By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Please note there is a complete index to the Never Ending Tour series here.
1993 Part One – Tangled up in guitars.
1993 is a stand out year for the Never Ending Tour. I’m tempted to rank it as one of the very best.
All the hard work the band has been putting in for the last two years suddenly pays off. This is not just Dylan with band, this is a band, a unity and a formidable force. A five piece powerhouse with Dylan and John Jackson on main guitars, Tony Garnier on bass, Wilson Watson on drums, and, important for the sounds the band was developing, the brilliant Bucky Baxter on slide guitar and dobro.
The year is famous for the acoustic season Dylan did at the Supper Club, and we will drop in on that, but most outstanding is the emergence of Dylan as Mr Guitar Man. We’ve noticed him here and there in 1991 and 1992, with his odd, dissonant sounds, but mostly he’s been content to play second guitar. However, in 1993 Mr Guitar Man steps out of the shadows and makes his presence felt in no uncertain terms.
Bob Dylan is not listed in the world’s top 100 guitar players. This is somewhat surprising as the young acoustic Dylan inspired generations of young buskers and folk singers. Dylan plays adroitly on Blood on the Tracks, and his two solo traditional albums in 1992 and 1993, Good as I been to You and World Gone Wrong show that Dylan has not lost his touch when it comes to acoustic guitar. The 1992 acoustic performances show Dylan in fine form (see NET 1992 part 3 – All the friends I ever had are gone)
It is not Dylan’s acoustic skills that cause disquiet, but his electric guitar playing, and we have to ask why it sounds so strange and ‘off’. My jazz playing friends are only too happy to tell me that Dylan is playing ‘off key’ and that his breaks are full of ‘bum notes’.
This is puzzling as Dylan rarely if ever sings off key. The accusation that Dylan ‘can’t sing’ is baseless, as he has the most expressive voice in the business. Similarly his harmonica playing, while it often deliberately flirts with dissonance, is unique, Dylan is master of the little instrument (See Bob Dylan Master Harpist series).
The same can’t be said with any confidence about Dylan’s electric guitar playing. Obsessive and manic, and always unsettling, Dylan appears to be playing ‘under the note’ or just below the note. He plays percussively, often hammering away at one or two notes, and he seems more concerned with subverting the melody with his guttural tones than supporting it.
Dark and trenchant, it lacks the airiness of his harmonica playing. And yet, when he pulls it off, there is nothing quite like it, and I’m dedicating this and the next two posts to exploring Dylan’s electric guitar sound as it emerged in 1993.
It seems to me that the triumphant emergence of Mr Guitar Man in 1993 sees the best of his guitar performances, with a touch of Dylan-style genius. Maybe it is the joy of discovering his inner Eric Clapton, but to my mind Dylan’s lead guitar work was never better than in this year.
Let’s start with a raging performance of ‘I and I’ from September 12. Dylan must have decided that the album version was just too sweet (Infidels, 1984). He worked it into a rocker with Tom Petty in the mid 1980s, and began re-exploring it in 1991 and 1992. Nothing, however can prepare us for this blast of sound, this tangle of guitars. And his voice! How he tears it out of his throat! A soundboard recording brings it right up close.
After the opening crash of the drums, the first guitar sounds you hear are from Dylan on his punky Stratocaster. From there on Dylan and guitarist Carlos Santana, who played with him from August 20 to October 9, get into a duet, a marvellous weaving of notes. The ending is all pathos. As the music draws to a dark close, with Baxter’s long gloomy sounds heralding doom, Dylan continues, as if to keep the song alive, before the final shattering surrender. Crank up the volume and hold onto your seats!
The ‘I and I’ story doesn’t end there for this year, however. In August, Dylan did a memorable concert in Portland (20/8/93), also with Carlos Santana. While this Portland performance sees some gutsy guitar work by Dylan and Santana, with the ending more fully developed, it is Dylan’s voice that is astonishing, emerging from those oddly forced, timbreless tones of the past two years, where the sounds seemed to be stuck in his throat, to soar clear and high. Dylan, at fifty, is rediscovering his voice, that high, wild mercury voice.
Those who have followed along this far can only rejoice, and I invite your to revel in Dylan’s vocal on this ‘I and I’. Back in the 1960s we tried to imagine what Dylan’s voice might be like when he got older. I think we imagined something like this:
We can’t quite leave the song there. Since 1993 was the year this song reached a kind of perfection, I find it interesting to backtrack to a six show run Dylan did in London at the start of the year, 2/12/93. Here we find Dylan pushing his voice in all kinds of direction, testing the melodic limits of the song and his voice at the same time. The effect is a little more strained than the Portland performance, his voice hasn’t quite loosened up, but no less epic.
Then, quite unexpectedly and beautifully, the tangle of growling guitars recedes and a harp solo intervenes, with a few bars of sadness and reflection as a build up to a soaring conclusion, all of which brings a spontaneous roar of approval from the audience. It’s not quite as ferocious as our first version, but it reaches further.
What we have been listening to with these remarkable performances is Jackson (or Santana) and Dylan playing good cop bad cop. Jackson/Santana playing good cop, working the melody like a jazz man, keeping it clear and sharp, while Dylan plays bad cop, attacking the melody line, bitching at it, subverting it, throwing in jagged notes in the key of Dylan.
We now turn to our old favourite, Tangled up In Blue. We heard Dylan in 1992 turning this wonderfully adaptable song into an extended, pounding rocker. In 1993 Dylan stretches the song as far as he can, with twelve and thirteen minute performances, many of those minutes given over to Mr Guitar Man. In this (June 25) performance, we get an extraordinary introduction to Mr Guitar Man. While Dylan is playing hard and fast in the first guitar break, it’s not until the second break, before the last verse, at 5.47 minutes, that we hear Mr Guitar Man in full flight.
It’s a wacky, off the wall, positively demented guitar break. I used this performance in my Master Harpist series, and one of the correspondents suggested that Dylan was influenced by the jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, who was always stabbing at the piano trying to find the notes between the notes. At 6.35 minutes Jackson takes over the lead, you can hear his clear melodic tones, while Dylan continues to stalk the melody with dark, punky sounds.
The harp solo kicks in after the last verse at 7.36 minutes, after which, at 8.30 minutes, the two guitars take over again for a frantic two minutes of furious guitars, driven by Dylan’s off the wall sounds.
This was no one-off performance. All through 1993 Dylan turned out these powerhouse performances of ‘Tangled..’, throwing restraint to the wind and ripping into lengthy guitar duets with John Jackson or Carlos Santana. This kicked off a decade of ecstatic performances of this song, but none so wild or extensive as in 1993.
What’s remarkable about the next performance, as well as the tangle of guitars, is the piercing harp break, taking us back to Dylan’s 1989 form. At just over thirteen and a half minutes this must go on record as being among Dylan’s most sustained guitar performances. The harp break finishes at 10.55 mins and the guitars take over for the next three minutes of wild duetting with Santana. Dylan tearing it apart. And we hear the best of many slow, ominous pounding endings, with Dylan slamming three or four notes over and over. Madness!
Madness is what we get too, in this hard driven performance of ‘God Knows’. Originally recorded for ‘Oh Mercy’ in 1989, it was re-recorded for ‘Under the Red Sky’ (1990). It’s been a bit of a sleeper up to this point, when it steps forward in all its glory. It’s all about the tenuousness and fragility of things. How stretched everything is:
God knows it could snap apart right now Just like putting scissors to a string
That feels very contemporary, I have to say.
Ah, but Dylan and Santana turn this song into an apocalyptic hurricane, with Dylan’s hard, dark tones leading. I’ve heard some heavy metal that sounds pretty candified compared to this. Again that long ending as Dylan fights against the closing down of the song, the drawing in of night … however you think of it.
At Portland in August, Dylan changes the whole build up of the song by starting with a low-key harmonica solo, keeping it quiet to begin with, only cranking it up after two and half minutes. Another wonderful vocal performance – note some lyrical variations. And of course the guitars…
So that’s enough to get us started on this remarkable year. Next post I’ll be back with more rocking, electric sounds from 1993.
Stay safe, keep dancing.
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