Publisher’s note: we seem to have had a technical fault on the site which I am currently trying to sort out. For the moment the 1999 part 1 edition of the Never Ending Tour series appears to be unavailable so I’m republishing it, before I publish 1999 part 2. Apologies for the inconvenience.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘Touring is something you either love or hate doing. I’ve experienced both. I try to keep an open mind about it. Right now, I’m enjoying it. The crowds make the show. Going onstage, seeing different people every night in a combustible way, that’s a thrill. There’s nothing in ordinary life that even comes close to that.’
– Bob Dylan (Edna Gundersen interview for USA Today – April 1999)
At this point in our headlong dash through the NET, it is time to pause and take stock. The NET has completed its first decade, we are entering its eleventh year, we are on the brink of a new millennium, and it is fair to say that Dylan and his band have never sounded better.
When I began this series I observed that some commentators are tempted to see the NET as a work of art in itself. That would imply, however, some intentionality or deliberate structuring, and I certainly don’t see that. That doesn’t mean that the NET doesn’t have some kind of shape or movement, but having said that, no two commentators see the same thing. Everybody who looks at the NET creates their own narrative, and I’m no exception.
One commentator claims that the NET’s finest hour was the performance of ‘Ring Them Bells’ at the Supper Club in 1993. Another claims that 1997 was the strongest year of the NET. The same claim is made for 1998, suggesting that the San Jose concert of that year was the best NET concert ever. Another claims that 1994 was the peak year for the NET, with a distinct falling off in 1995. Still others (me included) see the Prague concerts of 1995 as a high point of the NET. And so it goes on.
Rather than a work of art, it seems, the NET is more like a Rorschach test with everybody reading their own narrative into it, creating their own version of Bob Dylan as they go. With over a thousand concerts for the decade and about fourteen songs per concert we have an incredible 14,000 plus performances, enough raw material for all sorts of constructions.
I have spoken of a ‘rising curve’, (from the song ‘Born in Time’) which I see moving from 1991, a low point generally, to 1995 and the outstanding Prague concerts. 1996 saw something of a falling off (but a fine concert in Berlin that year), with a strong comeback in 1997, and a new rising curve that takes us through 1999 to 2000.
‘One of the peaks of the Never-Ending Tour, 1999 may be one of Dylan’s finest years on-stage. After years of building credibility throughout the 1990s, the performances exploded at the turn of the century.’ (CS at A Thousand Highways)
Egil, at AllDylan, comments: ‘Every N.E.T. junkie seems to agree that 1999 was a wonderful Dylan year. Strong performances in all 5 legs.’
I have to agree with these assessments. Dylan finishes the decade, and the century, with a bang. Other than the galvanising effect of the success of Time Out of Mind, we have other factors to consider. First, there was another shake up in the band’s line up. Bucky Baxter, who joined Dylan is 1992 playing steel guitar and dobro, leaves the band. But rather than simply replacing him, Dylan brings in Charlie Sexton, a guitar all-rounder, who will often play dual lead with Larry Campbell. Sexton would leave Dylan’s band in 2002 and rejoin it in 2009.
Both Sexton and Campbell are superior guitarists, weave a wonderful web of sound around Dylan’s voice, and at the same time provide an expanded context for Dylan’s own lead guitar playing. Mr Guitar Man’s insistent hammering at one or two notes during a guitar break sounds a lot better with these two ace guitarists backing him. To my mind, and I have to say I’m no expert, Sexton is easily a match for Eric Clapton. Clapton has a commanding grasp of the blues, and a rapid, fluid style. But Sexton is more adventurous, sharper and more passionate.
But it’s not only the backing, it’s Dylan’s voice, his major instrument, which puts the icing on the cake for 1999. Dylan makes his voice as rough as any roadhouse blues singer, but can also sing softly and smoothly when the song calls for it. And power. There’s little that is thin and reedy here, unless he wants it to be. His voice is full of power and expression. I have to go back to 1995 to catch him singing like this. Now, however, his voice is richer and fuller than it was in the mid nineties. The origins of Dylan’s later crooning voice might be found here, although we could push that right back to Nashville Skyline(1969) and the Johnny Cash sessions.
My problem as your tour guide is that there is just such a surfeit of high quality material. Looking at the past three years, I have been able to hone in on two or three ‘best’ concerts, but that’s not so obvious for 1999. The concert at Tramps, New York, is highly regarded, but most of the 117 concerts he did that year are good. I can’t organise a post around three or four concerts. Furthermore, I suspect that technology took a jump around the end of the century, as the quality of the audience recordings is very high, better than we’ve ever heard, I think. There is a cornucopia of material.
While in 1997 and 1998 the setlists were pretty consistent, with essentially the same concert being delivered night after night with variations and wild cards thrown in, in 1999, particularly in the latter part of the year, Dylan throws the setlists wide open, singing a wide variety of his songs and cover songs.
So where do I start and, more urgently, what do I leave out? For 1996 and 1997, I began with new songs being drip fed from Time out of Mind, and we will certainly cover those songs, but I’m sorely tempted to begin with a kick, that old familiar warhorse ‘Maggie’s Farm’. This song may be so familiar that we can easily slip over it. Dylan might not have helped by, on occasion, ripping through it as if he just wanted to get to the end. It can too easily become a messy guitar fest. Not here. Listening to this, I’m taken back to 1964, the Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan rounded up some musicians from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and blew everybody’s ears out with ‘Maggie’s Farm’, a hard-edged attack on those folkie sensibilities.
It’s too easy to miss the bitter irony of his lampooning of the American family, and the claustrophobia inherent in that desperate desire to escape. Maggie’s Farm just ain’t no place to be, especially if you happen to be a restless young genius: ‘They say sing while you slave and I just get bored.’ This performance restores the song to its original power and vigour. Dylan is in wonderful voice and the band is working as sweetly as any freight train.
It’s a good song to start with because it’s all about busting loose, busting out of constrictions which is just what Dylan does in 1999, busting out of his setlists, busting into new vocal power, busting open the sound of the band. (I don’t have the date)
If that doesn’t get you up and rocking, I don’t know what will. I think there’s a bit of a fudge with the lyrics, well disguised, but it doesn’t matter. And that nifty little riff Sexton puts in behind it gives it style. This has quickly become my favourite performance of the song, keeping well clear of the word definitive.
I could say the same about this masterful performance of ‘Senor’, in which there is also a glitch in the lyrics. If I was tortured into choosing just one superlative performance from 1999, it would be this one (I think…). ‘Senor’ is a wonderful song, easily my favourite from Street Legal (1978) and apparently Dylan’s favourite too, as it’s the only song from that album that has stayed the course in terms of live performance. The song has a sinister edge. To my mind it’s about having your whole universe, your world view, shaken up, tipped upside-down. Unwelcome reality comes crashing in. You’d better watch out for that ‘gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring’. He’s (she’s?) the harbinger of the most unbearable truth.
When writing about this song for the Master Harpist series, I commented that it reminded me of that famous quote from Thoreau, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country…’ What are we waiting for, Senor? There’s nothing left for us here. It’s a song from the dark side.
I certainly get that sense from this performance. And, for fans of Dylan’s harmonica playing (like me), the harp work here is a rare pleasure, for, as with 1997/98, Dylan mostly left his harp at home in 1999. The searing, cutting edge of Dylan’s harp works well with the end of the line feeling that comes through the song. Unfortunately I have not been able to track down who is playing violin here, perhaps some helpful reader knows. But it’s compelling, and transports us back to the Rolling Thunder Tour.
I wouldn’t be tempted to equate the mysterious Senor of the song with Jesus or any particular figure. We may well all have our ‘senors’ who we hope will have the answers to our most desperate questions.
After completing the European summer tour Dylan returned to the United States to perform a thirty-eight date tour with Paul Simon. I believe that this ‘Sounds of Silence’ comes from Portland Oregon, 12th June. In my last post I commented that Dylan seldom does his best work when duetting with others, but I’m eating my words now. While avoiding hyperbole as much as possible, I now have to say this duet is exquisite. There’s no other word for it. Maybe ‘The Sounds of Silence’ is a song Dylan wished he’d written. It’s all about our moral silence, the creeping deadness of our outrage, the quiet apocalypse.
Paul Simon takes the lead with Dylan doing back up vocals. It’s gentle and totally moving. And the harmonica. Talk about rare moments of harp magic in 1999, we certainly have one here, chilling and melodic. I can’t imagine the song sounding any better. And doesn’t the crowd love it!
Sounds of Silence
They look good together on stage too, a sense of close communion. They are both living the song. This video is not the same performance as the sound clip above, and is of poor visual quality, but gives us the idea of how these two work together. Another brilliant, but quite different, harp solo.
So I’ve run out of space, just when I was getting started. I’ll be back soon to continue this exploration of this peak NET year.