Sunday, 2 May 2010

Talkin' Hop Farm Decision Blues

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

Here at Gobshout, we like to ponder life's big questions. Is there life after death? Who will be the real winner in the general election? Are The Pixies the yardstick by which all American heavy rock acts should be judged? So when the opportunity to mull over another one came up, keyboards were duly grabbed. The question of course is: should one go and see Bob Dylan at Hop Farm?

This may not immediately seem life-defining, so perhaps I should explain. For years now I have proclaimed (always vocally and usually after a few ales) that I never want to see Bob Dylan. I own every single record (even the Jesus ones) and have a framed picture of him above my bed (really). He is the greatest artist ever to walk the earth, in my opinion. The early live recordings on his Bootleg series are genre-defining and when you listen to them, you can literally hear the musical landscape shifting. But the further you go through his career, the poorer the live shows become. The voice changes, the time signatures get mixed about, the classic songs are often replaced by obscure album tracks and off-cuts. Those of you who have read his excellent Chronicles will recall reading with mounting horror the four-page explanation of the new singing “style” he adopted in the late eighties to “revitalise” his music (It starts on page 156 for those of you with well-stocked bookshelves). And so my fear is that seeing Bob Dylan in his current incarnation might forever tarnish my image of him.

I remember a review of one of Dylan's London shows in a broadsheet newspaper where the majority of the audience was described as being "here to touch the hem". The review gave him five stars, which makes me wonder what they would have done, had they been at Newport Folk Festival. I've never been one for hem touching. There is nothing on Darwin's green Earth that would make me want to see the limp crap that Billy Corgan is currently touting as "The Smashing Pumpkins" (those inverted commas are deliberate), even though the man himself is a personal hero for his pre-millennium work. But when the bill for this year's Hop Farm Festival was announced, something shot through me, and I realised I had a decision to make.

It's Dylan's only UK show this year. It's at a festival. Previously headlined by Neil Young. On a farm. Surely, if he's ever going to play a set of greats again this would be it, right? And (although I don't like to admit this) he might not last forever, how would I feel if he went and I'd never seen him? On the other hand though, if he's not great, is there enough cheap gassy lager in the world to wipe the memories and reset the fragile perfection of the image in my mind?

Of course, in the back of my mind I am aware that I won't turn up to find a wiry twenty-something on stage running through a defiant With God on Our Side. But equally it would be nice not to find an old man running through a scat-jazz version of Political World. He's what music writers like to call a "famously frustrating performer", which is a nice way of saying you might get a setlist full of b-sides and album tracks because he does what he likes. I'm a great believer in the idea that Dylan has earned the right to do as he pleases, but this is not about him, it's about me and my hang-up about whether my image of him will be forever dented by seeing him live in his later years. Would I regret it, or would I be happy to forever say “Yes, I saw Dylan” to future dinner party guests and as-yet-unborn children?

Either way, for the moment, my £70 is still in my wallet. It may be that I finally crack and just blow the money and stop all this pathetic worrying and over-thinking. If so, at the very least, it's unlikely he'll be busting out any of his recent Christmas album in early July. He wouldn't. Would he…?

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