Never Ending Tour 1998, part 1 – One who sings with his tongue on fire

We’ve now completed a review of 1997 – here are the details

There is an index to all previous episodes here

 

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

With the success of Time Out of Mind, released in September 1997, which won three Grammy awards and Album of the Year, Dylan came powering into 1998 enjoying the comeback of his career. He ripped into his concerts like there was no tomorrow. There was a new energy and focus. Pretty much gone were the long epics and the wandering guitar breaks of the earlier nineties. His electric performances were pared down, hard-edged and tight, while his acoustic performances were as committed as ever.

Dylan was on a roll. My only complaint is that he only rarely pulled out the harmonica.

He did 110 concerts in 1998, but I’m going to concentrate on a few ace shows rather than attempt to play the field. Most commentators agree that the San Jose show on May 19th was outstanding, and I’ll be drawing heavily from that show, but his five day residency at Madison Square Gardens, New York (from 16th to 21st January) where he shared a billing with Van Morrison, is perhaps better known. My own favourite, after the San Jose show, is the Newcastle show (20th June),  so I’ll be dipping into that as well.

Dylan continued to drip-feed new songs from the album, with, as far as I can tell, only two new songs introduced in 1998, ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ and ‘Million Miles’. ‘Lovesick’ and ‘Cold Irons Bound’, however, became regulars on his setlist with ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ and ‘Can’t Wait’ making occasional appearances.

Let’s start with ‘To Make You Feel My Love’. This of course became a huge hit for Adele, with some fans of the song not realising it was a Dylan composition. Adele’s version is so marvellous, it becomes hard to listen to how Dylan does it. It may be the saddest song on the album, a hopeless kind of love song full of forlorn avowals.

‘When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love’

I don’t think he ever did it better than this one, from the San Jose concert. The cracked voice and weariness are perfect for the song.

To make you feel my love

For ‘Million Miles’ we turn to the New York concerts (20th). This may well be Dylan’s jazziest composition, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place much earlier in the century, the late 1940s perhaps. Its skipping beat puts it in that era. It’s another song of hopeless love, when that gap between two people just can’t be bridged. You can be standing right next to somebody and still feel a million miles apart.

‘I'm drifting in and out of dreamless sleep
Throwing all my memories in a ditch so deep
Did so many things I never did intend to do
Well I'm trying to get closer, but I'm still 
             a million miles from you’

But there is something more going on here than just a yearning for a distant love. There’s a metaphysical anxiety and spiritual loss, an existential disorientation that characterises the whole album:

‘Well I don't dare close my eyes and I don't dare wink
Maybe in the next life I'll be able to hear myself think
Feel like talking to somebody but I just don't know who’

And again:

‘Well, there's voices in the night trying to be heard
I'm sitting here listening to every mind polluting word
I know plenty of people who would put me up for a day or two’

Million Miles

The same existential disorientation drives the Grammy award winning ‘Cold Irons Bound,’ only with a more desperate edge. ‘Cold irons’ refers to the metal manacles worn by prisoners and slaves. In our lost and disoriented condition we are little better than prisoners. We cannot escape the human condition:

‘Well, I'm waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It's almost like, almost like, I don't (even) exist
I'm twenty miles out of town, Cold Irons bound.’

Note the use of repetition here to drive it home.

And again:

‘Well the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds
Reality has always had too many heads’

(Incidentally, in a little creative mishearing, I always thought the line went, ‘reality as always, has too many heads…’)

As I listened to this one from the San Jose show, I found myself admiring Dylan’s electric guitar work. Mr Guitar Man has been reined in, his playing minimal and concise. He’s not muddying the melodic waters with over complicated picking, as he too often does, but kicks the song along with some wonderfully spare, driving sounds. Everything here clicks, and the band has never sounded better; tight, integrated and compelling. This is rock music at its best, folks; a bit rough and punky (that hint of garage band sound) and hard-edged. Take a moment to appreciate the drumming. New drummer David Kemper proves his worth, as does guitarist Larry Campbell.

For my ear, this is much better than the murky, too cluttered, album version. I can’t help but think that this comes closest to the sound Dylan was after for this song.

Cold Irons Bound

Staying with the San Jose concert, and the theme of existential displacement, we turn to ‘Lovesick’, the song that kicks off the album. I was immediately hooked by that opening song, which was doubtless the idea, but, listening to these live performances, I’m beginning to understand why Dylan expressed reservations about Lanois’ production. The Lanois sound tends to smooth over the raw edges of the songs. Take the backslap out of Dylan’s voice and sharpen the sound and you have this:

Lovesick

It sounds spooky enough, as it should, without the backslap on his voice. It’s all about distance, feeling a million miles from everything. To the wandering ghost, everything is perceived at a distance: ‘in a meadow,’ ‘silhouettes in the window,’ and ‘a distant cry.’ There’s no rest from grief for the loveless:

‘My feet are so tired
My brain is so wired
And the clouds are weepin'’

 

“Till I Fell in Love with You,’ drives home the message of the album, that without love, either the human or spiritual kind, we are lost. Lost and insomniac. I was surprised to note how often sleeplessness comes up in these songs. Another song which finds the poet tired and wired.

‘I've been hit too hard
I've seen too much
Nothing can heal me now
But your touch’

There are good performances of the song from New York and Minneapolis (23rd October), but I’ve chosen this one from Springfield (2nd Feb)

Till I fell in love with you

 

Dylan worked hard on ‘Can’t Wait’ to get the sound he wanted, and would go on experimenting with the song in future years. In 1997/98 he was playing it pretty  much straight from the album, minus Lanois’ embellishments. Waiting for love (or death perhaps) can be a soul destroying business. It’s a pity Dylan didn’t sing it more often in 1998. I had to go beyond my cluster of favourite concerts to find this one from the New London (CT) show, 14th January. Here we find both mind and heart at the end of its tether.

Can’t Wait

One of the features of 1998 is the pretty much unvarying setlist. The same six or seven core songs keep recurring, with a few strays and wild cards thrown into the mix. Dylan would often kick the shows off with either ‘Serve Somebody’ or ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie.’ The latter song, particularly, was a good hard-driving crowd warmer. If you can leave behind the adolescent whine of the album version (Blonde on Blonde 1966), you have a rocker that doesn’t sound too out of place among the Time Out of Mind songs. Failed love and capricious fate rule.

‘Well, I don't know how it happened
But the river-boat captain, he knows my fate
But everybody else, even yourself
They're just gonna have to wait’

Here it is from the San Jose show:

Absolutely Sweet Marie

And while we’re in the fast paced rock mood, let’s stay in the sixties with ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. In previous posts I’ve characterised this as a serious song pretending to be a throw-away rocker. To hell with this mad world; down Highway 61 anything is possible. Another San Jose kicker.

Highway 61 revisited

Another regular on the 1998 setlist is ‘Silvio’, the Robert Hunter/Dylan song. It appeared on Down in the Groove (1988), perhaps Dylan’s least regarded album. This is certainly the best performance of the song I have heard. It’s great to hear Dylan doing this song before he became tired of it, and the performances became rote. As with ‘Highway 61’, the speed of the song can obscure the cunning of the lyrics:

‘I can snap my fingers and require the rain
From a clear blue sky and turn it off again
I can stroke your body and relieve your pain
And charm the whistle off an evening train’

Wonderful. Or this:

‘Honest as the next jade rolling that stone
When I come knocking don't throw me no bone
I'm an old boll weevil looking for a home
If you don't like it you can leave me alone’

On Time Out of Mind, in the song ‘Not Dark Yet’, Dylan sings:

‘Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain’

This is not a new insight. In ‘Silvio’ back in 1988 we find:

‘I can tell your fancy I can tell your plain
You give something up for everything you gain
Since every pleasure's got an edge of pain
Pay for your ticket and don't complain’

Silvio

Staying with the electric mood, let’s finish this post with the last song from the San Jose concert, that glorious piece of irreverence ‘Rainy Day Woman’ from Blonde on Blonde. I don’t think any performance can quite match the screaming saxophone version from 1996 (See NET, 1996, part 4), but Dylan’s voice is better on this one. Everybody must have fun. Happy foot-tapping, and I’ll see you soon with more sounds from 1998.

Rainy Day Woman

 

Kia Ora

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