Bob Dylan, Neil Young: Hyde Park, London

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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan and Neil Young play to 65,000 fans in London and Getintothis’ Roy Bayfield joins them to watch two legendary artists delivering compelling, expectation-upsetting performances.

Thousands of us converge on London’s Hyde Park on a sweltering Friday, all expecting something to happen.

For the first time, two landmark artists are co-headlining a UK show. What will we get?

Is there any possibility of the gratification of hearing great versions of beloved tracks, or will we get noisy noodling from Neil and baffling self-indulgence from Bob? Or something else entirely?

By early evening the sold-out park will be rammed with an audience of 65,000, but soon after it opens the parched ground is already swarming with punters.

Considerable efforts have been made to strip out any Barclaycard branding from the BST Hyde Park site at Neil Young’s insistence, but it hasn’t transformed into a hippyish free festival – this is a corporate gig, running like a machine, from the Heineken brand activation areas to the curated recycling bins.

Merch is massive of course, with a choice of t-shirts as a monument to this very day, and others that might just about fool people into thinking you were at a Rolling Thunder Revue show in 1975.

Many adopt the tactic of staking out a position within eyeshot of the main stage, ready for the long haul, but there’s fun to be had wandering the site and seeing the support acts in the sunshine.

Sam Fender opens proceedings, pounding out indie riffs in the digital forest of the main Great Oak stage, framed by giant artificial trees.

What feels like a half mile walk away, Heavenly act Boy Azooga serve up a dirty space groove on the North Stage.

Underneath real trees on the bandstand-like Summer Stage, last-minute additions Flyte play spin out psych-tinged harmonious pop. There’s a good-natured atmosphere to it all, no-one trying to be cool by concealing the thrill of playing on a bill with the two legendary big hitters.

Dylan merch

Under rising heat the stage is set for Neil Young and the Promise of the Real.

There’s a sculpture suspended in the air, a forlorn winged figure like a battered crying dove, like a mournful memorial to the days of peace and love. The band appear, then the man himself comes loping on, grinning into the dazzling sunlight, and we’re off with a titanic Mansion on the Hill.

The sound has a huge crunch and a rusty grind, Neil Young stomping around the stage in a paint-spattered shirt, working his guitar with furious intent – it’s like watching the world’s most accomplished garage band, led by a lumbering shaman.

The set is crowd-pleasing, invoking the air-punching singalong effect everyone wants through tracks like Alabama and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.

The songs are generously proportioned but the soloing doesn’t get out of hand – eyes are on the clock in the curfew-bound park.

The sound quality dips a bit in Words (Between the Lines of Age), buzzy bass dominating, but then Young switches to acoustic and harmonica for Heart of Gold and all is well again.

The acoustic stays on for a couple more songs including a beautiful Old Man, then we’re back to high octane territory with a blasting Throw Your Hatred Down.

The main set ends with exuberant anthem Rockin’ in the Free World. It’s poignant and unsettling to be amongst thousands joyfully singing along to a song about the political landscape of 1989, in the middle of a world capital thirty years later, when things seem even more dangerous and dehumanised.

The encore brings us Like a Hurricane, the epicentre of emotive engagement with the back catalogue, then I’ve Been Waiting for You and a false few bars of Roll Another Number (For the Road)…. Young stops that one sayings it’s ‘not dark enough’ then plays us out in punky style with Piece of Crap.

Neil Young and his full-on energy band have given people exactly what they want, powerful and passionate renditions of stand-out tracks. Will Bob Dylan be as generous?

The staging changes.

There are lamps on tall stands that look like something from a 1930s filmset. A sculpted bust on a plinth, rumoured to be Athena, goddess of arts and literature, a divine presence that would make sense as the muse of a Nobel prizewinner and holder of France’s Legion d’Honneur.

It’s 8.30 and the evening is just beginning to cool.

Then Bob Dylan and his band are there, launching without ceremony into Ballad of a Thin Man.

It has all started so quickly that the audience is caught unaware;  for a brief moment it’s as if the most famous singer-songwriter in the world is going to be playing away in the background while people talk among themselves.

Then Dylan’s whispery growl comes into focus, viciously snarling the song’s ‘Do you, Mr Jones’ lines – the massed throng recognises the track and we’re locked in.

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From then it’s a procession – a pageant – of reconstructed versions of songs from the 78-year-old’s six-decade career.

A contorted lounge version of It Ain’t Me Babe, Highway 61 Revisited, Simple Twist of Fate – it’s a greatest hits set but not a set of replicas; this is the artist’s reworking of his material, right here and now.

It’s hard to get a fix on what kind of performance this is.

He sings (barks, growls, huffs) around the lines.

Often there’s a tone of exaggerated comical surprise. He keeps making a Bogart-like teeth-baring grin, but it’s impossible to know what this means – is it a smile or a snarl? The facial tic of an artisan at work? The wolfish snarl of a general watching a battle going well?

Seated at the piano for all but one song, Dylan weaves through the set he’s been doing for a while now on this leg of The Neverending Tour – When I Paint My Masterpiece, Tryin’ to Get to Heaven, Early Roman Kings unspool as countrified funk.

People cheer every time he plays the harmonica.

At the front end of the crowd people are engaged, going along for the ride – figuring out what song it is and where possible joining in. A stretched out, elegiac Like A Rolling Stone is one of those communal singalong moments.

Meanwhile many ‘only here for Neil Young’, ‘wish he would do his old stuff properly’ folks drift away into the night – thus missing a compelling piece of performance art. (Outside a nameless busker gathers an appreciative crowd doing the ‘real’ Bob Dylan many wanted to see.)

Between songs Dylan, dressed in a pale western jacket with rhinestones glinting, his outfit topped off with a flat black cowboy-gambler hat, walks centrestage and stands looking out at the audience.

One hand hovers uncertainly, like a gunfighter remembering he has no gun. He’s constructed a weird troubadour image, almost a pisstake – but then this is an artist who has been constructing images for decades.

Back at the very beginning there was the young man being an old travelling blues singer.

Recently there was the old man being an interview-subject in a fictionalised documentary. In between there have been dozens of roles – scores of ‘Bob Dylans’ as compelling and elusive as the characters in his songs.

What does he think, peering out at London in the evening light?

Does he remember visiting folkclubs in the winter of 62, picking up melodies from Martin Carthy? The still-talked-about concert in the Albert Hall?

Filming Subterranean Homesick Blues behind the Savoy Hotel with Allen Ginsberg in the background pretending to be a workman? Or are these our memories now, more than his?

The set continues. Thunder on the Mountain, from 2006 Modern Times, is potent medicine. Gotta Serve Somebody brings the main set to a rocking finish. Encore Blowin’ in the Wind is delivered as a weird slow tempo testimony. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry and then we’re finished.

Bob Dylan puts his hat back on and stands before us on the stage, spotlit in his camp Singing Cowboy garb, with that twitchy Nosferatu smile.

A magnificent legend; an entertainer who has done his work for the night; an unfathomable mystery.

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