Crocks of rock turn into good-time boys

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UP TO a year ago nobody could have accused Belfast Civic Authority of being an institution driven by fun, but like everything in Ulster these days, strange things are afoot.

The "Ulster Says No" banner that (dis)graced the city hall for years has been quietly retired, and after dark decades of Free Presbyterian fundamentalists picketing so much as a gospel pop gig in a church hall, the kids want to rock. Their parents, too, if the Van 'n' Bob demographic was anything to go by.

The open-air concert has been a rarity in Northern Ireland, but last year's U2 concert - attended by 40,000 in these same Botanic Gardens - set in motion a trend as irreversible as the peace process. People want a little fun, and on Friday night they set out to get it from Bob Dyland and Van Morrison. Bizarrely, two of rock's infamous curmudgeons had come out for the same thing.

Fronting a five-piece band with no keyboards but with Dobro and mandolin helping deliver a shimmering guitar soundscape, Dylan was here to confound the sceptics. He even spoke, introducing an old Irish folk song, "Stephen's Green", that, to judge from the looks his band gave him, was a spur- of-the-moment decision. "Never tried that before," he said. "Hey, it wasn't bad."

And neither were the classics he let us hear - "It Ain't Me Babe", "Don't Think Twice", even "This Wheel's on Fire" for goodness sake. The bulk of the set was big and electric though - a pulsing ZZ Top-ish behemoth that lent a freshness to the likes of "Serve Somebody" and "Under the Red Sky". The highlight was a gloriously extended "Tangled Up in Blue'', with Bob duck-walking the stage, harmonica in one hand and all but conducting the roars of applause with the other. The voice may have been cracked like an ancient sculpture but without the whine of parody.

Almost beyond belief, Van was up for a good time, too. It was definitely his crowd. Opening with "Days Like This'' it was unashamedly a song everybody knew - a song used by the Government in a series of TV peace commercials. After it, he spoke. This is a man who gets through entire concerts in silence.

"That was from the peace gig we did with Bill Clinton,'' he said. "This one's from the last record." He even told us what it was called. His new band were fabulous even by his own exacting standards, swathing everything with a light, airy, soulful shimmer and trouncing Bob's crew for sheer dynamics. Even the singularly unlovely refrain of "Don't Let The Bastards Grind Me Down'' (from Raincheck) sounded like it just might be spiritually uplifting.

"Any requests?" he asked, and he meant it. Some 15,000 people roared, and the 1989 hit "Whenever Cliff [sic] Shines His Light On Me" was the result. Artistically self-obsessed and hateful of the music biz he may be, but when he wants to be - as he did on Friday - he is brilliant and inspirational. Among the best there is.

Bob Dylan and Van Morrison play Wembley Arena, 27 June (0181 902 0902)

Colin Harper