Apparently J. G. Ballard once responded to a request to come to Belfast to read from his work with the reasonable excuse that he was ‘so very old’, and Belfast was ‘so very far away’. Neither of these factors seem to have bothered Bob Dylan much – if indeed it was Bob Dylan who played The Odyssey on Saturday 26th of June. For one thing, sitting in the raised (and, by the end of the day, very much free) seating at the back of a stadium which boasts a capacity of 10,000, he was so very, very far away that, in fact, in the near black-out conditions of the crowd, and in all the vastness – in the absence of big screens, and in the act’s complete lack of interaction with (or acknowledgement of) the audience – it was possible to hallucinate that the stage’s small rectangle of light in the middle distance was just a television, and that this space was an ordinary sized living-room with a bunch of really tiny people standing on the carpet. Add to this the mid-numbing, hygienic mediocrity of whatever adult rock was being played, the difficulty of identifying Dylan himself (I looked in the wrong spot for forty-five minutes – and I was wearing glasses), and the impression that his henchmen were going through the motions, and, suddenly, the sense of impersonation became so overwhelming that it was briefly not only like watching T.V., but like watching The Simpsons on T.V., and seeing Bob Dylan! and His Band! do a parodic celebrity spot. Then even this authenticity evaporated, because surely he wouldn’t impersonate himself so badly, and, besides, were you in your living-room, you realise, you could smoke, and you wouldn’t have to queue for twenty minutes for a beer and then find the bar closed (at nine o’clock). Even your living room wouldn’t be so atmosphere-free, and at least you could switch the lights on to avoid fracturing your ankle on somebody. Crucially, in your living room you could turn off that noise and play something by Bob Dylan.
This, of course, is the experience up in the Everest of the cheap seats. Who sits at a concert anyway – and if you do, do you deserve to be rewarded by a spectacle as soulless, synthetic and divorced from its rock and roll roots as your desire to sit thirty feet in the air and drink beer quietly from a plastic cup? In this regard, the whole thing was so weird that, perversely, it was almost good. Maybe it was even strangely appropriate. I don’t agree with the view that The Odyssey Arena is an architectural monstrosity given over to hosting vapid, context-less simulacra (though, does it really have a bar based on the film Coyote Ugly?), but, seriously, the last time I was this disoriented was in the Arena’s 3-D Imax. It was not, however, interesting enough to endure for more than an hour, so maybe after that it all got really good.