This is part 30 of Mike’s mammoth review of the Never Ending Tour. You can find an index to the whole series thus far here. The previous two episodes were
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Since Dylan no longer played alone on stage with just an acoustic guitar, amplified by a microphone, as he did in his early days, we have to ask what acoustic means in terms of the development of Dylan’s sound in the 1990s.
I have made reference to a mingled, or modified acoustic sound, but for me the key indicator is whether or not Dylan is playing his electric Stratocaster or his Gibson acoustic. Dylan’s Gibson guitar, and Jack Johnson’s, are amplified rather than just played into a mic, so the sound can sometimes be as loud if not louder than some of the more muted electric sounds. Often, on the acoustic tracks Tony Garnier will play a double bass instead of an electric bass. Bucky Baxter’s steel guitar, however, sounds pretty much the same, acoustic or electric.
The drums are another key indicator. In most of the acoustic tracks they are absent, giving the performance a more folky feel.
This post is dedicated to the songs from 1995 which satisfy those criteria, and which we can unhesitatingly identify as acoustic.
‘Hard Rain’ of course began as an acoustic solo (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963). During the Rolling Thunder tour (1975/6), it turned into a fast-paced crashing rocker, a hurricane of sound. This one (16th December), with its discreet backing, gives this performance the feel of Dylan’s early 60’s performances. The backing smoothes it out a bit too, reducing the dumpty-dum tendency of the ballad form. Given the apocalyptic content, this is a quiet, restrained performance. In Dylan’s evolving style, however, it builds to climaxes, goes quiet again, then builds again. Powerful delivery of the last verse. An epic performance of an epic song.
Hard Rain’s a-gonna fail
‘One Too Many Mornings’ (1964) has also been through its changes, but to my ear the loud Rolling Thunder version is just too raucous for the quiet melancholy of the song. It’s a morning after song, full of bitter-sweetness and regret.
‘From the crossroads of my doorstep My eyes start to fade And I turn my head back to the room Where my love and I have laid And I gaze back to the street The sidewalk and the sign And I'm one too many mornings And a thousand miles behind’
I love this performance (22nd July). It’s a little slower than the album version, and the vocal is softly and lovingly delivered. This is a song that benefits from Dylan’s maturing voice. On the album he artificially aged his voice by making it sound cracked and well lived in, even though he was only 23 years old. Now at 54, he doesn’t have to try.
One too many mornings
If I had a choice of attending any concert other than the Prague concerts I would choose the concert at Bethlehem on the 13th of December. The recordings are good and Dylan’s performances are superlative.
What makes this Bethlehem performance of ‘Desolation Row’ so special is the inclusion of that which over the years has become the missing verse. Why Dylan chose to drop this verse will remain a mystery I guess, but I always thought it was one of the best verses of the song. In it, Dylan the post-modernist reflects on the two great modernist poets of the early part of the 20th Century.
‘Praise be to Nero's Neptune The Titanic sails at dawn And everybody's shouting "Which Side Are You On?" And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot Fighting in the captain's tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fishermen hold flowers Between the windows of the sea Where lovely mermaids flow And nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row’
Interestingly, ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is a pro-union song by Pete Seeger. Dylan may have been taking a sideswipe at Seeger, but his real aim is at increasing polarisation of political attitudes, the sense of battle lines being drawn. In Desolation Row (the place) you can hear them all playing their penny whistles.
You can hear a few members of the audience react when Dylan begins the verse.
Listening to that, I can’t help but reflect on Dylan’s acoustic style. I don’t think there is that big a difference between his acoustic and his electric playing, but the effect is sure different. I have suggested that Dylan’s guitar playing is percussive rather than melodic or lyrical. It’s there to drive the beat and build up the tension as the song progresses, not to sound pretty. This ‘Desolation Row’ is a particularly good example of how he pushes the song along with the guitar. With Dylan’s singing it’s all about phrasing; with his acoustic guitar it’s all about timing.
Now for a rarity. Dylan and Patti Smith duetting on ‘Dark Eyes’, a rarely performed song from Empire Burlesque (1985). The magazine Far Out has a lovely article on this performance.
Apparently they performed the song seven times together in 1995. I think the best version is this one from that same Bethlehem concert
There is no video of that concert, but there is this one from Philadelphia on the 16th of Dec, three days after the Bethlehem concert.
While on the subject of duets, ‘Mama You Been On My Mind,’ described as one of Dylan’s greatest love songs, was often performed with Joan Baez in the 1960s. It was often performed with a bit of a laugh or smile, but it’s not really that funny, unless yearning itself is funny. There is however a wry, almost throw away quality to the lyrics:
‘Perhaps it's the color of the sun cut flat And covering the crossroads I'm standing at Or maybe it's the weather or something like that But mama, you been on my mind.’
In this performance Dylan plays it fast and straight, with an emphasis on the passionate rather than the humorous side of the song. Lovers of Dylan’s harmonica have a joyous surprise in store with a peppy break at the end of the song, hitting the high, squealing notes Dylan first developed in 1989.
Mamma you’ve been on my mind
If you have been following these posts, ‘Gates of Eden’ needs no introduction. I have always loved the mysteriousness and weirdness of the song.
‘The motorcycle black Madonna Two-wheeled gypsy queen And her silver-studded phantom cause The gray flannel dwarf to scream As he weeps to wicked birds of prey Who pick up on his bread crumb sins And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden’
The ‘grey flannel dwarf’ reminds me of something out of a David Lynch movie, and there are plenty who were there at the time who think the ‘motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen’ to be Brigitte Bardot in this poster famous in hippy apartments far and wide in the 60s. The motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen?…
It’s a nice idea, but the term ‘black Madonna’ has other connotations. Representations of the Virgin Mary as black go back a long way in East European history.
But I digress. This is another top performance of the song. All it lacks is a harp solo. There is some fancy guitar work by Mr Guitar Man to push the song along and bring out its underlying urgency.
Gates of Eden
Another song which should need no introduction to Dylanites is ‘Visions of Johanna’, probably Dylan’s greatest song, at least in terms of the lyrics. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the post 60s performances of the song. Nothing matches the bleak, subterranean intensity of the 1966 performances. And while it lacks the sinister edge of the album version, this 1995 performance is sensitive and moody enough to satisfy. (21st of June)
Visions of Johanna
I have two offerings of Dylan’s great ode to escapism, Mr Tambourine Man. I’m a fan of these slow versions of the song. Arguably the faster versions belie the weariness of the opening verses:
‘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.’
This sounds convincing sung in a slow weary voice rather than the upbeat sound of the original (1964) and early performances of the song. This is another song in which the ageing of Dylan’s voice works in his favour.
Mr Tambourine Man
This second offering is very similar, and comes from that wonderful Bethlehem concert on 13 December. The sound is a little sharper on this recording. And the weary, contemplative harp solo is incomparable. We’d have to go back to the sweeping 1966 performances to match it.
Mr Tambourine Man
Normally, I’d be more excited over this strong acoustic performance of ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ It sounds rough and raw, more like a well-known 1975 version albeit slower. Great as it is, it is disappointing that he misses out the verse beginning ‘She lit a burner on the stove…’ Everything else is in place for an outstanding performance. (21st June)
Tangled up in blue
While 1993 was the great year for extended epic performances, Dylan continued to deliver epic versions of his greatest anthems.
This ten minute performance of ‘The Times They Are A-changing’ doesn’t feel too long or over-extended. With the audience joining in on the punchlines, this has to be an exercise in nostalgia. The vocal is more world-weary than strident, which suits the song’s underlying fatalism well. Remember, honey, when the times were a-changin’ with such righteous force and it was all about youthful idealism? All the bad guys were going to get out of the way if they couldn’t lend a hand. Well… times are still a-changing and there’s nothing we can do about it, but it may not always be for the best, you know. The bad guys are still there. The more things change the more they stay the same, as the saying goes.
There’s something of a broken-hearted feel to this performance (shouldn’t things have changed by now, honey?)
Whatever the torments of time, this is an oddly sad but rousing way to end a concert (Bethlehem again) and for me to top this collection of Dylan in acoustic mode, 1995.
See you soon with the last part of this tour through some of Dylan’s key performances in this outstanding year.
The times they are a-changing
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