The NET, 1993, Part 2 – The epic adventures of Mr Guitar Man


By Mike Johnson (Kiwi poet)

You won't amount to much, the people all said
'Cause I didn't play guitar behind my head…’ (Goodbye Jimmy Reed)

In the previous post (1993, part 1, Tangled up in Guitars), we saw the emergence of Mr Guitar Man (Dylan on lead guitar), and something of a renaissance in Dylan’s voice. And we saw some long, epic performances of ‘I and I’, ‘God Knows’ and ‘Tangled up in Blue’. I’ll be following these development in this post.

Performing extended, epic versions of his songs is a feature of 1993. Often the last verse will come about half way through the performance, with the rest given over to harp and guitar breaks. In some ways this is backward looking, as the great age of rock guitar solos probably petered out in the 1970s. Endless blues solos became de rigueur for rock performances, and after a while they became boring as they really added nothing much to the songs, but rather became occasions for a lot of showing off.

By my reading of these songs however, Dylan is not showing off, and his baroque extensions usually add to the song in some way. In my Master Harpist series, I showed how Dylan uses that little instrument to up the emotional ante of the songs, to give them an emotional colouring – sudden moments of whimsicality or a piercing sadness. Dylan’s subversive guitar work may have a similar purpose, for it never allows a song to become just pretty or catchy. It often provides a disturbing undercurrent of dark sounds. We can never quite relax and just tap our feet with Mr Guitar Man keeping us on edge.

While we can still find some epic, extended versions fuelled by Mr Guitar Man right up until Dylan put the instrument down in 2002, after 1993 he was to rein in the songs. It is as if, in 1993, Dylan wanted to let his hair down and to allow himself and the band to rip loose. The evolution of the NET is towards more disciplined sounds, so I suggest we enjoy these free flowing epics while we can, even when things get a bit messy.

Take ‘If Not for You’. It’s a modest little love song, really. At least it started out that way. There’s a lovely, plaintive version on the ‘Alternative Self Portrait’, official bootleg. In this 1993 performance it gets pushed out to 13 minutes. He keeps the tempo slow, slower than the released versions, which brings out the anthemic property of the song. It’s not long before Mr Guitar Man begins to play around with the melody, but not in the fast, hard driving way we heard  in part 1. He doesn’t alter his punky sound, but shows how he can work it at a more gentle level.

If not for You

You could say pretty much the same thing about ‘Lay Lady Lay’. Part of what made that song a hit is its modesty and apparent simplicity. It’s a lot more like a three-minute pop song than a lot of Dylan songs. And quite seductive when Dylan sings it in his Johnny Cash era voice on Nashville Skyline (1969). The song became pretty raucous during the Rolling Thunder years with the band joining in on the vocals.

None of this, however can prepare us for this impassioned nine and half minutes. Gone are the modulated vocals of the original, this is a raw appeal for love, ripped from his throat. Not quite so seductive. As he sings, his Stratocaster keeps up a constant dark under-thread, but stays in the background.  He keeps it pretty minimal through some of the choruses as well, keeping the song dampened down. He finishes the verses in about four minutes, and the next five minutes is given over to Mr Guitar Man exploring some of the softer edges of his sound.

Lay Lady Lay

It’s hard to know just quite how to take this. This style of playing does not hark back to the endless blues solos of the 1970s. It’s not blues. It’s a lot more like jazz, where the tradition of the lead instruments taking long breaks survives. And it’s not necessarily pleasant listening; it’s not supposed to be.

‘She belongs to Me’ makes three of a kind here, although this song is not quite as modest as the other two. The original album version takes only 2.48 mins to make its statement. This 1993 performance runs to 8.30 mins. He slows the tempo right down, which adds to the time, but by 4.48 mins he’s finished the last verse and we are treated to another four minutes of nicely lazy instrumental. Lead guitarist John Jackson sounds very sweet here, but Dylan doesn’t. After all, it’s not a sweet song. There is a bitter pill.

She belongs to Me

At just under five minutes for the Blonde on Blonde album version, ‘Just like a Woman’ can hardly be described as a modest little number. And it’s neither simple nor a love song. I’ve said it’s a song about vulnerability in love. I’ll go further now and suggest that it is a song about wounding and being wounded; at least that’s the way it comes over in this 8.30 min version.

It’s a song better suited to epic treatment than the previous three, and Dylan is in fine vocal form. This would have to rank as one of Dylan’s finest performances of the song. It sounds to my ear as if he’s singing a full octave above the studio version, at least in parts, but it’s in a different key as well, so I can’t be sure.

Once again, the last verse is completed about half way through the performance, and we have another three and half minutes of Dylan and Santana working their way through several choruses. At about 6.15 mins Dylan quietens it all down for a while until his Stratocaster gets to work again, and we have another round hammering on the strings in the key of Dylan.

Just like a Woman.

Phew! It’s a bit too easy to say that Dylan is ruining these performances with his kind of atonal guitar playing, but I’m sure tempted to stop listening after the last magnificent verse.

‘I Believe in You’ is another song that lends itself to epic treatment, since it’s something of an epic expression of faith. I don’t think there’s any performance to match the Toronto 1980 show, but he does it full justice here, despite messing the words up a little at the end. This nearly nine minute version holds to the pattern we have seen in this post. In this case, the song finishes at about 5.30 mins, and in the guitar work that follows we get one of the clearest demonstrations of Dylan’s method. John Jackson plays high and melodic, cruising on those sweet chord changes, while Mr Guitar Man pecks away those same sweet chord changes from below, threatening to overwhelm them.

I believe in You

‘One More Cup of Coffee’ is another inherently epic song. None of us will be able to forget the soaring Rolling Thunder performances, when the song really had its day. Dylan’s 1993 voice is up to the challenge, and he soon works his way into a passionate rendition, raspy as it might be, but the lucid beauty of those 1975/6 performances cannot be repeated, at least not with Mr Guitar Man eating away at the melody line with his guttural tones.

Once more the last verse is sung by 4.30 mins, and we get three more minutes of guitar work. Hard-edged and trenchant, the Dylan/Santana combo manages to pull this one off, fully exploiting the grandeur and pathos of the original.

One More cup of coffee

An odd thing happened to me while listening to this substantial performance of ‘Just like Tom Thumb Blues’. I had been listening to some 1940s big band swing to take my mind off Dylan for a while, and for a moment, listening to Tom Thumb’s Blues, I got my signals crossed and I transposed the guitars to horns, saxes and trumpets, and I was suddenly back in the big band era. Dylan swings this junky’s lament. Try it for yourself when the full band cuts in around three minutes and again at six minutes. I can see Stan Kenton smiling and tapping his feet.

Dylan throws himself into the vocal while Mr Guitar Man and Santana do the swinging. Some great driving drum work too from Wilson Watson. This one just seems to fall together as they hit the groove.

Just like Tom Thumb blues

‘Under the Red Sky’ brings us back to quieter, more modest songs, in this case rather sly and laconic as Dylan songs go. It has a dry, doleful edge to it, but in this 7.30 min version the sweetness of the melodic line is nicely set up by Bucky Baxter’s gentle slide guitar. A vibrant vocal from Dylan. The last verse is over by 4.30 mins, and we get another couple of minutes of comparatively muted guitar work by Santana and Dylan, until the climax that is.

Under the red sky

So ends our survey of the epic, 1993 adventures of Mr Guitar Man. In later years he was to moderate his approach, and it is hard to know, when you boil it down, just what to make of it all. Is this genius or madness? Does Dylan really know what he is doing? Obviously that punky, key of Dylan sound is deliberate; there’s a strategy behind it, the question is, does it come off?

Your call.

Next post we’ll discover what happens when Mr Guitar Man picks up the acoustic guitar.

Kia Ora for now

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  1. Hi, I’m enjoying reading your analysis on these 90’s Dylan years! I just was listening and researching this Dylan/Santana 1993 Fall tour and I don’t think Santana is actually playing any guitar on the tracks above. It sounds like JJ Jackson and Bucky Baxter and Dylan. I was excited, as a Santana fan, when you mentioned the possibility that they were playing together here. There are several times that they played a song or two on stage but on these tracks you never hear one distinct Santana lick or his searing tone, it’s simply Dylan’s fully capable band getting it done.

    Mateo B
    Portland, Oregon

  2. Mateo B, I agree. I kept reading that Dylan and Santana were playing together and yet, like you, I couldn’t identify any typical Santana sounds,quite different from when they played together in 1984 in Spain.
    Thanks for confirming my own impression against what I read, which was that they played together for three months. Perhaps Santana did a guest appearance or two, and if so, I don’t have access to those recordings.

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