NET 1991 part 3: King of the Unsteady

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

By listening to the performances, we are starting to get a feel for that difficult and contentious year, 1991. Not quite the train wreck that the commentators claim, the year comes across to me more like a year of on-stage rehearsals, with Dylan trying out new arrangements and new musicians in front of audiences. This attempt to make old songs new again would not fully pay off until later years. Here we see them in their raw state, and the results are more gritty than pretty.

There is something of a deconstructive urge at work that I detected in the 1988 performances. The results can sound quite harsh and uncompromising. The tendency to flatten the melodic line with his scratchy voice, and so leach much of the drama from the songs, is evident in this performance of his 1966 epic ‘Visions of Johanna’. Lacking the soaring spookiness of his 1966 live performances, or the midnight sinuousness of the album version, this 1991 performance lacks atmosphere, despite some energetic acoustic guitar. And, at least to my mind, the up tempo versions of the song fail to capture it in all its glory. He rattles through it well enough, but often those incomparable lyrics get blurred or rushed over. Verses get dropped out, and although he works the song up to a strong ending, the ultimate result is less than electrifying.

Visions of Johanna

We get a better result with ‘Simple Twist of Fate’. He keeps the tempo slow and takes his time with the lyrics. The vocal works okay, with some interesting lyrical variations, but there is some dissonant guitar work from Dylan that puts us on edge. A trenchant harp break helps give the song some push, but the overall effect is of a sound that hasn’t quite jelled. And I’m not sure about that ‘trick ending’ as Dylan describes it to the audience at the end of the song. It sounds to me as if he didn’t quite know when and where to end it.

Simple Twist of Fate

That other classic from Blood on the Tracks, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ does not fare so well, although the vocal is not rushed and there’s some nice jazzy harp. The real issue is with the overall sound and the general messiness of it. And we have to finally ask if Dylan is playing in the same key as everybody else. His tendency to play under the note, and to give even these semi-acoustic performances a punk like sound, makes for uneasy listening.

It seems that whatever the key of the song, Dylan always plays in the key of D – that is, the key of Dylan. The presence of Dylan as Mr Guitar Man is only just beginning to assert itself, and will become an increasing factor in the following years. A movement is taking place from Dylan as purely rhythm guitar, chord keeper, to Dylan the lead or assistant lead guitar. The results, particularly in 1991, are not easy on the ear.

Shelter from the Storm

On the other hand, the other guitarist, I assume it’s John Johnson, doesn’t help much either, with some odd tuning to his own guitar. Whoever it is, the overall effect is scrappy.

You notice some difference when Dylan is not playing the guitar, as on this rough and ready but serviceable performance of ‘Under the Red Sky’. Dylan is on the electric piano, although not obtrusively, and although we have that scratchy voice to deal with, the performance carries us along okay. We are reminded once more of how good this droll song is.

Under the Red Sky.

Dylan’s 1984 ‘Man of Peace’ gets a nice nineties chuggy beat (where have I heard that beat before?) and works well with Dylan on piano once more. It’s a foot-tapper, but doesn’t really take off. You can hear Dylan trying hard with that voice, but again, the strain is evident. The song doesn’t have such a great reputation, but I think it sums up well his post Christian doubt.

Man of Peace

‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is one of Dylan’s most famous songs, and he has never let it drift too far from his setlist. This semi-acoustic version builds well, Dylan again on electric piano, with a lovely, free flowing break. Again, however, I’m less impressed with the guitar work. The vocal is up front, and while that same strain is evident, we can hear Dylan reaching for a new vocal line and not falling back on old tried and true formulations. It’s not my favourite version, but it has a certain raw authenticity to it. It struggles rather than soars, but that fits the song too.

Knocking on Heavens Door

Then, out of these dusty corners there rolls another gem, Dylan’s gospel classic from 1980, ‘I Believe in You’. The pure, bluesy, opening harp break would alone justify its inclusion here, and once more I wonder where this song was hiding when I did my Master Harpist series. And while Dylan’s washed-out voice doesn’t have the richness of the 1980 Toronto performances, he takes to the song with a will, and all goes well until he flubs the lyrics, mixes the lines, and can’t seem to recover the momentum of the song. For all that, however, it’s a spirited performance well worth the listen.

I Believe in You

‘Just like a Woman’ has never been my favourite Dylan song, and this not my favourite performance of it. Nevertheless it is a sustained performance, with an intensification of the vocal towards the end. The tender vulnerability of the album version is lost, however, and the music meanders on for a few choruses after the verses to little effect. Just marking time, it seems to me.

Just like a Woman

We can, however, quite safely kick our shoes off and do a little soft-shoe shuffle to ‘I’ll be your Baby Tonight’.  It all seems to come together. Dylan sings with plenty of verve and imagination. The band seems to settle in too. You sense Dylan and the band are having the kind of good time the song promises as they chug along. It’s about as laid back as Dylan gets. The jazzy harp sets it up nicely at the beginning, and finishes it off nicely at the end. Only towards the end of the song do we hear Dylan’s dissonant Stratocaster messing with our heads. This is another from the summer tour.

I’ll be your Baby Tonight

‘Senor’ is another regular to Dylan’s set list. It’s a great vocal, but he misses out the crucial last verse and the song chugs along for another two minutes without much happening. The sense of oppression this song can build up, and the drama of it, are largely lost here, not so much because of Dylan’s vocal but because the looser chuggier beat doesn’t suit the song, which Dylan will later learn how to build into a crescendo.

 Senor

Songs like ‘Senor’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’ are mood songs – as is ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. But while the former two songs lost much of their atmosphere, ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ must be one of the strongest performances of the year. Despite the tendency to flatten the melody somewhat, Dylan delivers a pungent, emotional performance, his voice once again seeking new ways through the melodic line. This performance has none of the polished grandeur of the 1995 Prague performance (see Master Harpist 1), but, in keeping with the year, it has a harsh, raw power.

Man in the Long Black Coat

That brings to an end our tour of Dylan’s 1991 performances, and what a difficult and puzzling year it is to come to grips with. Not quite the train wreck of reputation, but things weren’t right much of the time with the Undesirables. The band never really jelled. Painful when you compare it to the precision machine Dylan now has, evident on Tempest and Rough and Rowdy Ways. The overall sound was often discordant and sharp, especially when Dylan began to test his Mr Guitar Man fingers.

And there was a certain amount of deliberate jettisoning of the legend, and the image of the legend. Dylan’s approach to the vocals was spirited, but he often elided words or forgot them, or left off verses. And there were unrehearsed and inconclusive endings to some of the songs. Messy endings.

Yet there was a spirit of innovation in the air. Dylan playing electric piano. Dylan playing increasingly jazzy harp breaks, sounding thin and mercurial. Dylan stretching his often strained voice in new directions, seeking new ways of resonating with the songs.

All this shemozzle would start to pay off in 1992. There was nowhere left to go but up.

Kia Ora, and see you next time.

You might also like to note…

Dylan and T.S Elliot meeting in the Captain’s Tower

And… Mike’s previous megaseries for Untold Dylan: Bob Dylan Master Harpist contains six articles which between them offer the most comprehensive guide to Dylan’s harmonica techniques ever assembled.

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