28th of November 2013 : Bob Dylan, Royal Albert Hall: “Mood Swings , Cast Iron Songs And Torch Ballads.”

Last day of the tour. I wake up early to complete the diary notes from yesterday’s concert. I sit in the warm , almost living-room-like library in “The Gore Hotel”. Opened in 1892, after originally having been the Turkish embassy. It is dignified in every respect, but also got some rock and roll credibility , all the while, among other things , it’s the place where Rolling Stones threw their release party for “Beggar ‘s Banquet” , which is illustrated with large framed photographs in the hotel bar. It was apparently also from this hotel Mick Jagger threw the TV out of the window. More important for me, however, is that the hotel is only two minutes walk from the Royal Albert Hall. After I finish my work, I go to breakfast with my two friends, Peter and Arthur, to make plans for the day. A man brings his chair over to our table, he wants information from yesterday’s concert: “How was it ? Did he play the guitar? How was the band? Was his singing good? What songs?” We responded our best to the older gentleman with long black hair, mister Leitch. Also known as Donovan. He has played the Royal Albert Hall, and designates it as it ‘s a musicians greatest experience of all venues. After a nice chat with him, which ends up with him inviting us to a concert outside Oslo in December, we are ready for the day’s program – we’re going to Halcyon Gallery in New Bond Street, the gallery that houses Bob Dylan’s major exhibition of iron sculptures, ” Mood Swings”.
We have an appointment with the curator Marianne twelve o’clock, and she has promised us “the grand tour”, a guided walk through the entire exhibit. We arrive a little early, but Marianne is ready and waiting for us, offering us drinks and starts telling us the story of this particular part of Bob Dylan’s art, which she knows far better than us. Dylan puts it as follows in the museum’s catalogue: “I’ve been around iron all my life ever since I was a kid. I was born and raised in iron ore country – where you could breathe it and smell it every day. And I’ve always worked with it in one form or another. “( The subtitle of ” Planet Waves ” (1974 ) , was “Cast Iron Songs And Torch Ballads”) . It turns out that he has collected iron in decades and that he got large stocks, and his hobby has made matters and things of old scrap metal, tools, gears, nails from the railway, stuff from cars etc., for a long time, to him self and to friends. This is the first time any of these works are on display, and from what we understand, the majority of the works already were sold on opening day. The main part of the exhibition consists of a number of large gates to gardens or estates, and all exude an indefinable but unique beauty and charm. Whether it classifies as large sculptural art I’m not competent to comment on, but the most striking to me is the similarity between the sculptures and the songs, the way he works with iron and with words must be exactly the same. He collects the words and phrases and metaphors and welds them together in unexpected ways, he mixes symbols and make stories by creating a mosaic of different elements which initially did not seem to have anything to do with eachother, but that nevertheless finally creates a whole. Same thing with the sculptures. All the sculptures have moving parts, whether it’s wheels that spin or chains or levers that can be moved, doors that open – nothing is static. Dylan has painted them, mostly in silver and gray, but in the welded joints he deliberately painted it with a different color. The things are related, but they are also independent units. Movement is central – the gates can both be open and closed, they can shut someone or something out and open for something or someone. “The door is closed for ever more, if there ever was a door.” A connoisseur of Dylan’s lyrics can easily associate songs or symbols used in the songs – a pump , it might be “the pump do not work ‘ cause the vandals took the handles”? In some places the artist has incorporated explicit shapes with the other iron elements, a dog, a guitar, a raven (or is it an eagle?) Draws us to think of other songs – “if dogs run free” , “my love is like a raven”etc. It may be a coincidence, after all it is relatively difficult to find symbols, objects or figures that are not, in some way, to be found in Dylan’s writing. Marianne then takes us down into the basement, where a new and totally different exhibition reveals itself, one marked by Dylan’s endless fascination with the outlaw. Perforated car doors, apparently by bullet holes, hanging hinged on the wall along with pictures and text from the featured gangsters life, be it Al Capone or John Dillinger. As it looks here , they were all shot while they were in the car, which is far from true. Then again, Dylan is also an outlaw, and this is very well lied . Whether Dylan have made the bullet holes himself, is not clear. If we go further we will see examples of Dylan’s “Revisionist Art”, in which he, perhaps in a flash of vengeance and media criticism, has constructed a wide variety of magazine covers, with both images and text – at first glance they may look authentic, but upon further exploration one sees Dylan’s subtle and at times burlesque humor and his sharp eye and reply just under the surface. This is “payback time” and many a good laugh awaits for those who take the time to look into each cover. The rest of the exhibition are oil paintings , watercolors and prints, including a very impressive painting, that now exists in a wide range of variations, this one with the train tracks rimmed with a glowing red sky and a sinking sun, the traintracks is a theme that has been central from Dylan’s first album , and a theme he spun dreams of from the time he first heard Hank Williams, his first idol, sing about trains. There are lines, links and connections all the way, along with puzzles and mazes.

In the gallery just across the street, with more of his paintings, we find these words on the wall: “Rather than fantasize, be real and draw it only if it is in front of you and if it’s not there , put it there and by making the lines connect, we can vaguely get at something other than the world we know. ” This is how he paints, this is how he welds and this is how he writes. Imagination and reality, dream and art, it is inextricably intertwined, and he’s still chased by an extreme and impressive need to communicate – it has been three art exhibitions this year and he will play his 82nd concert of the year tonight. In total, after the last recount, this is his performance number 3382. It gives an average of more than sixty a year in more than fifty-two years! He’ve earned the Christmas holidays.

The time is approaching half past seven, and Royal Albert Hall is bursting at the seams three days in a row. I’m still fascinated by the beautiful and majestic room, tonight I’m sitting slightly up from the floor, directly facing the stage, with a full view of it all. Around me there are people who were at the concert in 1966 and now is excited for their only concert this year. I can reassure them that this is going to be very good, but that the set as such does not carry the touch of nostalgia.
Suddenly, the concert started, and the sound is absolutely perfect from where I sit. As yesterday Dylan need a little time to warm up his voice, it’s probably a lack of scale exercises in the locker room, I’m afraid. Nevertheless, he’s on fire, and the applause seems even more exuberant today than yesterday. The whisper and clapping from the audience rises like a roar when Dylan plays his harmonica in “She Belongs To Me “, it cuts as precise and striking lightning through space and there is absolutely nothing that is aging with this harmonica, it exudes youth and vitality, yet mature musicality, and stil he does it in a way today that he could not have done in 1966. It is revealing in its nakedness, yet sharp enough to grind diamonds, and he uses it as an artist using his palette, both in this song and later in “Love Sick” , in “High Water” and in “Blowing In The Wind”. He colors the songs with harmonica, in silver and blue. Highlights otherwise are many and compelling, but I will not repeat them again today. They should be familiar by now.
All speculation of any changes or additions to tonight’s concert was not met, he reiterated yesterdays set, song by song, but today with greater energy, then he spins off and around the heel, as he draws his imaginary guns and lift them towards the cheering audience behind the stage. It is a rare moment. When the concert is over, he thinks about both it once and twice, but then he walks to the front of the stage and do high-five with a couple of people in the audience, and shakes hand with one or two, before he leaves. Even a rarer moment. And it is heartwarming to see it – as is also the thunderous response from this nights audience in the Royal Albert Hall: “He is not dead yet, his bell still rings. He is not over the hill, he is not past his prime.” And that’s really something. We can only wonder about who of the artists, starting out today, that will be there for over fifty years. Maybe some, but not many.
The European autumn tour of 2013 will probably be remembered as one of the truly great in Dylan history – in many years he has exited us with great variation in setlists from night to night, from one year to another, but this year he wanted to show us something completely different, he has very consciously composed a new set for us, with songs from every decade since he started, with the breadth of almost all genres he has used, from waltz to swing, from rock to doowop, from march to ballad, from blues to soul – “cast iron songs and torch ballads ,” a subdued set in muted lighting, with most of the material from the the new millennium. He will share his worldview with us, and this time he wants every European city to see this piece, this sculpture, this gate to his art and this channel into the tradition. The band is supporting him in a great way, not least Charlie Sexton who these days flowers anew, in close collaboration with Donnie Herron, while the guys on the left, Stu Kimball, Tony Garnier and George Recile constantly keeping pace and the dynamics of the songs, while their eyes are firmly fixed on Bob throughout the concert. The setlist was the same, yes, but not one of the shows has emerged as routine – the musicians who try to use the autopilot here, will crash in the first turn – Dylan is as much jazz as something else, where he still in each moment are doing his musical choices, but within a structured framework. Dylan’s voice has been positively noted by almost all reviewers around Europe, he has chosen songs, sound levels and ways to sing that have gotten the best out of his voice, without straining it. In the quiet ballads he now has a sensitivity in his timing and phrasing which we barely would have thought could be possible from the stage anymore. The direction of the show has been of such a nature that it is something he strongly want to do before he leaves us. It is difficult to imagine that he could top this, but it ‘s also hard to imagine that he will be sitting idle at the ranch in Minnesota without continuing his Never-Ending Tour. In a few months, we will know the answer. In the meantime we’ll be dreaming of a new live album, hoping the rumors will come true – this music is something that many more people should have access to, there is no doubt. As Lou Reed once said of Bob Dylan: “All the rest is pop!”

And with this I close my diary for now. “It’s been one helluva ride. ”

 

Johnny Borgan

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