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Bob Dylan – Kilkenny 2001

This article was published in the Kilkenny People in July 2001.

The big question was, could the old codger pull it off. Was he going to electrify the packed out stadium? Or was he merely going to go through the motions in a sulk, like he’s been known to do every once in a while?

Nowlan Park has been revving its engines all day long. A string of performers including Juliet Turner , Glen Hansard and Kilkenny’s own Steven Murphy have been entertaining the growing crowds since 2:30. I arrived around about the time the Angelus gongs rang across the medieval city. And just in time to see the Blind Boys of Alabama take to the stage. There simply ain’t much cooler on this planet of ours than to see a bunch of blind black old dudes wearing shades and belting out gospel songs for half an hour. Elvis Costello was on next. I reckon he had a hard time of it because most people were probably thinking, “would you ever hurry up with yer moaning, Elvis, and let Bob on”.

Because next up is Big Bad Bob. The unpredictable 60-year-old slab of greying rebellion that is Bob Dylan. Perhaps I’m deceiving myself but it seemed to me that there was a huge and sudden shift of atmosphere from this moment on. For the good. There we were, 20,000 of us, hemisphered beneath a gorgeous blue evening sky, swaying on the Cats home ground, waiting for Bob to come on stage and let rip.

The crowd is very excited. And extremely thick. Everyone’s shuffling up to be closer to the stage. The Frisbee-shaped beer-trays keep hurtling up into the lilac and blue canopy above. Then they stop hurtling up and begin hurtling down, crash-landing on randomly selected unfortunates. Elvis has already asked everyone to go aisy on the tray-chucking but some people just weren’t born to obey. There is a large amount of whooping. Classical music is blaring out across Kilkenny. All eyes are on the stage. (well, when they weren’t keeping guard for plummeting beer-trays). Only – hang about, was that a harmonica? Was that Bob’s harmonica? The crowd roars. Whoooooargh! But it wasn’t Bob on his harmonica. It was another fellow, just having a brief tootle to himself. He’s standing beside one of two racks, each one containing 5 or 6 funky looking guitars. Somebody else is wheeling on a giant violin. All around me people are talking of their encounters with Bob, from his Vicar Street gig last year right back to the glory days of ’62 when the guitar-strumming Bob launched himself as the unofficial poet laureate of the Free World.

Looking at the stage, I tot up 300 lights blaring down and 36 king size speakers booming out. I reckon there’s a fair chance my deaf granddad can hear this carry on out in Bennetsbridge. The Radio Kilkenny clock says its 9:00. The anticipation is immense. Whistling. Whooping. “We Want Bob, We Want Bob”. And then, just like that, he’s there. Bob is on stage. Scruffy black suit, white shirt, grey face. And he’s got a heap of dudes with him, including no less a legend than Ronnie Wood.

Bob strolls forward, plucks a guitar from the rack and whams straight into a country riff that turns Nowlan Park into the world’s biggest Bouncy Castle. It becomes apparent from the very beginning that Bob Dylan is on form. More than that, he’s on fire. The crowd know it, he knows it, the magical wispy sky knows it. Everything is working out just fine. Many people wonder what all the fuss is about Bob Dylan. Isn’t he just a grumpy old crooner who struck it lucky with some righteous ballads during Vietnam and has been living off them ever since? Watching Bob Dylan going for it in the summer of 2001 put an end to those doubts forever. To see Bob’s knee jigging at 300mph as he rattles the guitar and chews his guttural gob to life, that’s What About Bob?

Bob sings songs we all know. Yet very few of us recognise them because he’s taken to singing the songs totally differently. But that’s grand. He never could sing anyway. So what. The crowd don’t mind in the slightest. “I think you’re just meant to be happy” mused a lad to my left. It’s also clear that Bob’s main men are loving this, the five of them riffing madly, a guitar each, shifting hips like slalom skiers on gasoline. When each song finishes, Nowlan Park starts roaring as if DJ himself has put a hat-trick in the net. I check out the audience for a while. It is extraordinarily sweet (and reassuring in these slop-pop days) to see three plump-faced 12 year old girls gazing in adoration at Bob stuck on an “aaaaaaargh” chant. A big blown up Rubber Johnny drifts past my eyes, carried upon a sea of outstretched palms. Fellahs are holding their mobile phones up on high so that their lassies can hear the craic back at home. There’s no set vintage on this crowd. Grey heads and pre-pubescents are as one. A toothless old codger is playing hopscotch with himself and sporting a magnificent Rastafari hat … or maybe it’s a Carlow hat, the colours are the same. A brace of stunning drain-piped sisterettes are skupping their heels like they is standing barefoot on a hot tin roof. A chubby toddler gallops off through a dense forest of kneecaps pursued by his flabbergasted father. I look back at the Stadium itself, packed to the back, and can’t help but feel the privileged sitters would far rather the roaming freedom of a “Standing Ticket” to those latitudinal conversations entailed by “10 seats in a row”. I wish they’d do a Mexican Wave.

I don’t know how many songs Bob sang. Maybe a dozen in total. When he’s finally finished, he isn’t at all. He’s only codding. There are five encores. He can’t leave. The roaring chanting crowd won’t let him. And that’s when he fires out a brace of anthemic gems, Like a Rolling Stone, and the ever outstanding Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. (I wonder how mighty would it have been if the Blind Boys had come on stage to help out with the latter). But the hour is getting late. It’s getting dark, too dark to see. And so we bid Bob and his merry men a final huge cheerio. I about turn and trundle into Kilkenny for a nightcap, reckoning that was as good as you get, no error.

The jax situation wasn’t so good. The official queue was snaking in and around and back on itself at all times, a fidgety line of cute bargers and patient heroines shuffling forward one step at a time. The lads decided this was way too much effort and the unofficial jax got going soon afterwards. This was the inside of the Park’s main wall. And here for the duration of the night was a non-stop relay race performed by gentlemen requiring immediate urination therapy. It was a largely comical sight, even if the ground had become a powerful marsh by 10:00. Many of these gallants, myself included, kept their heads low and their eyes well shaded lest their aunts or mothers strolled by and caught them. This was after all Bob Dylan & Friends so mothers and aunts were all over the place.

Two bars, licensed for a cool £60,000 to two well known Kilkenny pubs (Matt the Millers and Rafter Dempseys), served out a respectable 1000 kegs of Smithwicks, Guinness and Carlsberg at £3 a pop.