Bob Dylan and Neil Young: Best moments of the Kilkenny gig

From the opening bars of Ballad of a Thin Man, it’s clear that something is happening here

Bob Dylan performing at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi Bob Dylan performing at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi

Bob Dylan performing at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi Bob Dylan performing at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi

 

Something is happening here. In my now nearly 30 years and at least as many times seeing Bob Dylan perform live there have always been two consistently fresh moments of engagement: when Dylan walks on stage, and just before he walks off.

Every song and note in between is in the eye of the beholder – or the ear of the listener. Sunday evening in Kilkenny is no exception.

There are both highs and lows from the 78-year-old Dylan during his 20-song setlist, and from co-headliner Neil Young, 73, who plays 15 songs. Most of Young’s songs meander significantly longer than Dylan’s, and not always in a bad way. At least not in the eye or ear of this beholder.

Ballad of a Thin Man

When you’ve recently passed 3,000 live shows in just over 30 years, then making a first impression may be the last thing you care about. But the minute Bob Dylan walks on stage, 9pm sharp, and breaks into the opening verse of Ballad of a Thin Man, it’s already clear that something is happening here.

What set Ballad of a Thin Man apart was its placement and delivery: Dylan gently shook up his setlist in Germany last week, putting the song he penned back in 1965 at the very top of it. It provides an instant highlight, Dylan half-seated behind his piano, his voice strong and possibly at its clearest in a decade, his sentences still all broken metres and syllables, at times playing on the ambiguity of certain words.
And it feels like he’s positively barks out the first verse:
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home

Dylan does James Brown

For Can’t Wait, five songs in, Dylan leaves the piano and walks centre-stage for a seriously funkier version than the one recorded in 1997, leaning over and around his microphone, one hand on his left hip, his voice demanding utter attention, acting more like a James Brown than the crooner he mostly played in Dublin two years ago. Dressed in a black cotton suit, white shirt, white silk polka-dot scarf, and wearing a large white flat-brim fedora hat, Dylan looks like he is surprising himself with how good he sounds, especially with his devotion to the words and their delivery. There are no dark sunglasses to cover his eyes, maybe because the Dylan who performs in 2019 has no secrets to conceal anymore.

Dylan and Young together on stage

If after 10 songs it feels like Dylan has reached a plateau, then he’s quickly off again – thanks to the sudden and entirely unannounced appearance on the stage of Young. They share some verses and duet on the chorus of the old hymn Will the Circle Be Unbroken? It is the first time the two have shared the same stage since a show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom in 1994.

Neil Young and Bob Dylan on stage together at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi Neil Young and Bob Dylan on stage together at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi
Neil Young and Bob Dylan on stage together at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi Neil Young and Bob Dylan on stage together at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny, on Sunday. Photograph: Raphael Pour-Hashemi

They’re both having a whopping good time, 151 years old between them, singing the song that Johnny Cash made famous, and that Dylan was also known to play in the New York coffee houses back in 1961. Guess what: Dylan last played it on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976. Something is happening here.

When it’s over Dylan slow hand-claps Young off the stage, the mutual respect and admiration so deep it’s infectious.

From there he goes straight into Like A Rolling Stone – the stop-start delivery of the famous chorus beautiful and befuddling.

No talking

At the beginning there is no hello, no how-are-you? At the end there is no thank-you or goodbye. That’s Dylan for you. Two early songs from the 1960s, It Ain’t Me, Babe and Highway 61 Revisited, pass by without any great pageantry, before he raises the melody again on Simple Twist Of Fate, gently breaking off into the first notes of his harmonica as if spreading some fresh blood on the track.

His four-piece band members are whip tight, but Dylan has never tried to please anyone but himself. He is often blessed and blamed for that at the same time.

Hats off

The fedora hat comes off for Early Roman Kings, a gentle ruffling of his mop of still curly hair, before two final high points – Girl From the North Country, straight into Love Sick. Dylan wrote that first song for his first real girlfriend, Hibbing native Echo Helstrom Casey, back in 1963, and sings it as gently again as that first time, no drums. He wrote Love Sick in 1997, which he trails off heartbreakingly, “Just don’t know what to do, I’d give anything to be with you...”

Like an Inca

For the best part of Young’s opening 15-song setlist, the sound was a little – and then a lot – more furious, beginning, not too unlike Dylan, with a tour debut of Like an Inca, from his polarising 1982 album, Trans. It sets the tone for the five equally long and perfectly drawn-out songs, none with a more lasting message than Throw Your Hatred Down, from his days with Crazy Horse.

What sets them apart here is the fresh improvisation and energy provided by his backing band, Promise of the Real, all less than half Young’s age, fronted by lead vocalist and guitarist Lukas Nelson, son of Willie. At times it seems they’ve reined him in a bit too, shaving back on some of the long-winding guitar solos that were standard when Young played the RDS in 2013.

Unplugged

With that Young, 73, unplugs his vintage Les Paul for his acoustic guitar and harmonica and gently breathes life back into From Hank to Hendrix, Heart of Gold, Human Highway, and Old Man, which goes down naturally well among those still wearing their vintage t-shirts from the 1960s.

There aren’t many song lyrics which continually get better with age:
Old man, take a look at my life
I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me
The whole day through

How many choruses must one man play?

Then it was back to the charring grunge guitar for five more songs, the best of which was Fuckin’ Up, encouraging plenty of singing along from the younger crowd, and finally a properly rocking Rockin’ in the Free World – which in the end did gently beg the question: how many choruses must one man play in Rockin’ in the Free World?

As many as you want, it seems, when you’re the unbroken circle of Neil Young co-headlining with Bob Dylan.

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