going on for me im afraid. Monday the 10th october was my second and last Dylan gig im afraid.

  5. tom Bromley says:

    Mark Knopfler was very boring, Bob was absolutely brilliant both nights I went to see him (wheras the boring Knopfler played exactly the same set at Bournemouth on Friday) Im far from a die hard fan I first saw him in 2006 and have enjoyed every show since.

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