by Michael Johnson
‘He can do it in Las Vegas And he can do it here…’
Part 1 – Absolutely vintage Dylan
Just as, when we moved from 1992 to 1993 we noticed an all round improvement in the performances, from the overall sound of the band to Dylan’s voice, so when we move from 1993 to 1994 we find a further improvement.
More like a quantum leap.
For my money, 1994 and 1995 are the golden years of the NET, at least as far as the nineties go. In retrospect we can see that from 1991 to 1993 Dylan was struggling. 1993 was a year of great exploration, with Dylan extending himself in every direction, pushing his still emerging voice, his harmonica playing, and pushing his lead guitar playing to its limits, pushing his songs into extended epics.
In 1994 and 1995 Dylan brings it all back home. The arrangements bed down, the band sounds more cohesive than ever, Mr Guitar Man pulls his horns in a little and integrates his sound better, and, above all, Dylan’s voice floats free from whatever it was that turned it strained and scratchy around 1991. His voice develops a softer edge to go with the acoustic orientation of his arrangements, what I have called his enhanced acoustic sound.
With that high clear voice, which gets even better as we move into 1995, he sounds more like the Dylan of old; Dylan of the 1960s. Of course he can roughen his voice up when he wants to, just as he always could, even back in the sixties.
1994 was the year that saw Dylan re-emerge into prominence. On the 17th and 19th of November Dylan appeared on the MTV Unplugged television series, and the album of that concert was released in 1995 to some acclaim. We’ll hear, however, a few outtakes from that session.
On August 14 1994 Dylan performed at Woodstock for a nostalgia concert, celebrating the original and famous 1969 Woodstock festival – which Dylan did not attend. That concert has been available on You Tube for some time, and was finally released, too belatedly I feel, in 2016. His performances at this concert were very well received and served to restore his legend somewhat.
Finally, most strangely of all, he took part in The Great Musical Experience in Japan (May 20/21) fronting a full orchestra, a concert also filmed for television.
At first I thought that the superior sound that Dylan achieved in 1994 was owing to the commercial TV recordings, and to some extent that is so, but once we leave the professional recordings for the audience recorded shows we find the same thing.
In 1994 Dylan was right in the middle of his nineties dry period as far as song writing is concerned. His last album, Under the Red Sky, is three years behind him, and the great burst of creativity that produced Time Out of Mind is still three years ahead. But that does not result in any lack of passion or creativity as far as his performances are concerned. Quite the opposite. He pours all that power and passion into reconceiving his earlier songs, particularly that body of work from the 1960s that had made him famous in the first place. Those vintage years.
We can put aside all that brave talk of breaking free from the Bob Dylan mythos and creating a new Bob Dylan. Why bother when the old Bob Dylan is as close at hand as the check shirt he wore in 1965, and pulled out again for Unplugged in 1994. Wow! He sounds and looks just like the old Dylan.
I’m dedicating this and the next blog or two to those core sixties years, and invite you all along on a somewhat nostalgic ride through some of the greatest songs of the 20th Century, 1994 style.
Because it’s such a rich, relaxed sound, I’ll start with that gentle blues from 1965, ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’. I commented on this song in my last post (See NET, 1993, part 5) and invite my readers to compare this performance with that 1993 performance. There’s no sense of stress or strain here; the band relaxes into the rocking beat, everything fits and all runs smooth as oil.
It takes a lot to laugh
That’s from the Woodstock concert. This next is from Prague (July 16th), a brilliant, lucid performance of Dylan’s great sixties epic Desolation Row. He’s learned how to build the song, create tension and drive with his percussive, acoustic guitar sound.
It is highly unlikely that anybody reading this has never heard Desolation Row, but if that’s the case, you are in for a treat. Desolation Row is a state of mind, a symbol, a place where everybody is in disguise as somebody famous, and strange and frightening events take place. It is a crazy-house reflection of a life that lies beyond the boundaries of what passes for our normal world. It’s a circus world, and sane people might be advised to stay clear in case the doorknob breaks…
Desolation Row (A)
Note the echo in Dylan’s voice, maybe an accident of the recording but makes for interesting listening. It clips along at a fair pace too, avoiding any drag, always possible with a long song like this. Note also that thin, wiry harp break at the beginning to cue us into the song.
Another masterly performance!
Desolation Row (B)
And while on the subject of famous compositions, you won’t find much better than this ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. I know of no other song that so powerfully expresses our desire to get away from the mad world, the world of ‘crazy sorrow’ and ‘to dance beneath the diamond skies/with one hand waving free’.
By slowing the song right down Dylan can make a meal out of those incomparable lines. Yet it doesn’t turn into a ten-minute epic as it might have in 1993, but fits well into just over six minutes, a beautifully balanced performance.
Mr Tambourine Man
‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ is given the full epic treatment here. Like most of the songs in this post, ‘Thin Man’ is a regular. Listening to this full rock treatment, it strikes me that few live performances of the song evoke the spookiness of the album version, and tend to be more angry than eerie, like this one. Still, it hasn’t lost any of its nightmarish quality. If you’ve ever found yourself in the wrong place and in the wrong company, you’ll know what this is about. Best also if you’re not too homophobic, or phobic about alternative sexualities, because there is something strange going on in this ‘room’ and you really don’t know what it is.
Ballad of a thin Man
Dylan’s lineup remains the same as the previous two years: Dylan and John Jackson on main guitars, Tony Garnier on bass, Wilson Watson on drums and Bucky Baxter on slide guitar and dobro. For the Unplugged concerts, Dylan added the organist Brendan O’Brien. Together the organ and slide guitar create an ‘orchestral’ effect, a richness of sound we haven’t heard on the NET so far.
You can hear that richness of sound on this wonderful performance of ‘I Want You’ (1966). A nice bouncy little number off Blonde on Blonde, it becomes here a sumptuous hymn to desire, and the way Dylan’s voice lifts against the swell of the backing is sheer delight. Slowing the song way down brings out the hidden grandeur of the song’s chord progression.
I want you
That’s an MTV Unplugged outtake as is this next one, ‘With God on Our Side’, a protest song that leans towards a fatalistic view of history. The backing sounds much like the official Unplugged but I like the way Dylan builds the vocal on this one. A fraction slower than even the slow official performance, the song becomes even more dirgelike, a dreary, sorrow-filled encounter with American history.
With God on our side
We have watched ‘One Too Many Mornings’ develop over the last few years into a compelling nostalgic ballad. Keeping its acoustic roots, Dylan captures the agony and passion of the electric sets in 1966. With a wonderful climactic harp break, this has to come close to a ‘best ever’ performance (Boston, Oct 8).
One too Many mornings
‘Masters of War’ must surely be Dylan’s least ambiguous protest song. Aimed at the heart of the war machine, the arms manufacturers, the song takes no prisoners. After all these years, the song is still pertinent. Somewhere along the way it has moved from strident to sinister, from outraged to threatening. These 1994 performances might be surpassed next year, in 1995, but they can still send a chill up the spine, especially with the echo Dylan gets on this one.
Masters of War
Over the last few years we have watched ‘She Belongs to Me’ grow quietly into this lazy tempo paean to the femme fatale, a woman too narcissistic and egotistical for comfort. The lazy beat, however, soon turns into a driving blues with a jazz-filled harp break and Mr Guitar Man adding a pounding edge to the song. Yet another candidate for best ever performance – at least until we get to 2013. (08/20/94)
She belongs to me
Previously, I have written that ‘Tears of Rage’ is one of Dylan’s most mysterious songs. The key to understanding it may lie in discovering who the narrator is, who is singing? I don’t know, but the song seems to lament the betrayal of the promise of America, and the consequent sense of alienation. That alienation is a response to the rank materialism of money-mad ethics.
‘And now the heart is filled with gold As if it was a purse But oh, what kind of love is this Which goes from bad to worse?’
As always, love is sacrificed on the altar of materialism.
I love the original, basement tapes version but probably only because I heard it first. It’s a great song, and this is another vintage Dylan performance. The ease with which his voice can soar is a real pleasure.
At first I thought this was another acoustic performance, but realized Dylan is playing his Stratocaster, only softly, in a sensitive muted fashion.
Tears of Rage.
No song better evokes Dylan’s glory years and his relationship with Joan Baez than ‘Mama You Been On My Mind’. I’m generally wary of biographical interpretations of Dylan songs, since Dylan loves to create personas or masks, but this song invites such interpretations, particularly as he and Baez would often sing duet. The frisson between the two of them onstage told its own story.
And yet it’s a song that makes more sense sung with one voice, although the presence of the other, the one addressed, is very strong. If you’ve ever broken a relationship or let one slip away and later found it preying on your mind, this is the song for you, and this is a particularly poignant, lonely sounding performance. The piercing harp solo, reminiscent of Dylan’s 1989 style, puts an edge of pain into it. Yet another incomparable performance (October 2 1994)
Mama you’ve been on my mind
That’s it for openers. I think you’ll agree with me that with performances of this quality, the NET is catching fire. I’ll be back shortly with another round of absolutely vintage Dylan performances from 1994.