Bob Dylan review: Hop Farm festival 2012

Bob Dylan at the Hop Farm festival in 2012
Bob Dylan at the Hop Farm festival in 2012

Bob Dylan made his only UK appearance of 2012 at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent. The singer may not have been as vocally versatile as he once was in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. But his stage presence, enigma and showmanship of the veteran songwriter were as strong as ever before. This show won great plaudits from reviewers across the media - and it also featured what was believed to have been the first time that Dylan had played a grand piano at one of his shows, according to Rolling Stone.

The venue is clearly somewhere that Dylan is happy to play, as he headlined the same festival in 2010. Perhaps it's because its outdoors (Dylan claims to be claustrophobic) or because the festival doesn't use any branding or sponsorship, but Dylan keeps coming back for more. And this year, despite croaking and and growling his way through just a small offering of his vast back-catalogue of hits, Dylan managed to captivate the crowd. Many were happy to just be in the presence of such a legendary artist and songwriter. He wore the same black suite and wide-rimmed white hat that has now become his customary outfit, and his band wore white suits. They looked every part the professional southern blues outfit.

As is the case with any long-standing musician, they will have a loyal following of fans. Many people in the audience at Hop Farm - a festival quickly gaining an excellent reputation across the world - were clearly people who had followed Dylan for decades. It is these die-hard followers that make up Dylan's fan base, and ensure that his live shows are almost always a sell-out.

ylan's voice has never been his strongest asset, and even now the cigarette-and-whisky worn tones are unable to sustain many of the long high notes, but he continues to make every effort at this. It's not the most edifying sight to see as he struggles desperately to sustain the notes, but it's a testament to his passion for touring that he still regularly graces stages in far-flung countries. What a work ethic!

For the most part, Dylan's songs are transformed into bouncy blues numbers with Dylan spitting out staccato-style poems over the top.Beginning with a raucous Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat, he dived into It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. Unfortunately this version on the song was difficult to recognise. It was played in a different key, with what seemed to be a different melody.

And his voice was muffled and unclear at this point. Perhaps it was a problem with the sound system. Thankfully things improved.

A quick blast through Things Have Changed and onto Tangled Up In Blue. It was interesting to the latter, and compare it to a performance a year earlier at the Feis Festival in Finsbury Park, London. The rendition a year ago was much clearer with the melody and vocals piercing through the air. It could be that in the course of a year, Dylan has aged that little bit more, it could have been an off-day, or it could have been the different sound system in place.

Bob Dylan sings one of his many hits at  the Hop Farm festival
Bob Dylan sings one of his many hits at the Hop Farm festival

One of the stand out tracks of the show was Ballad of Hollis Brown. This isn't a regular feature on Dylan sets, so it's a treat to hear him do it live, especially in the twilight of his career.

Dylan played the original version of the song with only an Em chord on acoustic guitar. But with the band Dylan was able to transform this gloomy blues ballad about a father who kills his wife and five children as hardship ruins his farm into a powerful song and a strong form of social commentary. It's clear to see the parallels with the poverty-stricken southern states of almost a century ago to the scenes that are being played out today around the world as financial crises after crisis rocks developed nations leaving millions struggling to survive - especially in the Eurozone countries such as Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

Spirit on the Water and Highwater (For Charlie Pattern) were next on the show inKent. Given that the first of these were recorded by the current band, they were able to do well with the song. Highwater was also an awesome performance.

The high point was Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. This song is now a regular on Dylan live shows and the band are able to play around with it to turn it from the rabble-rousing acoustic piece it was originally to a slower, more reflective number. The tension built throughout the song right until the final verse.

The encore song after taking a bow was All Along The Watchtower with Dylan introducing his band in the middle verse.

He’s never been one for talking to the audience and it’s almost like he turns this small bit of audience interaction into another song, so to him it’s still like he’s not speaking to anybody.

Overall the performance was not as strong as Dylan’s appearance last year. But for fans it is truly special to be able to see this great man live performing some of his incredible songs.

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