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In for the long haul

With a whisky-and-gravel growl, the old sage is his usual self – only more so

It is difficult to think of a less appropriate venue in which to see Bob Dylan than the one formerly known as the Millennium Dome, that hulking monument to the hubris of New Labour, now converted into the O2 arena. The queue to get in snaked through an airport-style strip-lit shopping mall, past Starbucks and Nando’s. One fan, a man who looked like he had been embalmed in 1968, was wheezing away tunelessly on a harmonica, but that was the solitary nod to 1960s counterculture.

Inside the O2, scowling security guards patrolled the aisles like Rottweilers, barking at anyone who tried to leave their seat in order to get a glimpse of Dylan and his five-piece band, who were not visible at all from where I was, in the stalls. Torches were flashed and tickets demanded from anyone who ventured into the aisles to dance. Events like this confirm the feeling that the music industry has entirely forgotten what people actually like about music.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be thankful that Dylan hasn’t lost his appetite for playing to stadium crowds, because we need him and his very real commitment to music more than ever. Slipping on to the stage without a word of greeting or introduction, he coped with the inhospitable surroundings by paying no attention whatsoever to the arena or the 20,000 people in it. He was dressed, country-style, in a white Stetson and white thigh-length jacket, and did not acknowledge his adoring audience until during the encore, when, after a curt “Thank you, my friends”, he briefly introduced the band. Most stadium acts whip up the crowd with lights, projections, choreography; Dylan stood back and let the music do the work. Throughout the performance he looked like he might just as well have been playing in a smoky bar in 1950s New Orleans, or strumming a guitar in the shade of a tree.

A rollicking version of “Maggie’s Farm” opened the show, followed by “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, rendered virtually unrecognisable by an almost comically terse, staccato vocal, familiar to listeners of Dylan’s radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour. His voice sounds so ravaged now that some critics have accused him of slipping into self-parody. On the contrary, I’d say the years have simply made him more himself; he sounds like a wise old soothsayer – a role he was born for. The whisky-and-gravel growl endows the old songs with a poignant sense of passing time, and gives the new ones a world-weary kind of soul.

Yet no one could accuse Dylan of ignoring his crowd-pleasing obligations; although he has a new album, Together Through Life, out this month, the set was packed full of classics. The show really got under way with “Chimes of Freedom”, which rang out like church bells, achieving the remarkable feat of making the arena seem almost – for a few brief moments – like a vast cathedral. “Highway 61 Revisited” thundered along like a runaway train. “Like a Rolling Stone”, a song that has gone through as many incarnations as Dylan himself, got even the less well-preserved audience members back on their feet. “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the last song in the encore, was so dirge-like that the audience didn’t seem to realise what he was playing until halfway through.

The new songs “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Working Man’s Blues #2” – from his last album, Modern Times – were more instantly recognisable, as they already fit comfortably into the bluesman sound Dylan has been carving out ever since the release of Love and Theft in the late 1990s.

While other veteran performers tire of their old repertoire, Dylan treats it like raw material, endlessly reworking it into a form that fascinates him here and now. This is the richness of the folk tradition, in which songs are evolving, living things, rather than fixed recordings. In a recent interview he contrasted himself with pop artists such as McCartney and the Beach Boys, who, he said, “made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly . . . exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them.” It is this curiosity, this need to explore and reinvent, that has kept him artistically fresh enough to continue what has become known as the “never-ending tour”. It will end before too long, of course, which makes it all the more imperative that his fans take advantage of this extraordinary late burst of creativity.

Andrew Billen’s column will return next week.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis