Bob Dylan, Fleadh festival, Finsbury Park

Dylan's show are often hit or miss - and this one must be the latter
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The Independent Culture

Over the years, the annual Fleadh in Finsbury Park has, like most outdoor musical events, lost much of its unique character. Back in 1990, the bill comprised entirely Irish acts such as Paul Brady, Christy Moore, The Dubliners and Mary Coughlan, and was topped by Celtic Soul touchstone Van Morrison; even the indie bands on the second stage were Irish hopefuls such as Fatima Mansions.

The native Irish performers at this weekend's affair, by contrast, could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.

As its original national character has been progressively eroded, the Fleadh has, in effect, been transformed into a metropolitan version of the Cambridge Folk Festival.

With its original raison d'etre so comprehensively denuded, this year's Fleadh was more than usually dependent on its headliner, Bob Dylan. Given it was the only London date on Dylan's current tour, and tickets for the entire day cost only a few quid more than for one of Bob's indoor arena shows, there's no doubt that most of the punters (and, one suspects, a fair few of the performers, too) were there just to see the founding father of folk-rock. Dylan's enduring appeal is, of course, one of pop's great marvels, his ability to draw tens of thousands, year upon year, being partly due to his legendary status, and partly to the way his constant recasting of his back catalogue keeps both himself and his material alive and fresh.

Last night, the hallowed centre stage position is occupied by Bob's old mate Ronnie Woods. For those who remember Bob, Keef and Ron's legendarily shambolic performance at Live Aid, this is not a particularly auspicious omen. The band launches into a version of "Down Along The Cove", the diffident shuffle of the John Wesley Harding album put into a bluesy rockabilly rave-up.

It sounds great but sadly, it's pretty much downhill from that point on. The intro to "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" seems hurried, and although there's a certain charm to the contrast between Dylan's laryngitic croak and the silky pedal steel guitar, it's a hesitant, unsatisfying performance by his usual standards. The declamatory blues licks of "Lonesome Day Blues", which follows, help in getting Ronnie settled in, although the ensuing "Maggie's Farm", as a strutting funk workout, seems a bit perfunctory. Worse is to come, with a plodding "Desolation Row" from which every drop of juice has been drained. Dylan shows have always been hit and miss, and this one must be considered one of the latter; but the one thing you can be sure of with Bob is that there'll be others, and far better ones, to come.