By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘Well, it's sugar for sugar And salt for salt, If you go down in the flood, It's gonna be your own fault.’
Part 1. The Prague Revelation: Sugar for Sugar
‘Dylan opens the year with one of the most remarkable performances of the “Never Ending Tour,” despite still visibly suffering the after effects of the bug (at several points he sits on the drum rise, scrunched up in some discomfort)… the shock of the evening is not in his song selection.. but the fact that he performs almost the entire show without a guitar.. harmonica in hand, making strange shadow-boxing movements, cupping the harmonica to his mouth on nearly every song, blowing his sweetest harp breaks in years.’
Clinton Heylin (Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments Day by Day 1941-1995)
‘Anyone who has watched a sunrise over the ancient city of Prague will feel they have visited a city of magic & wonder. Anyone who has heard Dylan’s performance on the 11th will have felt a similar sense of awe.’
Andrew Muir (One More Night: Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour)
On March 11, 1995, Dylan descended on Prague to kick off the year’s tour with a sizzling three night stand. These concerts would astonish and tame a pretty unruly audience with a series of masterful performances that have gone down in NET history. It is possible to argue, as I will here, that the NET reached a peak in 1995, with these Prague concerts as the jewels in that crown. It would reach another peak around 2000.
At the end of the last post (see NET, 1994, part 5), I suggested that the NET had been on a rising curve since 1991 as Dylan struggled with his voice and the task of welding his band into a responsive vehicle for his wonderful songs. As we saw, 1994 was a lift off year, with an especially powerful set of acoustic performances, but in 1995 he soars into the stratosphere with some of his best performances ever, many of them from those three days in Prague.
The story of these concerts has now become part of the Dylan legend. Apparently he had the flu and was not up to playing the guitar. At least not until the 13th, the third and last concert, when he begins to get back into it. So mostly he fronted the audience with just his voice and his harp. This was new; Dylan had always put his guitar between himself and his audience – unless playing piano.
The flu might have knocked out his guitar, but his voice is capable of reaching a clarity and luminosity rarely heard since the 1960s. He can still give his voice a tearing edge when he wants to, but by softening the tones, giving them a quiet intensity, he achieves the vocal mastery we so much love in Dylan.
It’s tempting to think that these performances are so good because Dylan is not playing the guitar. An heretical thought but a persistent one. Mr Guitar Man’s insistent, complex, heavy electric guitar sound is not to everybody’s taste. But there is more to it than that. These performances are the fruition of a long development.
And in reading this and the next couple of posts, you have a treat in store. I’m swerving from my usual practice of concert jumping to focus on Prague, 1995, working my way across the three concerts with some thirty performances lined up for you. I won’t try to follow the set-lists through as he plays them, but rather jump around to create my own extended set-list. I’m eager to get started.
So I’ll start right from the beginning, the opening song of the first night, March 11, ‘Crash on the Levee (Down in The Flood)’. The performance of this bluesy, irreverent song from the Basement Tapes (1967) is nothing too special, although the energy is all there. There are hints of Dylan’s vocal power and the possibilities to come. After a bit of a shaky start, he soon finds his feet and away we go. A great song to get the energy pumping. A settling-in song.
Crash on the Levee
The recordings of this first night are somewhat sharper than the second and third nights. You can hear that clearly in the difference between the following two performances. This one is from the first night, the 11th:
Ballad of Thin Man
And this is from the second night, the 12th :
These performances show how effective the softly-softly approach can be, giving the song, with its bizarre characters and situations, a sinister touch. It also allows Dylan to stretch his voice on the high notes to dramatic effect. I prefer the second one, but that may just be the recording. And, as Dylan takes a rest at the end, the band find their feet without Mr Guitar Man.
There can be few performances of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ as gentle and tender as the Prague versions, despite a couple of slip ups with the lyrics. By slowing the song right down, and taking advantage of the echo of the venue’s sound system, this nostalgic rendition of Dylan’s great hymn to escapism achieves a plaintive quality I haven’t heard in previous performances. It’s eerie, like an echo from the past. The invitation to go
‘down the foggy ruins of time far past the frozen leaves the haunted frightened trees’
has never sounded quite so ghostly. Listening to that ‘spirit voice’ reminds me of these lines from Percy Shelly:
‘Oh! there are spirits of the air, And genii of the evening breeze, And gentle ghosts, with eyes as fair As star-beams among twilight trees:— Such lovely ministers to meet Oft hast thou turned from men thy lonely feet.’
Thinking of Shelly, a Dylan like character, at least in my mind, I’m reminded of Matthew Arnold’s description of Shelly as ‘a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.’ I invite you to contemplate that quote as you listen to these two performances by our contemporary Shelly.
The first one is from the 12th. A particularly plaintive, wistful harp.
Mr Tambourine Man (A)
This second is from the 13th. Except for a stuff up at the beginning with the lyrics, this is another superlative performance, equally ethereal.
Mr Tambourine Man (B)
And while on the subject of Dylan’s sixties classics, while he didn’t favour them as heavily as he did in 1994, we have two wonderful performances of Dylan’s masterpiece ‘Desolation Row.’
In this song we meet some of the denizens of Dylan’s circus, a host of crazy characters, all the outsiders and fucked-up ones, all in drag disguise (‘I had to rearrange their faces/ and give them all another name’). This song, along with ‘Visions of Johanna’, stands at the apex of Dylan’s post protest sixties song writing. This first performance on the 11th is wonderful by most standards, although it lacks the harp break, and Dylan’s voice feels a bit under-recorded. In the light of the second performance, however, from the 12th, it sounds more like a rehearsal. The sharp-edged harmonica from the second performance caps it all off.
Desolation Row (A)
Desolation Row (B)
There are only a few videos from these Prague concerts and they tend to be patchy and too dark. The only one worth watching to my mind is ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and even then it is interspersed with stills. It does however give the flavour of the performance, Dylan’s constant, restless movements on stage, that ‘strange shadow boxing’ referred to by Heylin.
This slow, soft version, from the 11th, stands in stark contrast to the harsh, fast 1976 performance. After a super-slow start, it kicks into an easy rhythm, and it soon begins to sound more like a love song than other performances. That easy pace allows Dylan to stretch his lungs. Listen to the magnificent vocal performance starting around 2.15 mins. (I have added the sound file in case the video should one day vanish).
Shelter from the Storm
‘Lay Lady Lay’ began life as a seductive, somewhat tongue-in-cheek number from Nashville Skyline, 1969, became a raucous cry of desire during the Rolling Thunder Tour (1975/76), to become here a tender, passionate love song. Again the hero of the story is Dylan’s voice. He whispers, entreats and cries out for love. It is from the 13th, Dylan has picked up the guitar for this one, and Mr Guitar Man is in excellent form. You’ll be hard put to find a better performance of the song.
Lay Lady Lay
While on the subject of tender love songs, let’s consider ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. Not only is it one of Dylan’s most affecting love songs, dealing with the feelings we have when about to be separated from someone we love, but perhaps his most successful conversation songs. Bits of conversation and dialogue are a hallmark of Dylan songs, but in ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ we have a full two-sided conversation. The boots themselves become emblematic of all those strange exotic places his love will be visiting. His love, about to depart, presses him on the matter:
‘Ah, but I just thought you might want something fine Made of silver or of golden Either from the mountains of Madrid Or from the coast of Barcelona’
But all he wants, of course, is his love.
‘Oh, how can, how can you ask me again? It only brings me sorrow The same thing I would want today I will want again tomorrow’
I don’t know we can say that Dylan has ever written a tear-jerker, but this comes pretty close.
My problem here is I have two versions both dated 13th March. They can’t both be right. I’m pretty sure that this softer performance is really from the 13th. Dylan fumbles the lyrics again near the beginning but soon finds his feet. My info has it that Dylan is playing acoustic guitar on this one.
Boots of Spanish Leather (A)
And I’m guessing from the sound quality that this next one is from the 12th. Either way, we have two stand-out performances of the song. And in both cases we get those ‘sweetest harp breaks’ that Heylin refers to, the first being more ethereal than the second.
Boots of Spanish Leather (B)
In the early sixties, Dylan would kick off his concerts with ‘The Times They Are A-changing.’ Sung in a strident, challenging voice, as he did then, it sounds like a call to arms. Sung in a more reflective tone, it becomes a meditation on time and eternal recurrence. Performed slowly it becomes, in Dylan’s soft Prague voice, tinged with sadness.
The times they are a-changing
For us, it’s a good place to pause before the next instalment, The Prague Revelation Part 2, Salt for Salt.
You might also enjoy the series Bob Dylan Master Harpist
And you can read more about the work of Mike Johnson and our other authors here.
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