You have to admire both Bob Dylan and Nell Young for spending the past 50 odd years doing exactly what the hell they want. For his latest act of rebellion Neil Young aka everyone’s favourite guitar playing eco-warrior aka Greta Thunberg’s spiritual granddaddy, has stuck two fingers up to corporate world. Insisting that British Summer Time remove all of their branding from their annual Hyde Park festival because of sponsor’s Barclaycard deeply worrying funding of fossil fuels for one day is one hell of a baller move and we salute him for his dedication to the cause. Bob Dylan meanwhile continues to prove he is incapable of playing anything that in any way resembles the recorded versions of his legendary catalogue. This should be no surprise to anyone watched Martin Scorsese’s recent Rolling Thunder Review documentary. Bob’s been doing it for a lifetime and frankly, it would be kind of weird if he decided to pull a totally faithful, note perfect version of Tangled Up In Blue out of the bag. Entirely welcome, for sure, but odd.
Dressed up like Satan’s own cowboy in a brimmed El Topo hat, grey western jacket and black shirt, Bob looks utterly immaculate and ever so slightly evil, especially when he smiles – which he does a lot. Is it a grimace? Is he simply taking delight in fucking with his fans, who he point-blank refuses to offer anything in the way of a sing-along? Is he… happy? Whatever’s going on, his regular jaunts up from the piano to stand in the middle of the stage and sassily place his hand on his hip and pose like he’s just sauntered down the Drag Race runway are nothing less than fabulous.
Bob’s voice is now a gruff, trembling thing that recalls Tom Waits doing an impression of Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Yet it suits the ominous opener, 1965’s ‘Ballad of Thin A Thin Man’ and even though the tinkered phrasing and tunes of stone cold classics ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘Girl From The North Country’ make it so the crowd has to take a good minute to work out what he’s actually singing, it works. That’s because Bob Dylan does not do what you want him to do. He never has. That is why Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and why Bob Dylan is a genius.
His Last Waltz co-star Neil Young, who plays first, is an altogether more congenial figure. Where Bob looks like a slick Sergio Leone villain, Neil is more of an off-duty dad in aviator shade and tatty plaid shirt over a black tee he’s definitely had since 1983. He rocks out. He noodles. He beams. “Thank you, people!” he offers jauntily after smashing through ‘Mansion on the Hill’’s psychedelic grunge and pure West Coast vibes of ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’.
As opposed to Bob, who’s been playing essentially the same show for the past year or so, Neil’s setlist flits and changes from one performance to the next. There’s sadly no sign of the hypnotic ‘On The Beach’, which he played for the first time in 16 years a couple of evenings ago in Belgium, but a run of cosmic country rock classics like ‘Alabama’, ‘Heart of Gold’, ‘Old Man’ and ‘From Hank To Hendrix’ more than make up for it.
It’s 1989’s ‘Rockin In The Free World’ however that is the real triumph. With its numerous false finishes – it sounds like Neil could keep on rockin’ in the free world for the rest of the night were it not for the curfew and Bob’s impending appearance – the song’s inclusive message, heavy, heady riffs and straight-up lust for life are a true joy. So here’s to these two icons doing exactly what the hell they want, whenever they want. Sometimes it sounds like we expect and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always a thrill.