Vienna, Austria
October 27, 2003

[Jim Scrivener]

Review by Jim Scrivener

My friends and family have some doubts about my sanity when, having seen
Bob play on Friday in our home town of Budapest, I still drive a 500
kilometre round trip to Vienna three days later. But I know why. 

I never believed I'd get to see Bob sing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie
Carroll" - and I was also worried that if he ever did sing it in a concert
I went to, it'd be one of those stumbling, throwaway versions you rather
not have been present for. I've heard "Blind Willie McTell'" that way. But
tonight, in the Vienna Stadthalle, he did a beautiful, complete, serious,
careful, felt "Hattie Carroll" - and it made the long road worth the

The hall is big, and compared with the sadly unfilled Budapest concert,
this was very respectably crowded. The ushers seemed to be having some
trouble getting people into their seats and this, I think, delayed the
start by ten minutes or so. It was an all-seating venue and I guess the
problem was that quite a few people planned on standing at the front; they
just weren't going to be allowed to do it before the concert started. The
move came on song two, Baby Blue, and so all those with seats near the
front had their view ruined. Fine for those lucky enough, pushy enough and
tall enough to get to the front, crammed between seats and aisles; I
understand the wish to get close and stand - but when it's done in this
sort of way, it always strikes me as rather selfish. 

For me the show's highlights were the opener To Be Alone With You which
was well sung - and sounded surprisingly fresh and bright, Make You Feel
My Love which was interesting, not least because rarely heard, if a little
overwrought, and of course Hattie Carroll which had me in tears; the new
arrangement really works well - especially in the chorus, which seems to
gather new power from it. I was glad to hear Every Grain Of Sand again
though I think it has lost a lot of the subtlety and tenderness of the
recorded tracks, which is a shame. Summer Days sounded different tonight -
less jumping jive in its guitar; an interesting variation.  Anyway, it was
all pretty good; all well sung, with little flubbing of lines and a real
variety of moods. Bob's voice was slightly higher up in the mix tonight,
which helped a lot.

Biggest disappointment? Bob didn't do any songs away from his piano all

Any points of similarity to draw with the Budapest gig? Well, (one) Bob
keeps doing that odd little walk out to the drums, his back to the
audience, half turning as if he's about to come up to the mike - or even
just catch a glimpse of us - then he turns back and does some business at
his little table instead. It's as if he has to avoid any sight of the
watchers till the thing is over - (two) those red and green coloured beads
are draped over the drums and amps again like Xmas decorations - what on
earth are they for? - (three) the poor sound quality. Is it only me - or
does the current sound system sound tinny and distorted, especially at
louder volumes? At times Bob's voice sounded like it had been caught with
a toy karaoke mike held shakily in front of a plastic Dansette record
player (four) he plays a LOT of harp (hooray) some of which is a bit dodgy
- (five) that new longer opening intro speech was given - what on earth is
the text? I think I caught things like "survivor of substance abuse"
"written off in the 80's" etc (Does anyone have the full text?)

At the end Bob made one of his curious end-of-the-evening mime gestures.
This one seemed to say - the audience was good (thumbs up) but I was only
so-so (thumbs middle). No, Bob, you were very good. The audience seemed
genuinely thrilled. 


Back to Vienna - another 500 km trip - two days later for David Bowie.
It's a revelation how a different artist can use the same room. Bowie was
a complete star, owning the stage and the hall, performing crowd pleasers
alongside a substantial portion of new songs, singing with intelligent but
not reverential respect for his catalogue, taking care that people
watching were drawn in and part of the evening. He treated the audience as
friends who'd dropped in - with humour and respect. He also showed his
band a deal of respect, giving more than a cursory at-the-end name check.
He did some big set pieces, but much of the time, he wasn't overtly showy
or OTT - he was just another human with a great singing voice, enjoying
the pleasure of sharing it with those who'd come round. It was a delight
to be in the same room as the guy - and, as he suggested, it wasn't a huge
arena anymore, just a small night club and he was "in a singing mood". 

It made me think back to Dylan and his current (well, for at least three
years long) refusal to make contact with the audience. Going to concert
after concert where we feel like it's a sort of peep-show looking in on
the guys jamming has some interest (it IS Dylan after all) - but it also
hurts a bit, feels rather rude. I get the feeling that Dylan may even be
going through some form of stage fright, so careful is the avoidance of
eye contact until each concert ends - and, I guess, to many people it
comes over as rather contemptuous. You pay a lot of cash for a ticket -
and then get your hour and a half of the side of a man's head (the rest of
him hidden behind speakers); he doesn't look at you, talk to you or even
move to a place where you can see him clearly. 

I'm writing as someone who loves Dylan and is glad just to get the chance
to be within a few hundred yards of him. I sort of admire the fact that he
doesn't pull special effects and tricks out of his hat. We just get the
raw Dylan, whoever he happens to be that night. But, having said all that,
given this kind of static singing act in large halls, I think there is a
real case for a video screen on the performer. And Bob, please try to take
in the fact that there is someone else there with you. Vienna was a good
performance - but I've heard quite a few first-timers really criticising
the concert for its coldness, its distance, its unfriendliness. You don't
have to do "Hello Spaceboy" kneeling on a raised platform with large
backing video screens - but, how about coming to the front of the stage
and saying hello? 


page by Bill Pagel

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