Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Friday, 14 August 2015

26. Real Live (1984)

Real Live is the fourth concert album to feature in the BobBox and was recorded on the final three nights of his 1984 European tour.  As well as Mick Taylor on lead guitar, the band also features bassist Greg Sutton, former Face Ian McLagan on keys and Colin Allen (Focus) on drums; a very basic five-piece setup that contrasts sharply with the one on the last live album Bob put out, the flute-ridden and horn-laden At Budokan (which I have come to love so much that I recently picked it up on vinyl at a record sale).

The opening roar of the audience sounds just like a football crowd, so I wasn't surprised to learn that the first track was recorded at Wembley, on Dylan's one and only stadium tour.  The band begin with a chugging version of Highway 61 Revisited which immediately put me in mind of Status Quo, then launch straight into another oldie: yet another rendition of Maggie's Farm, the third time in a row it's been represented on an official live release. It suits the arena-rock setting well, in that it's a fairly meat-and-potatoes rendering of a well known song, but as well as wondering why this one was chosen over others, some may find the excessively gluey vocal quite hard to take.  Bob's delivery too is now close to self-parody, with heavy emphasis on every two or three words.  It's not pretty but I found it compelling, perhaps because this was the first time I'd heard him sounding so like the impersonations that always have me in stitches.  If you too find this amusing you might also enjoy Sutton's comedy bassline  - you know, the one used when the holiday camp compère introduces the house band halfway through the evening's cabaret - but on the other hand you might just consider it ridiculous and lazy.

We leave Wembley Stadium for the next song, which was recorded at Ireland's Slane Castle on the very last night of the tour.  I can't make up my mind about this version of I and I; on first play it sounded quite flattened in comparison to the original Infidels version which of course boasted Sly and Robbie, but on subsequent listens it surprised me by seeming more buoyant.  Since then it's once again become lumpen to my ears, so all I can really say is that it's an okay live version of one of the better songs from an okay album.  See what you think:

At the end Taylor briefly doodles on his guitar, and for a few seconds it sounds like he's going to break into Start Me Up in a perhaps sarcastic nod to his former bandmates' last (ever) top ten hit, but no, we're off to St. James' Park in Newcastle for another Infidels track, a straightforward reading of License to Kill.  This and I and I are two of the better tracks from their parent album, but it's a shame that room couldn't be made for the standout Jokerman.

We're back to Wembley for the next four songs, beginning with a solo acoustic It Ain't Me Babe. The crowd provided my first set of goosebumps, lustily singing the first chorus for Bob and engaging in a positive feedback loop of excitability with his harmonica riffing at the end.  It's absolutely wonderful, and sadly the only real 'moment' offered by Real Live.

Equally well-received is Tangled Up in Blue (also solo acoustic, thankfully!), which here is given a radical re-write that the crowd seem to really go for, although I get the feeling that had Dylan presented them with a version of Humpty Dumpty played on a Bontempi keyboard, as long as he shouted "tangled up in blue!" every couple of minutes they'd have been just as satisfied.  When asked about the new lyrics, Bob has stated in interviews that this is how Tangled should originally have been, but for whatever reason turned out differently.

The full-on Dad Rock version of Masters of War that follows is certainly different, almost unrecognisable, although while it sounds less bitter it doesn't lose the haunting quality of the original.  Like on most of the album Taylor turns in a blistering solo, and he does this again for the last time on Real Live on next track Ballad of a Thin Man.  McLagan adds some great, spooky organ to rival Al Kooper's, although I now kind of miss the dramatic "dah-dah-DAH-dah" of the show-bizzy Budokan version.  I wonder if Dylan, now 43 years old and part of rock's old guard, was aware of the irony in him choosing this song to represent the 1984 tour; I'm not saying he shouldn't have played it - it's an absolute classic, after all - but I think that he now has a lot more in common with Mr Jones than perhaps he'd like to think, twenty-something years into the business.

A nasal but tender Girl from the North Country is received rapturously by the Slane Castle crowd before it's back to Newcastle to finish with the lively boogie of Tombstone Blues featuring some fine honky-tonk piano from McLagan.  Apparently Carlos Santana guests on this, but I wouldn't have known from listening - he must have reigned himself in a bit.

The sound quality on Real Live is muffled, so I was surprised to learn that it was produced by the talented Glyn Johns, and also that it's one of the 14 albums to be specially remastered for the BobBox (by whom, I cannot find out).  My complaint about Mick Taylor being under-represented on Infidels is more than made up for here; his muscular, bluesy licks and solos are all over it, and some might say it makes Real Live sound a bit samey.  It does indeed lack the flair and imagination of the colourful At Budokan, but the three solo acoustic numbers break up the rock stodge somewhat.  Also, it perhaps suffers from the same problem as Bob's other live albums, that of timing, in this case with the recordings being from the end of the tour when the guys are past their peak (see Hard Rain compared to Live 75).  In contrast, some have criticised At Budokan for being recorded at the start of the 1978 World Tour before they'd had time to warm up (but I love it - did I mention this?).

The main issue for me is the odd song selection, considering the wealth of choices available.  Many of those chosen had already appeared on live albums more than once (Maggie's Farm, H61R, Ballad of a Thin Man), and looking at some of the setlists online I'm puzzled as to why these were picked.  I'd have particularly liked to have heard Dylan's duet with Van Morrison on It's All Over Now, Baby Blue from the Wembley date, introduced by Chrissie Hynde.

The song selection is also heavily weighted towards his 60s material; apart from one BOTT song and two from his latest album, everything else comes from no later than 1965.  Because of this, for me it's not by any means an essential album.  Big Dylan fans will find it of interest for the revised Tangled, but other than this Real Live offers nothing new or illuminating, with fairly uninteresting readings of oldies better served elsewhere (except for It Ain't Me Babe, largely thanks to the audience) and not even the best song from his most recent album.  It's interesting that there's nothing at all from the relatively recent 'Christian era'; I suppose he'd been too badly burned by the response to these to risk further alienating his fans, deciding instead to keep this part of his life to himself.

I dare say there's a wealth of boots out there containing material to better represent this tour, but for the casual listener there's little on Real Live to recommend it, and for the average Bob fan I'd advise giving it a listen on Spotify and perhaps downloading the two acoustic Wembley numbers: It Ain't Me Babe and Tangled Up in Blue.

*****BobBox price check***** - £111.97 (free postage)
Discogs - from £106.30
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 14/08/2015


  1. Nice Review... I never heard this one. The horrendous typography and cover art combined with Bob's 80's reputation saw that I kept a wide berth. But listening now, the youtube clips are pretty good! Mick Taylor... yeah, sounds good! really, not as bad as I'd thought all these years.

    1. Yeah, not essential but not as bad as its reputation. I expect you can get it quite cheaply if you were so inclined.

  2. Fair fair review of an album that's not as bad as often made out. I was at the Wembley concert and would have loved them to have captured the all star encores including Van's Baby Blue, plus Clapton, Chrissie Hinde, Santana, and others. Oh, and like you I love the Budokan record! Have never understood why its so poorly regarded.

    1. Wow, you were at Wembley! And another Budokan fan, ace! We're a select group, no doubt :)