Bob Dylan/David Axelrod 2001 David Bennun
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Bob Dylan/David Axelrod
[The Mail On Sunday, 2001]



AS LOTTERIES go, the Bob Dylan Sweepstake demands high prices for its tickets, but offers pretty good odds on a win: one chance in two. On any given night of his "never-ending tour", reputation has it, Dylan may be so brilliant as to induce spontaneous lockjaw; or, just as likely, come over as a listless, mumbling shambles who might plausibly have confused that evening's venue with the local drop-in centre.
 Tonight's audience at the Liverpool Summer Pops Festival could fairly conclude that their numbers haven't come up. The most famous backlit hairdo in pop, plus ensemble, has been on for only a few seconds, and it isn't going well. The effect is that of a small, Southern travelling band huddled together in the corner of a stage far more spacious than they are used to or comfortable with, playing as they might to a handful of sodden and indifferent barflies. Several songs which I had, until tonight, taken to be immortal suffer a gruelling demise at their hands of their creator. The lyrics of Desolation Row, opaque to begin with, are gutturally, offhandedly unintelligible: “Rurgurshmurbleburble (grunt)/ Wuuuuryibbldeeyowww/ Lessenersenneferr- dsssrationrur.”
 The trouble is not that the songs don't sound like themselves, although they don't. Dylan has always revamped his work onstage, sometimes to dazzling effect. The trouble is that everything - old folk tunes, wired, raucous rockers - is reduced to the same relentless plod by the band, and delivered by Dylan with as much passion and conviction as a registered letter. Great chunks of Blonde On Blonde, one of the last century's most electrifying works of art, are rendered tepid and banal. A lot of people have paid a lot of money to see this. Bizarrely, they seem thrilled. Perhaps they can't afford not to be. You sense that Dylan could replace the lyrics to This Wheel's On Fire with those from The Wheels On The Bus - Lord knows, he might as well do - and still they would cheer him to the echo.
 If any of those punters feel impelled to write in and say they attended a different show to the one I've described - they're right. It starts about halfway through. Suddenly, Dylan performs a song, Fourth Time Around, as if he can remember why he wrote it in the first place. His gentle, fluid rendition more than ever tips a wry nod to John Lennon's Norwegian Wood. Then he plays Boots Of Spanish Leather with real tenderness, and playfully romps through Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again in exactly the style of his recent, sardonic hit, Things Have Changed, which will itself receive an exhilarating outing a little later.
 With the crackling menace of Cold Iron Bound, the evening comes alive. Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat, even more toxic than the original, sees Dylan spitting like a cobra, while the band lock into a whip-taut bar-room boogie as though they've just been waiting for the word. To complete the mood, two bull-necked men considerately break into a fist fight nearby.
 An epic and astonishing encore takes in Like A Rolling Stone, transformed from a howl of vengeful fury into a cold, precise and triumphant recitation of an enemy's ruin. Knocking on Heaven's Door, played almost perfectly straight, is, of course, beautiful; while All Along The Watchtower reprises the thunderstorm Dylan conjured with The Band 30 years ago, after hearing what Jimi Hendrix had wrought upon his folksy little fable.
 A gospel-like gravity infuses I Shall Be Released, without sabotaging the song's light touch and eloquence. Highway 61 Revisited summons up all the Old Testament sturm und drang implied in its narrative, and even ceremonially raising from the Sixties dustbin that crock of callow hippy-dippydom, Blowin' In The Wind, can't spoil things now. The surprise finale, Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35, still manages to transform the music of marching bands into the essence of rock'n'roll insurrection. Right now, it seems wilder and funnier than ever - and on purpose.
 It can't be often that Dylan shares review space with someone who would consider him a young whippersnapper, but veteran jazz producer David Axelrod has years on him. Axelrod is much beloved by today's vogueish beat-heads, and his self-titled album shows you why. Updated from unreleased tracks recorded for The Electric Prunes three decades ago, it's a soulful and stylish piece of work. Hip hop fans and devotees of funky Seventies film scores alike will find plenty to revel in. The closing ballad, Loved Boy, dedicated to Axelrod's dead son and sung by longtime collaborator Lou Rawls, is an uncommonly moving piece of music. All credit to James Lavelle's MoWax label for getting Axelrod back into circulation; it's a genuinely deserving comeback.

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