A list of the full set of articles in this series which traces the Never Ending Tour from its origins to the present day are given at the end of the article
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In the previous two posts we have sampled the sound and style of Bob Dylan’s lead electric guitar work in 1993. When he picked up the acoustic guitar, however, Mr Guitar Man didn’t always sound like the strumming Bob Dylan of old, but rather played his acoustic as if it were an electric guitar.
This enables him to tackle his longer songs in a new kind of spirit. Rather than just strum along, he can push the song forward with his distinctive lead guitar style. The problem he has with live performances of long songs like ‘Desolation Row’ is their repetitive structure. Such songs lack any bridge passages and their momentum is generated by their lyrics alone. So the challenge is, how to prevent a ten minute song from becoming just the same thing over and over again.
Dylan solves this problem by using all the resources of his voice and his guitar to build the song to a climax. Typically these performances begin quietly, almost understated, then slowly build up energy. Sometimes reined in by a quiet harp break, as in the case of this 13.48 mins 1993 performance of ‘Desolation Row’.
Dylan keeps this performance pretty subdued until after the last verse when the guitars have a fair go. All through the song Dylan patters away against the melodic sounds of Bucky Baxter, but the effect is much easier on the ears than the Stratocaster.
It’s not surprising that, when working out his acoustic setlists, Dylan should return to his early, acoustic period, songs written to be played acoustically in the early 1960s. Arguably ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is Dylan’s first great post protest song. As he sings, it’s a song about ‘escaping on the run,’ and following the shaman wherever he may lead as long as it is ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow’.
In this song we hear Dylan the master rhymer at work.
Though I know that evening's empire has returned into sand Vanished from my hand Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet I have no one to meet And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming
Reading lines like these, we have to conclude that Bob Dylan is the quintessential poet of alienation.
Dylan seldom messes up this song, and this powerful performance from his London show (02 – 07) is no exception. He plays it straight, no tricks, except the crowd teasing delay in getting his harp into action – and how they love it! Another gold star performance, with just the right amount of restraint and celebration.
After the harp break, around 5.15 mins, Mr Guitar Man steps in for some gentle notes before the last verse, which he builds vocally to a resounding ending. Wonderful. Then it’s back to the harp to finish the last couple of minutes. Hard to find better performance than this.
Mr Tambourine Man
Another beautiful collaboration between Master Harpist and Mr Guitar Man.
While on that subject, we can’t skip the gorgeous ‘Don’t think Twice’ from the Portland concert. Dylan was in very good voice at this concert. It’s a sensitive rendition, yet rousing too. The last line of the song, ‘You just kind of wasted my precious time,’ may seem cruel, but it reminds us that time is indeed our most precious commodity.
The same concern drives these lines written almost sixty years later:
‘I cannot redeem the time The time so idly spent…’ (Cross the Rubicon)
Perhaps we all know people with nothing to do and who want you to do it with them. Time wasters. And, within the terms of the song, we can give our hearts but our souls belong to us, our soul’s journey, whether we’re on the ‘dark side of the road’ or not. Dylan wrote this one back in 1962, at the very start of his soul journey, if you like to see it that way. Again, at the other end of his life, he evokes the same imagery.
Take the high road, take the low Take any one you're on (Cross the Rubicon)
It’s curious that ‘the low road’ meant the road of death in the well-known Scottish ballad, just as the ‘dark side of the road’ puts the Dylan figure in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) in the earlier song.
So here it is. Enjoy (Spoiler alert: exquisite harp work)
Don’t think twice (A).
It’s worth comparing that smooth performance with this one. Much rougher, and the harp solo more jagged. Same arrangement with the long slow ending, reminding us of how Mr Guitar Man slaughtered such endings in his electric sets (See 1993 part 1 – Tangled up in guitars and 1993, Part 2 – The epic adventures of Mr Guitar Man) with his Stratocaster.
Don’t think twice (B).
And while we’re in the 1962 zone, let’s drop back into the Portland concert to pick up ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’.
A lot of Dylan songs contain conversations and snatches of dialogue, but this song is a sustained conversation over nine verses, and by the end has build up considerable pathos. Dylan never wrote anything else quite like this. The language is that of an old fashioned love ballad, almost an air of the 19th Century. Deep wells of sadness here, and right now I can’t think of a better performance.
Boots of Spanish Leather
From the same era, we have yet another gentle yet passionate song – ‘Girl from the North Country’. As written it is a neat piece of nostalgia, but somehow Dylan’s older, more cracked-voiced performance makes us really feel the distance of time. Like ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’, this song was remarkably mature, sensitively registering how the passing of time colours our memories and perhaps idealises our loves.
When Dylan was young, he liked to sing such songs in an ‘old voice’, with a put on crackle, as if he were much older than his tender twenty-two years. By 1993, he doesn’t have to put on any old voice; he’s got a crackle right at hand, forged in years of performance.
On the other hand, it is in performances like this that I think I detect a deliberate roughening of his voice. We can hear from his Portland and London performances of that year that Dylan can sing high and clear when he wants to, and that will become more evident in the next two years, but he can also sing rough when he wants to; when he wants to put a sandpaper edge on his voice. Go forward ten years to 2003 and that sandpaper edge has turned into a throaty roar, but I believe it all starts around 1992/3.
Another gold star performance.
Girl from the north Country
We only have to skip forward a couple of years, to 1964, to find one of Dylan’s most iconic songs, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. In previous posts I have described this song as love’s last song, the final, painful ending of a love.
I want to draw attention to it here, as performances will build up to epic proportions by 1995, and while this performance doesn’t scale those heights, it’s fascinating to hear Dylan pushing the song with his voice, reaching for its emotional depths. Yes, it’s hard and scratchy, but again I think some of that vocal texture is deliberate, pushing his voice for that emotional quality. The effect is a little spoiled by Dylan fumbling the lyrics at one point.
Towards the end of the song, after five minutes, you hear Mr Guitar Man playing his acoustic just as if it were his Stratocaster, driving the song along with his distinctive ‘off’ sounding guitar.
It’s all over now baby blue
Another song we have been following, and an acoustic favourite, is ‘Ramona’. In previous posts I have commented on this song quite fully, cautioning against seeing it as a love song despite that lilting melody. I have a soft spot for this song as it is my daughter’s favourite Dylan song, and she loves to quote to me these lines:
‘You say many times that you’re better than no one and no one is better than you If you really believe that you know you have nothing to win and nothing to lose’
Classic Dylan lines, showing his love of what I call ‘parallelism’ (echoing structures), part of what makes his songs distinctive.
That’s it for this little journey into Dylan’s early, acoustic songs as he played them in 1993. We’ve heard Dylan not just strum along but play lead acoustic in his recognisable yet contentious style.
For the next post we’ll drop in on Dylan’s famous Supper Club sets and see what all the fuss is about.
Take care in the big bad world.
Previous editions of this series
- The Never-Ending Tour: 1987 – Farewell to all that
- 1988: Desperate stratagems, Part 1: Heroes and Villains
- 1988 Part 2: The 60s revisited
- 1988 Part 3: Absolutely still on the road
- 1989 Part 1: A sharper edge
- 1989 Part 2 – A fire in the sun
- 1989 Part 3: Blown out on the trail
- 1990 Part 1: Vomiting Fire
- 1990 Part 2 – Songs of love, songs of betrayal
- 1991: Part 1 Hidden Gems in a Train Wreck – The Undesirables
- 1991 Part 2 – Feet walking by themselves
- 1991 part 3: King of the unsteady
- 1992 part 1: Heading for the promised land
- 1992 part 2: What good am I
- 1992 part 3 – All the friends I ever had are gone
- 1993 part 1 – Tangled up in guitars
- 1993, part 2 – The epic adventures of Mr Guitar Man