Around 65,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to watch two of the greatest singer-songwriters of our times. Just the fact that Bob Dylan and Neil Young were on the same stage in London seemed enough for most fans, who treated the occasion with joyous awe. Given their respective ages (Dylan is 78, Young is 73), we surely can't count on many more shows like this.
Unlike many of their nipped and tucked veteran rock contemporaries, they look like they have lived every year, two old men with wrinkly skin and sloping shoulders. And they act like it too, performing with self-absorbed intent and purpose, as if they no longer care what anyone else in the world thinks. They don't bother much with lights or effects. They don't talk to the crowd or lead audience participation singalongs. Barely a word was uttered during the four hours they spent (separately) on stage, apart from a couple of muttered expressions of gratitude by Young. They just play their amazing, world-changing songs, and we are allowed to bear witness.
And that is enough.
In other ways, Dylan and Young could not be more different. For Young, the music has always been more central than the lyrics, and he digs into it with every fibre of his being. He came on stage wearing a paint-spattered shirt, like a workman interrupted in the middle of a job, picked up his Gibson Les Paul and set off in a blaze of fuzz and feedback. His gritty young band, Promise of the Real (led by Willie Nelson's son Lukas) were clearly relishing every moment with their musical hero, grinning through rock jams with a loose but expert swagger.
Young often turned his back on the audience to get involved with his players who gathered in a circle as Young's fingers roamed the fretboard and squalls of noise arose from his amp. He remains such an exciting guitarist, with a heavy touch of vigour unusual in a virtuoso. He seems perpetually on the verge of losing control of his instrument, and yet peels out lines that veer between thrilling melodiousness and avant-garde attack.
His singing voice has always been thin but three vocalists in his five-piece band joined him in harmony to blissful effect. His set was packed with classics. He picked up an acoustic and harmonica for gorgeous versions of Heart of Gold and Old Man, then whacked up the reverb for wild versions of Hurricane and Rockin' in the Free Word that felt as if they might never end. In a good way.
If Young still plays like his life depends upon it, Dylan still performs like a mystery only he has the answer to. He remains the most inscrutable of artists, as much (I suspect) to his band members as his audiences. He sat at a grand piano (Dylan rarely plays guitar any more), splashing out notes, extending bars, concocting odd intros and outros, slowing songs down or speeding them up, and incanting his extraordinary lyrics in a mixture of dramatic recitation and bluesy croak, with unpredictable rhythms and baffling emphasis. His set too was packed with some of the greatest songs ever written (It Ain't Me Babe, Simple Twist of Fate, Blowin' in the Wind, Like a Rolling Stone) but it was impossible to sing along. Adele turned Make You Feel My Love into a soul classic, Dylan delivered it like an explosive threat, singing "Make YOU! Feel MY! LOVE!"
The crowd visibly thinned out as the show stretched on. There are those who come to a Dylan show as if it is an item on a bucket list that needs to be crossed off and they respond with incredulity to his strange performances. But for the dedicated, Dylan is mesmerising, his mysterious concoctions of lyrics and melody refreshed with each eccentric rendition.
In Hyde Park, it all came together for a spine-tingling version of 1963 ballad Girl from the North Country, which the old maestro crooned with gentle melodiousness and tender feeling, as if it had taken him all this time to really glean the anguished nostalgia of his words.
An air of hushed reverence descended throughout the park. We may never be able to really understand Dylan, but he's going to make us lonesome when he goes.