The sight and sound of musicians at the top of their game, in full flow - breaking through boundaries in front of the thousands of people lucky enough to witness the spectacle - never ceases to remind you of the raw, emotional punch that rock music can deliver. But first there is a Bob Dylan concert to attend.
Such is life for the Bob Dylan fan. We go to his shows hoping against hope that this artist who shaped and changed the way we saw the world, will finally cut the mustard live as we know he can (if only thanks to the endless bootlegs-turned-official releases of now legendary concerts). We go to his shows to neither bury nor praise. We go to his shows to observe this relic of an age when music mattered, words mattered, Dylan mattered. And we observe? Music murdered, words muttered, Dylan mangled.
Not that this worries the small army of obsessives who gather the next day on internet discussion boards to post their thoughts and observations on songs played, verses missed and lyrics mutilated. Such is life for the happy Dylan obsessive (and obsessives are always happy, aren't they). "He spoke!" they write. "I wish I'd been there. What did he say?" "I was near the back so didn't catch it," says one. "I was near the front but didn't catch it either," says another. But he spoke. He spoke! To us! Like he used to on those records. You know, the ones where his thought-dreams seemed to burn themselves right into our heads like laser beams. Seemed to sear themselves into our souls. Seemed to lead the way for successive generations that didn't follow leaders (preferring instead, as he informed us, to watch parking meters).
So what did he play? What was he like? This living legend. This rock royalty. This - as the taped announcement tells us as he takes the stage - "Poet Laureate of Rock". Well, if you are one of those obsessives: he was great, he played lesser-known songs ("Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread", "Summer Days", "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum"), he seemed happy, he might have even smiled. And if you know little about why this artist used to matter: he sucked, he played obscure songs, he delivered every indecipherable line in that sandpaper bark and his band played pub-rock R&B like the bastard offspring of an unholy union between Dire Straits and Status Quo. If you are a fan: he was OK, he played lesser songs, he seemed disengaged, he barely looked up, he stripped vocal melody down to a random sequence of howls, yelps, growls and snarls. Sure, there is a ravaged, shot-to-pieces majesty to that voice now. And sure, the music suffers slightly from Dylan's current inability to play the guitar (he stands behind a keyboard for most of the night due to a hand injury, apparently). But even so, this is the sound of a man who's been going through the motions for so long he's forgotten how important a little "e" can be at the start of that word. This is not the sound of a man that we know (we have the evidence in our CD collections) possesses the ability to see through us all and tell us where we're at and where we're going. Could it be that we are somehow to blame for this hollow sham of a travesty of a sham standing before us?
Shot genius? Rotting relic? Former folk prophet-turned-rambling rocker? Sometimes, if you close your eyes at a Bob Dylan concert, you can almost imagine you are at a Bob Dylan concert. But the answers have been blowing in the wind a long time now. The times have changed and a hard rain has fallen and we know how it feels to be all alone. So Bob, go home, put your feet up and don't come back until you remember how to engage as a live performer.
So who can capture our hearts and minds now that the old guard are gone or diminished? Well, to remind himself of how energising, exciting, challenging and intoxicating live music can still be, Dylan need look no further than the group who came to town the night after his end-of-tour whimper.
And how perverse that Radiohead - whose records are sometimes (rightly) accused of being aloof, detached, cold and unengaging - could be such an awe-inspiring entertainment machine in the unpromising Earls Court hangar. They joke, they laugh, they rock, they mesmerise, they apologise for asking us to clap along and they use every piece of technology at their disposal to create a show that looks and feels like a distillation of the past 50 years of popular music.
Remember, this is the same Radiohead that just a few years ago occupied the place that, say, Coldplay hold now. They were an above-average indie rock band with a melancholic edge that made mega-mainstream success look unlikely at best. Then, when the Coldplays, Muses and countless "New Radioheads" came along, they simply raised the bar on rock music by so many notches that they have now redefined what we can expect from it. The beast they have created is as indebted to electronica, jazz improvisation, folk, funk and the avant garde as it is to its more obvious rock precedents. Meaning that the Radiohead we have today is equal parts Neil Young, Kraftwerk, Spirit of Eden-era Talk Talk and the Sex Pistols without ever sounding anything like any of them.
Thom Yorke - with his just-hatched bird features and punk sneer - is the consummate frontman. He can sing like a choirboy or spit like Johnny Rotten, often in the service of the same song. His tales for today of dysfunctional airbags, damaged goods, city boys, Stepford wives, paranoid androids, fake plastic trees and karma police sound just as searching and pertinent as Dylan's words did back in the day. Want to know how we live today? Look no further than these lyrics from "Paranoid Android": "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/ Kicking, squealing, Gucci little piggy." Ouch.
Multi-instrumentalist/guitarist Jonny Greenwood - with his floppy, flaying hair and never-look-up concentration technique - is the ultimate sidekick. The textures, technique and air of restraint that he can let rip at any given moment makes them a stupefying force to be reckoned with live.
But if the performance on stage is perfection, it must also be said that the behind-the-scenes crew are at the top of their tree too. So here's a sentence you never thought you'd read. The sound in Earls Court is unbelievable. Wherever you happen to be, the music is punchy, crystal clear and just the right volume to consume all in its path without once resorting to distortion.
This is a state-of-the-art show in every sense of the phrase. That it takes place the night after Bob Dylan's seemingly never-ending "Never-Ending" tour apparently ground to a halt, means you can't help looking for cultural significance. The bar has been raised, the battle lines are drawn, the present now will later be the past, the order is rapidly fading. And the first ones now, will later be last, etc etc.
Or put it another way: hail to the thieves.
Radiohead: SECC, Glasgow (0141 248 3000), tonight; Exhibition Centre, Aberdeen (01224 620011), Monday; Point Theatre, Dublin (00 353 1836 36 33), Wednesday & ThursdayReuse content