Bob Dylan: Water From A Deeper Well

There are five men on stage in a variety of western-wear. The drummer wears a big white stetson, the bassist a menacing leer, a pencil moustache and a black hat (very Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil). Stage left is Antonio Banderas, stage right—Matt Dillon (well, it looks like them, but it’s dark in here), both armed with acoustic guitars. The fellow in the middle is no film star. In fact, in the white spotlight he resembles a ghost, or a character from Dickens, dusted in talcum powder, and looking distractedly into the middle distance. He’s wearing a dark western suit with white piping, Tom Mix crossed with Hank Williams.

They light into the opening song, a bluegrass gospel number called Somebody Touched Me, and their voices swoop into the air on the refrain “It must be the hand of the Lord,” in true Louvin Brothers style. They finish to whoops and hollers from the crowd, and launch straight into a gorgeously dreamy romantic waltz, with a Mexicali feel. Antonio plays delicate filagree lines, Matt plays self-effacing rhythm guitar and the backroom boys swirl the beat around like a carny ride. The funny little guy seems to be the lead singer, and he wheezes into the opening lines in a sly fashion, imparting the words sideways from his mouth. The song’s a timeless marvel called To Ramona and the next one that they ease into is even better. Mama You Bin on my Mind has a melody both Moby and Mariah Carey would kill for, and it is so gorgeously played and sung that for the time it lasts you’d die and go to Boot Hill, happily.

The band then swing into a groovy vamp, the singer twitches and shrugs, and the audience roars its approval. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks/When you’re tryin’ to be quiet.” This is hip-swinging stuff, and the audience is almost forced into dancing along. Antonio rips off another fine solo and then the funny guy starts playing. He plays like his fingernails are too long, and the jerkyness makes the audience blink from their reverie. He pays no heed if he hits a bum note, instead searching for a kind of repetitive intensity—a Chicago Blues version of Philip Glass. But it’s an intriguing approach and it keeps the band on their toes as they try and figure out where he’s taking the song. Antonio in particular wears a look somewhere between terror and joy.

Then a song called Tangled Up In Blue, stage lights dramatically throwing the band’s shadows onto the wall on the title line, which builds up to a crazily intense climax that leaves the audience exhausted. They revert to the style of the opener for one more song (about standing on a soldier’s grave, it seems) and, in an atmosphere so intense that it’s hard to see where it can go from here, the front line ditch their acoustics, and choose electric guitars from racks at the side of the stage.

First up is a jagged slice of country funk, Country Pie, with the guitarists going hell for leather, one moment Clarence White, the next Jerry Reed, sweat flying from the dashing brow of Matt Dillon as his fingers claw their way up and down the frets. But the party-time mood is just a distraction, as the show turns a dark corner in the road for the anguished blues of Can’t Wait. Blistering vocals, blistering guitars, the wail and thump of a Howling Wolf band in the early sixties brought to life in this municipal hall on the south coast of England…

The menacing strut of the next song, Gotta Serve Somebody—featuring an intense, preaching vocal—keeps the energy level high before the gentle coming down of a country strumalong on If Not For You. This innocuous song features an extraordinary moment: after playing his solo right at the third attempt (nobody minded, you understand), the singer looks down into the audience with a piercing stare, a hint of a smile at the corners of his lips, and sings the middle eight straight at them —“If not for you, My sky would fall, Rain would gather too. Without your love I’d be nowhere at all, I’d be lost if not for you…” And you feel it’s true. Playing live seems to give the singer a powerful reason to keep going.

Wicked Messenger and Leopardskin Pill Box Hat keep the high-voltage approach going, although the downside of pounding into the songs like this is the danger of coming off more Foghat than ZZ Top, which happens in Leopardskin. Messenger, however, is apocalyptic tonight, and possibly a definitive version—the combination of the whiplash guitar playing and a stunning harp solo is simply overwhelming.

An hour has passed and the band line up and face the audience, and stare at them. That’s right – they don’t bow, and they don’t wave, they just stare out from the stage. They resemble a Brady photograph of captured Confederate troops. It’s deeply spooky. The hall goes wild, the band disappear for five minutes and then launch into part 2—it lasts forty-five minutes, too long to call an encore. Love Sick is next and its weary fatalism rebounds around the room. The singer hunches and swivels, for all the world like a moody Chuck Berry, driving the band with his Freelance Guitar Stylings™. They all seem to be enjoying it, digging deep into the music. Even Like A Rolling Stone is energised.

Appropriately for a concert hall that last looks like it was last refurbished in 1966, the singer chooses a song called Fourth Time Around and sounds like no-one else on planet earth. He grimaces his way through the storyline, savouring the gnomic lyrics. A swift canter through I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Forever Young lead into a coruscating Highway 61 with a fabulous T-Bone Walker-drenched solo by Matt dropped into the Allmans groove, before a reverential reading of old-as-the-hills Blowing In The Wind, where the voices rise up as they did at the beginning, mountain music for the mind and body.

And in the end, that’s what it all comes down to—the music. It’s not about the history of those on stage, really, or a glib perception of what a ‘dinosaur rock tour’ will be like. It’s about great music in the here-and-now, about its power to move you. It’s about the fact that the next night the singer and his compadres play the same hall and only play five of the same songs, or that when they play Wembley a week later, the set is different again. It’s about the well that this great stuff is drawn from, and the fact that it still hasn’t dried up.

Cast List: Starring in Water From A Deeper Well were: Larry Campbell as Antonio, Charlie Sexton as Matt, David Kemper as The Man in the White Hat, Tony Garnier as The Man in the Black Hat and Bob Dylan as The Singer. It was showing at Portsmouth Guildhall, September 24th, 2000

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