By Michael Johnson
On the 16th and 17th of November, 1993, Bob Dylan did a two day season at New York’s Supper Club, doing two concerts a day, morning and evening, ten songs per concert. The recordings made at these four concerts have become famous in collector circles as much for the well-balanced soundboard recordings as for the enhanced acoustic sound and a setlist that went beyond his usual suspects.
Some enthusiastic commentators suggest that these performances are better than those delivered the next year, 1994, in the commercially released Dylan Unplugged concert. They may well be right, but I have some reservations. The Supper Club performances are more adventurous, but Dylan’s voice is still pretty patchy in 1993, and his Supper Club vocals are more ragged than the smoother, 1994 concert. His voice has been better in this year too – see NET, 1993, part 1.
One of the finest performances of the season would have to be this passionate rendition of ‘Ring Them Bells’. Something of a sleeper, this one, from the 1989 Oh Mercy album, bursts into life here. It is an odd song, sounding a little like a leftover from the Christian era, but it’s not quite that, remaining, as the best Dylan songs do, somewhat mysterious.
‘Time is running backward and so is the bride.’
The last lines are the most telling.
‘Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong And they're breaking down the distance between right and wrong.’
It’s the collapse of moral certainty that concerns the poet here. I can see a message in these lines that is very contemporary. Chaos results when a culture loses its moral compass. Dylan has approached this issue before, in ‘Idiot Wind’ (1974)
‘What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good you’ll find out when you reach the top’
and again in ‘One Too Many Mornings’.
‘You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine’
and in ‘Baby Stop Crying’(1978).
‘Go get me my pistol, babe, Honey, I can't tell right from wrong.’
Despite this topsy-turvy world that has inverted good and evil or confused them, even from our fortresses we must ring them bells for the regenerative powers of spirit and nature.
Ring them bells from the fortress for the lilies that bloom
Ring them bells
That one is from the late show on the 17th, surely Dylan’s best live performance of the song, although I love the haunting piano demo version on Tell Tale Signs.
Another from that same late show is the more familiar ‘One Too Many Mornings’(1964) just mentioned. I’ve commented on the effects of extending shorter songs to greater length in previous posts, in this year when Dylan favoured long, epic versions of even his shortest songs. ‘One Too Many Mornings’ only takes 2.43 minutes on the album (Times they are a Changing).
What made such songs feel miraculous was that they could communicate so much in such a short time, especially a moment of acoustic bleakness that this song captures. Pushing it out to just over five minutes sacrifices that wonderful brevity. But there are gains as well. The more lavish and staged presentation allows for a more seductive unfolding of the sense of loss and hopelessness.
I prefer this version to the loud, high-pitched rock performances of 1966, epic and wonderful as they are. There’s a delicacy of feeling here, and I’m certainly not averse to the minute or so of quiet harmonica solo at the end, reminiscent of Dylan’s earliest harp playing.
One Too Many Mornings
Slipping back to the late show of the night before, we catch an epic version of ‘Forever Young’. I’ve commented before on the paradox of the song and its yearning for the impossible, but what struck me about this performance was the pain, the anguish inherent in our doomed mortality. Dylan powers into the vocal, but what strikes us is how rich and full the sound is created here. It is all underpinned by Tony Garnier’s solid double bass playing, but it is Bucky Baxter creating those ‘orchestral’ sounds with his slide guitar. I’ve called this enhanced acoustic because of the sound Baxter is creating. Dylan sings alone on the choruses, enhancing the pathos of the song, and keeps a tight rein on Mr Guitar Man.
‘Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)’ from Empire Burlesque was something of a hit for Dylan in 1985, at least it was here in New Zealand.
According to Wiki, Dylan performed ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’ 14 times in the early 1990s. He first performed it on January 12, 1990 in New Haven, Connecticut and then 11 more times in 1990. On November 16 and 17, 1993 he played the song twice in New York City.
I preferred the earlier formulation of the song, ‘Someone’s got a Hold of my Heart’ from the Infidels recording sessions in 1983. The original is far less disdainful and more vulnerable. But this powerful live performance has almost persuaded me. It’s far better than the album version, I have to say, and returns us to the full raw power of the song without the silly overdubs.
Elsewhere on this site, Tony Atwood has registered his dislike for the song as it appeared on the album. I wonder if this live performance will change his mind. (This is another from the late show on the 17th)
Tight connection to my heart.
‘I Want You’ is one of those songs that works well whether fast or slow. A bouncy little number off Blonde on Blonde, it hides its sophistication.
‘The guilty undertaker sighs The lonesome organ grinder cries The silver saxophones say I should refuse you The cracked bells and washed-out horns Blow into my face with scorn, but it's Not that way, I wasn't born to lose you.’
This Supper Club performance is in the style of the original, just a somewhat more edgy expression of desire without that confident verbal leer of the Blonde on Blonde recordings. Note, however, that in the last verse which goes
‘But I did it, because he lied and Because he took you for a ride’
Dylan sings ‘I did it because I lied…’ A slip of the tongue? A deliberate change? We’ll never know. This is from the early show on the 16th.
I want you
From the early show on the 17th, we find ‘The Disease of Conceit’, a song from ‘Oh Mercy’. This song was to drop from Dylan’s set list in 1996. This Supper Club performance may well be the best ever.
The disease of conceit
Every now and again Dylan throws himself into an epic interpretation of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ off Highway 61 (1965). This nine-minute performance is no exception. The song is as much about a yearning for companionship as it is an attack on living falsely.
‘Now, when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you And the smell of their roses does not remain And all of your children start to resent you Won't you come see me, Queen Jane?’
Queen Jane Approximately
Earlier in this survey of 1993 we encountered an electric version of that wonderful love song with the hypnotic melody line, ‘One More Cup of Coffee’ (see NET, 1993, part two), and now the song turns up again at the Supper Club. As with the electric version, I don’t think this acoustic performance lives up to the glory days of the Rolling Thunder Tour, but it’s getting there.
One more cup of coffee
That completes our visit to Dylan’s Supper Club season, yet as we saw in the previous post (part 3), excellent acoustic performances were not confined to that venue. Both the London and the Portland performances are at least as good if not better, even though there are no soundboard recordings of them. The same goes for the Toulouse concert (30th June)
Take for example the performance of ‘Gates of Eden’ from that Toulouse concert. We have kept track of this song from the first, angry rock driven 1988 performance, always different yet somehow always the same, the same Celtic lilt. The same magic.
We’ve heard many wonderful performances of the song, but this one surely must stand out as one of the best, if not the very best. A ten minute epic in the year of epics, this is an extraordinary mood piece. The last verse is finished at about six and a half minutes, with most of the last four minutes sustained by a gentle, exploratory harp break before Mr Guitar Man steps in to land the song. How on earth did I miss this one in my Master Harpist series?
There’s power too in Dylan’s vocal performance, swinging between soft and sharp. My only issue is that there seems a little mix up in the lyrics. It was great however to hear the ‘Motorcycle black madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen’ verse which tends to get dropped.
We don’t get anything quite like this at the Supper Club
Gates of Eden
I could say much the same about this eleven minute ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ from the London concert (2/12). It’s the same structure, right down to the harp break. This time, however, Dylan’s main interest seems to be in giving Mr Guitar Man plenty of room to move, to explore that always oddly dissonant and unsettling guitar style.
Simple twist of fate
I think at this point we have to ask ourselves what function these guitar breaks really serve, to what extent they add to the song, and to what extent the emotion of the song is being explored in these extended versions.
Perhaps the Supper Club performances are outstanding because they are more constrained, because the structure is tighter and Mr Guitar Man’s playing is more closely integrated with the band.
Next post will be the fifth and last for this outstanding year. We’ll hear live performances of some of the songs from Good As I Been To You and other bits and pieces that beg to be heard.
12 years of Untold Dylan
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