Blackbushe Festival – Nice To See Ya, Bob

…OR RATHER, IT would have been, but at least we heard him and that made the hassles worthwhile, reports our survivor of the million dollar (and then some) bash at Blackbushe.

In a miserable summer, the weather held good for the second open air mega-binge to be staged this year. Some 80,000 ‘pop fans’ (who does the Sunday Times think it’s insulting?) had already decided to risk buying a ticket in advanced to the opening of a new rock hypermarket at Blackbushe Aerodrome on the Surrey/Hampshire border and the unexpected arrival of the sun lured untold thousands more out of their laundromats to see Bob Dylan’s ‘Thank-You’ British concert.

Maybe it was the site – flat, and uncomfortable, especially if you happened to be sitting on the runway – but the Great British ‘festival’ spirit never seemed to permeate the multitude. The atmosphere remained restrained, even among the most committed punters who occupied the first 100 yards or so in front of the stage. Further out to the fringes an air of bemused detachment pervaded. You had to be a good deal closer to the stage than in the natural ‘bowl’ at Knebworth to feel involved.

Disconsolate at not being able to see the bands, many people opted for treating the whole affair like an open-air hi-fi demonstration – squatting in clusters, paying as much attention to the music as they might to their own records at home. Or they found their own distractions in the form of drink, dope and each others’ bodies. They certainly weren’t a contemporary festival crowd, and for some the realities didn’t match up to memories of the way we were (or thought we were).

In many ways the site let down the music, which deserved a better response. For a start the show ran pretty much to time. The gaps between acts were seldom more than half an hour and even Dylan came on only 45 minutes or so after Joan Armatrading had departed. The sound system was excellent apart from some points where the delay towers caused echo. And perhaps most important of all, every act on the bill played a good set.

The interminable delays for buses to the site from Fleet Station, the rip-off 50p parking fee for dear old NCP on top of the ticket price, all the minor hassles, were outweighed by the quality of the music on offer. After all, even the police were cool, restricting most of their, muscle for ticket forgers and generally leaving those intent on self-abuse/enlightenment to get on with it.

Backstage it was one of the most sumptuous liggers’ playgrounds yet constructed outdoors. A series of record company tents provided almost limitless food and drink for those with the aplomb to collect the various badges, stickers and cards that were needed to gain admission. The Saturday Night Fever Tax Loss Award was won by RSO , who managed to hang chandeliers inside their marquee. The Egalitarian/Let’s Make This The Big One For Joan Armatrading Award went to A&M who eschewed a tent in favour of trestle tables that didn’t require 27 separate passes to approach.

Unfortunately, anyone attending the concert with an official function to perform who wasn’t directly employed by Harvey Goldsmith faced something of a lean time. Photographers were harassed to the point of extinction whether they had official passes or not. In fact a photographer’s pass didn’t actually permit you to photograph the stage at all. Despite the fact that dozens of these passes were handed out by press officer Alan Burry, no-one was allowed access to any vantage point that might enable them to take a worthwhile photograph (with the exception of Harvey’s own man of course).

They, and any journalist reviewing the event, were restricted to the Press area which permitted a view of approximately one thirtieth of the stage (give or take a thirtieth). Only those performers venturing forward to within imminent danger of toppling off the edge were visible – their backing bands were never seen. Perhaps the best evidence of these privations came when the corrugated iron protecting the ‘privileged few’ in the liggers’ area was broken down by the seething populace outside but as soon as the inrushing hordes saw that their view was actually worse than before they turned and fled back, one of them even helping the security guards to replace the barrier.

The fact that these difficulties, and your Sounds persona being non grata (obscure politics we won’t trouble you with), could be shrugged off in the petty spirit in which they were presumably intended is due entirely to Robert Allan Zimmerman who performed a lengthy and magnificent set which provided adequate compensation for all those who missed him at Earls Court and a few extra goodies for the people who caught him twice. The changes made to his set during his European travels have added further dimensions to his performance – in particular the addition of ‘Gates of Eden’, played solo with a harmonica slung round his neck, gave an intriguing flashback to the early 60’s Dylan, outweighing the loss of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit’.

If he couldn’t produce the same electric atmosphere at Blackbushe that he did at Earls Court, he didn’t disappoint anyone who could get close enough to feel enveloped in the sound. In return he seemed genuinely grateful for the response (not to mention the fee) and told us he’d be back before long. With the evident enjoyment he’s getting from playing at the moment that may not be too far away.

Merger, his last-minute addition to the line-up, opened the concert while the Sounds undercover reviewing squad were tramping through the woods close to the Fleet service station where they’d abandoned their motor for fear of becoming involved in severe auto- carnage leaving the site.

While Merger provided an excellent sound beacon for your reporters to hack their way through the underground towards the aerodrome, the full flavour of the reggae rhythms got lost across the three-mile gap. Mindful that other publications might well designate Merger the Real Cultural Event Of The Day your team were embarrassed that they could not see the band’s hour of triumph in front of their biggest ever audience. Little did they know…

“If you go right up to-the wire fence at the end you can just see the drummer’s hands,” said Joan Armatrading.

Speeding into the Press/liggers’ enclosure as Lake struck their first chords I bumped into her and she apologised for the place, though it wasn’t exactly her fault. This proved optimistic. Actually I could just see the singer’s beard and rather prominent abdomen. Joan was fretting about her chances of seeing Dylan. She reckoned she might take a chance ‘outside’ after dark. In her black shirt and black trousers who would notice her? I didn’t see her again so I don’t know what became of her plan but by then Lake had moved on to a song called ‘Welcome To The West’.

‘That’s how we like it… TO BE’ they sang whacking into the delayed-action high harmony like Yes in their early days. Another Starcastle? No. Their next, ‘Lost By The Wayside’, was much more Steely Dan/Eagles smooth Americanism. That was the extent of their surprises and diversification though they did have a puzzle to pose. The word was that they were German. Then the singer made an announcement and Hugh said ”They’re Irish!” and I said “They’re Scottish” but further enquiries revealed that they are in truth two-thirds Kraut-rockers augmented by Britishers James Hopkins Harrison (vocals) and Geoffrey Peacy (organ etc). In fact this duo supplied most of Lake’s limited quota of rock ‘n’ roll grit but, competent as they were, there was no way round -the feeling that they were misplaced on such a powerfully creative bill as this.

The crowd tolerated rather than welcomed them. Mostly they were all right but if you remind me of their attempt at a Beatles melody I shall be forced to sully this page with vile epithets.

At times you might have suspected you were in a monastery. Tonsures everywhere. Well no, bald patches was the truth. Incipient middle-age, the wife and kids. The grandchild generation not on view as yet however. This was only in certain geriatric pockets though. For the rest the blue-denim sea was mid-teens upwards.

They behaved equably apart from some can throwing by the sat-down at the stood-up set. Were they happy and enjoying it? Movement was next to impossible __ a pee in the portabogs a half-hour trip.

Some people had the technique though. Instead of inching they charged. The rest of us stepped aside politely for them. By the look in their eyes they were either drunk, crazy or budding executives.

If Lake were not perhaps the most suitable act to have on the Picnic menu – they’d probably have scored better at Knebworth – Graham Parker And The Rumour most emphatically were. They ladled out a solid dollop of rock and soul that simmered in the afternoon sunshine and deserved a better reaction than the sluggish audience was prepared to offer until near the end of the set.

For Parker this was virtually a home-town gig – he comes from Deep Cut near Camberley – and he pushed his work rate up even higher than usual to bridge the gap between the shadow-covered stage and the basking crowd.

Lyrically, it can be extremely difficult to project to huge audiences such as this but Parker’s defiant delivery cut through the somnolent atmosphere to give numbers like ‘Love Gets You Twisted’ and ‘Don’t Ask Me Questions’ the kind of impact that’s normally restricted to clubs and the like. (I was pushing through the crowd while Parker was on, failing to find a vantage point, and still the lyrics of his newer songs got through the distractions with a succession of what you might call tough puns that I really liked – ‘Love makes you twisted/screw yourself up’, ‘I pretend to touch/You pretend lo feel’ and ‘We’re just a joke they sometimes crack – Phil).

The Rumour dug in quickly with ‘Stick To Me’, ‘Thunder And Rain’ and ‘Fools Gold’ with an ease that belied their lack of recent match practice – although they’d warmed up at the Manchester Rock Against Racism Carnival a couple of days earlier – and then started slipping in a selection of new songs to dispel any notions that we were in for a Parkerilla replay.

Of these, ‘Passion Is No Ordinary Word’ came over as a rhythmic ballad in the ‘Watch The Moon Corner Down’ mould but far superior. The firmer-paced ‘Waiting For The UFOs’ had Parker exploring an unusual (for him) lyrical direction and towards the end they threw in a rousing little ditty called ‘l’ve Got Mercury Poisoning’ which to judge from the words was a ‘dedication’ to their record company.

They misjudged only one song, ‘Heat In Harlem’ where the lengthy slow passage was allowed to drag on beyond its usefulness. It could have been saved by returning to the original tempo but they chose to put it out of its misery instead. It made the next song, ‘Tear Your Playhouse Down’, harder work than it need have been but they restored the earlier vigour on ‘Don’t Ask Me Questions’ and left an almost visible buzz in the air with the rollicking ‘Soul Shoes’, probably leaving a few people wishing they’d got off their butts a little earlier.

Presumably Eric Clapton had his reasons for coming out at teatime before Joan Armatrading instead of playing the pre-Dylan spot. To catch the crowd before their limbs started stiffening maybe? Certainly he reaped the benefit of the audience’s growing enthusiasm and sounded fresher and perkier than I’ve seen him in a long time.

He may well have looked it too, except that he and his band remained quite invisible from the ‘viewing area’ throughout, apart from an occasional glimpse of the tambourine waved by an elegant female hand that presumably belonged to Marcy Levy.

Not exactly what you might call ideal reviewing conditions but the lack of any visual aid at least increased the concentration on the sound to compensate. And Clapton sounded good! Vocally he seemed relaxed and more confident and instrumentally he exercised a control over his band that I haven’t heard before and displayed a refreshing appetite that meant that George Terry was relegated to a strictly supporting role except for the occasional solo. Tough on Terry it may be but it’s definitely encouraging for Clapton.

He leant more heavily on his last album,

We got four songs from Slowhand, opening up with ‘The Core’ which put the band into immediate focus as they growled around the central riff before Levy and Clapton began chewing the vocal cud between them. All the makings of a fine set were in evidence by the time they hit the chorus line and the solo passage confirmed the promise. Clapton’s guitar, resonant with occasional twangy edges, contrasted well with Terry’s milder tone and they worked the same trick again on ‘Lay Down Sally’ which rolled along with a positively lascivious gait to judge from the energetic gyrations of two liggerettes in front of me. By the time they got to ‘Cocaine’ the band were in prime condition with Jamie Oldaker’s drumming filling every corner of the song. Even ‘Wonderful Tonight’ where the sentiments – sweet and tender – were altogether different, had a sure poised presentation.

If only Clapton had treated earlier albums like No Reason To CryThere’s One In Every Crowd and even 461 Ocean Boulevard with the same determination. He’s always given them short shrift, even when they were his latest album. And at Blackbushe he gave us nothing from any or them. If he chose, Clapton could deliver one hell of a set drawn entirely from post Derek And The Dominos material, with perhaps a couple of favourites to top it off.

Mind you, he’s not so far off that now in many ways. There were fewer ‘Clapton standards’ than usual and some of those were blues songs which are exempt from the observation above. Mainly because Clapton’s blues playing is a timeless reminder of his greatest strength. ‘Worried Life Blues’ (which included some fine piano playing from Dick Sims) and ‘Key To The Highway’ both brought forgotten emotions scuttling forward to jostle the senses.

Marcy Levy has also blossomed forth since Yvonne Elliman’s departure. Her two solo efforts – the abrasive ‘Fools Paradise’ and the swinging ‘Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out’ – allowed her vocal talents full rein and her harmonica playing (at least, I assume it was her) on ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ which Clapton dedicated to ‘the star of the show’ played a vital part in establishing the the song’s lilting character. Not surprisingly, ‘Badge’ hotted up the audience’s mounting enthusiasm which had taken wing with ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Layla’ (which coincided with a particularly unpleasant piece of heaviness from the generally restrained and friendly security staff) was greeted with the customary sea of raised hands. It deserved it too, and Clapton was awarded the first encore of the day, a sprightly version of ‘Bottle Of Red Wine’.

There’s more-to come from Clapton this autumn. I think I’m gretting the fidgets already.

So Clapton dared to play the blues. Still. He was great.

Next on display in the rock hypermarket: Joan Armatrading. Who will buy?

‘But oh when you fall / Oh when you fall / Fall at my door’. She began with ‘Down To Zero’. Down to zero with a word. That’s what she sings. And how can ‘A word’ get across to 100,000 people at the same time? Intimacy and a mass audience surely are mutually exclusive.

The gentlest of tinkerbelling electric pianos led into ‘Help Yourself’ and she murmured the first verse just about as quietly as a murmer could be murmured through Edwin Shirley’s zillion-watt PA. ‘If you’re gonna do it/Do it right’. Exactly. She wasn’t going to make any stylistic concessions to the vastness of it all.

Right beside me a guy was hammering nails into corrugated iron to strengthen the barrier against the hordes encroaching on the liggers’ defences but what I heard was Joan floating on her upper register like a clean stream: ‘Show some emotion/ Put expression in your eyes’. She had proved herself already. Singing for a mass she knew how to sing to the people.

Should you be aware of my track record as Armatrading fan you will appreciate that by now I was grinning like a cream-filled cat and not in a condition of abrasive objectivity. Her physical presence was giving me almost as much pleasure as her music (yeah, even from behind our chicken-wire). Her body talk suggested she played aerodromes every day. As Red Young took a sparkling piano break she strolled stage left and leant against the PA stack as if it was a street corner, waving, swaying her hips, smiling in enjoyment of her band.

My overall experience of this day was niggles, irritations, hassles man. Joan Armatrading gave it warmth and heart, a glow in the chest and a tingle at the top of the spine, all those enigmatic little tricks your nervous system plays to tell your intellect that you are being touched and moved in ways that pass your own understanding. In fact she wasn’t ‘perfect’ or even ‘better than ever’. She slipped off-pitch more than once and probably not because of the monitors (no-one else had any trouble).

But in part it’s the risk factor in her free flow of inspiration. Contrary to the suggestion that she is a stiff stage performer she actually never does a number the same way twice. Her songs veer from passages as soft as a zephyr with barely a pulse-beat to driving choruses which she loves to work in new directions, soaring and diving to defy the imagination (sometimes even her own I mean).

‘I said I’m strong/Straight/Willing/To be a/Shelter/In a storm’. She told the crowd that ‘Willow’ could be an anthem. Strength through delicacy is a strange idea but she showed us how it may be so. ‘Cool Blue Stole My Heart’ was the romantic beauty of the afternoon, the one from ‘Back To The Night’ she will always play.” ‘Steppin’ Out’, retained as her solo spot, added further dimensions of attack to her guitar work, wonderfully energised and tensile. Then she said “Here’s the song you’ve been waiting for all day” introducing ‘Love And Affection’, a startling, likeable trace of arrogance. She closed with ‘Get In The Sun’ and ‘Mamma Mercy’ to match the steamy afternoon and the huge hydrogen balloons jostling jokily in the breeze above the stage. An encore was demanded but refused for reasons unannounced (possibly to do with getting Dylan’s 12-piece on stage).

No ‘Flight Of The Wild Geese’ which may have been a tacit comment by Ms Armatrading on that unsatisfactory movie-theme job. No new material at all though Parker proved the chance could be taken with this aimiable/passive crowd. But a hot, strong, satisfying set. Her latest line-up with Steve Bentley (bass), Matt Betten (drums) and Bill Ham (guitar) joining Young and Quitman Dennis from the ’77 model is quieter and a hint more dedicated to backing rather than making individual impressions. They could be her best accompanists since The Movies. As I turned away from the stage everyone around me seemed to be grinning. We were happy. Pardon us.

Like moths to a flame they came from as far away as Camberley and Basingstoke: Bianca Jagger, Ringo Starr, Wilko Johnson, Mick Jones, Billy Connolly, Brian Lane (Yes manager), John Ameson (Penetration manager), Jenny Agutter, John Cooper Clarke, Barbara Dickson, Bob Harris, RoryGallagher, Terry Wilson Slessor, Jeff Bannister, Denny Laine and a Dulux dog that could have been Paul McCartney’s Martha though she refused to comment.

Bianca graced all the back-stage hospitality tents with her presence. Our fashion correspondent writes that she was wearing clothes with a matching body. Ringo, grey and worried-looking, complained that he couldn’t see the stage from the liggers’ enclosure and was plonked (that is, placed) on a chair in the open stage front area for Clapton ‘s set.

Billy Connolly said “Hi!’and gripped a Sounds man firmly by the urinal. By the arm, by the urinal. They had never set eyes on each other before but the Big Yin was obviously playing safe. John Cooper Clarke’s record company had slapped ‘Hippie’s Graveyard’ stickers on all the ‘Dylan Concert’ road signs but the laureate elect was there, browning it out.

Wrong-end-of-the-telescope figure walking through the last bars of his band’s testing-testing workout of ‘My Back Pages’ into the spotlight. A slow roar from the far-flung crowd. He steps into the square foot of stage I can see, which is a relief. That is, I can see his top half at least. Black leather-jacket, black top hat, and… is that shades or black eye make-up? Shades. I’m not close enough to see his face as I could at Earl’s Court, and I’m going to miss that contact, that closeness which focusses the misty myth (to hell with the divinity crap and listen to the man).

Though maybe that whine of a voice will be immortal. ‘Baby stop crying/it’s tearing me apart’. Of course, what he used to write was far more elaborate in its imagery. These words could as easily be hack Tin-Pan-Alley. So everything rests on the performance. And Dylan has the indivisible quality, of saying it and meaning it and being able to project it no matter what the setting.

The distant dwarf leans intently into the mike and ‘Baby Stop Crying’ emerges from the stacks as a giant a hundred feet high and almost crying with passion – a great span of emotion behind the quarrelsome words from anger at the womanly wall of grief to guilt at having been the cause of it. The ground is familiar to everyone, the aural cinemascope experience of it something quite new, so big yet so clear. More than he has ever done on record Dylan live delivers his meaning. Sometimes it’s quite a discovery after all these years: he makes sense!

He mutters “Thank you, we’re starting to get going” or something like and around me people ask each other urgently “What’d he say?” because they can’t make out that Brando drawl and they want to because anything this man says might be, you know… IT.

‘Shelter From The Storm’: ‘I offered up my innocence and I get repaid with scorn’. His new band and his new arrangements are chopping the songs up into edible bites, jerky chunks of stiff riffs, segments of word and sound like a long but well punctuated sentence. Coherence is the key. Sound sense.

He puts aside his guitar, holds the mike to still his hands because he’s never had much practice at just standing there singing, finds that tipping his hat like Oliver Hardy is some- thing else he can do. Alan Pasqua at the piano is shaking tail for his leader, curtain of long hair swinging, swaying through ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’. With the almost nonchalance of an almost-classy conjurer Dylan produces his harp from the palm of his hand and blasts his first raucous solo for which a mighty whoop rises from the crowd (because it hasn’t all changed?). ‘Girl From The North Country’ touches me more than ever before. A hopeless love and tenderness. The guy who can’t think of a message for the woman he’s lost and wonders about whether she’s got a coat to keep her from the howlin’ wind.

The liggers are starting to wilt, skulk back to the Moet Et Chandon champagne tent and the major business of their visit – being seen and getting bombed. They miss scalding versions of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. I had always curled my lip at these songs becuse these were at the centre of his transition from protester to rocker which I took a while to accept. But these ’78 treatments I can’t resist. Everybody is bellowing choruses, moaning with pleasure, bopping into each other in the gloom.

The band, which is generally no better than workaday, gets inspired. Pounding brick on brick of thick music. Sod me! Completely different from the best songs earlier in the set because these words could just as well be gibberish. The girl singers are hollering as if they are naked (I can’t see’ them but their voices are stripped bare).

This is an obvious crescendo. And Dylan is precisely a third of the way through his set. No interval here as there was at Earl’s Court so instead he seems to deliberately slacken pace and tension. A couple-more from ‘Street Legal’ then a slightly bizarre section in which the backing singers and the Alpha Band each do a song of their own choice. Only Carolyn Dennis’s black old blues ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ works at all. When Jo Ann Harris warbles through ‘The Long And Winding Road’ disbelief and dismay contest supremacy on the faces near me and Steven Soles of the Alphas is appalling, singing ‘What would we do if nobody’s dreams came true?’ then advising us with extreme unction ‘Think about it’. Dylan introduced him as ‘a genius’ which I take to be an atypically loose use of language.

But it’s all right. A blue spotlight picks out Dylan alone, strumming an acoustic (which we thought we would never see again) and he sings ‘The Gates Of Eden’. The details don’t reach me though I used to know them by heart. Just the cool blue concentration spreads.

‘True Love Tends To Forget’. Another new love song. I haven’t got the flavour of it yet. It’s probably quite mediocre. But it occurs to me that, whatever else, he is never sentimental and that’s one reason why we still trust him (despite wealth, fame and star paranoia).

‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ has taken on a quiet, musing tone, the questions asked rather than spat out as militant rhetoric. ‘I Want You’ is slowed almost to a full stop and the imagery remains opaque even though every detail is now audible. What it does is pitch you back relieved on to the totally understandable chorus ‘I want you so bad’ and that is moving enough though the thought seems a bit pretentious on writing it down.

For the last hour I’m conscious that the end must be close and I’m a cup running over but wanting more. ‘Masters Of War’ is menacing, stunning, sung over arock-solid riff culled from ‘Louie, Louie’. ‘Just Like A Woman’ simplified, calm and friendly. ‘Ramona’ magnificent,’ an eternal song swirling out of the ether with the crisp instrumental phrasing delineating new moods and meanings, my favourite love song, it’s lovely (‘Your cracked country lips I still long to kiss as to be by the tuch of your skin!).

‘Don’t Think Twice’ a vicious cynical joke against white men singing the reggaes, a vicious bitch about women, avicious selfparody and throwback to the desperate mood of the Hard Rain album. Yeah Dylan is still shocking, over-the-top, chilling. Still. I keep saying ‘still’. But who am I reassuring? Did anyone who matters ever doubt him?

‘All Along The Watchtower’. ‘It’s All Right Ma’: roaring rock ‘Even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked’. He finishes the set with ‘Forever Young’. Cynicism a burnt-out shell, this is his purest song perhaps, fusing his own innocence (it does survive, another reason we trust him) with the audience’s. Hope, if not faith. My girlfriend says ‘it’s a hymn.” Wood for the fire. He encores with ‘Changing Of The Guards’ then “The Times They Are A-Changin’. Hope, if not faith. Dylan says “Thankyou” and time and again “I wanna come back to see you real soon.”

I’ve loved Bob Dylan for half my 31 years. Seeing him at last this summer has only deepened that feeling and strengthened it with respect for his care, energy and boundless imagination. He is the only rock artist I know of who could do a live album every year and each one be an original gem. For confirmation have another listen to ‘Lay Lady Lay’ on Nashville SkylineBefore The Flood and Hard Rain. That’s the sort of radical approach he brought to bear throughout the Blackbushe epic. Physical discomfort and isolation from the stage made it a less magical occasion than Earl’s Court. Nevertheless it was richly satisfying.

Despite the high finance and heavy-duty wheeler-dealing surrounding him he stays straight. Show biz only takes. Dylan gave us everything he’d got.

© Phil SutcliffeSounds, 22 July 1978

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