By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
My problem with reviewing Dylan’s 1999 performances is that there is just too much good stuff. I have settled into doing about four posts per year, with about 10 audio files per post, and here I am at post five in 1999 with about thirty songs clamouring to get onto my setlist, and one more post to go of the covers Dylan did of other songs, some of which he’d never done before, at least on the NET.
So I’ve cut the thirty songs down to nineteen and will have to rip through them pretty fast. All these songs I have introduced before in previous posts, so those following these posts won’t need any reminders. If you’re a new reader, I suggest you look at some of the previous posts. (There is an index to the series here).
Without further ado, let’s pick up from where we left the last post, looking at Dylan’s folk roots, the acoustic Folk Bob, and we can’t do better than start at Tramps, New York, with this vigorous, upbeat performance of ‘The Times They Are A-changing’. The times might change but the song doesn’t. The crowd loves this one. Wonderful vocal, and, glory be, a blaring harp solo, as jazzy and discordant as it ever was.
Times they are a-changing
‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ is one of Dylan’s great conversation songs. The sadness of parting, the sadness of gifts. This is a quiet, reflective performance. No tricks, just the unadorned song. (18th November)
Boots of Spanish Leather
Staying in the same bandwidth, ‘Don’t Think Twice’ also gets the simple, unadorned treatment. After the age of the epic versions of these short songs, it’s a pleasure to be able to appreciate the brevity of the song once more. There is some guitar work but it is not excessive, and the instrumental break at the end gives it a country twist along with that pattering beat. It’s so easy to listen to you can almost forget the sting in the lyrics.
Don’t think twice
What’s a protest song? ‘It’s All Right Ma’ is a comprehensive blast at all things false and phoney, and a declaration of resilience in the face of all that crap. Originally, Dylan would rap it out fast, the words almost too quick to catch (try the 1990 performance, NET, 1990, part 1) but by 1999 he was searching for new ways to present the song. Here he slows it down a bit and puts that pattering beat I mentioned behind it. I think I prefer the earlier hard-driving approach, but I can hardly fault Dylan’s vocal on this one. Instead of flattening his voice, as he did in the 60s, he raises and softens it.
It’s all right Ma
Moving forward in Dylan’s chronology a little, we come to his great blues composition ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’. This performance has a country edge (courtesy of the steel guitar) rather than a hard urban edge. Nice lazy beat. A masterly performance. (date unknown)
It takes a lot to laugh
One of the songs Dylan experimented with the most has been ‘She Belongs to Me’ and he would go on evolving new versions right through to 2013. All through the 90s Dylan developed a quiet, laid-back version of the song, quite different to the more upbeat, peppy album version. It would be some years before he developed the hard-driving, bluesy versions of the last years of the NET. But don’t let that foot-tapping, laid back performance beguile you into thinking that it’s a nice song.
She belongs to me
Time to hop back to Tramps for a gutsy performance of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. The song is addressed to someone who is way out of their depth at some seriously bizarre party. Dylan’s low, snarly voice is as effective as the high, keening voice of the original. More effective maybe, as there is no escaping the nastiness of the tone here, augmented by the equally nasty tones of Dylan’s Stratocaster. If ever Dylan’s off centre, ‘off key’ guitar playing is appropriate, it is here.
Ballad of a Thin Man
Before leaving the world of Highway 61 Revisited, we have to drop in and hear ‘Desolation Row’, one of Dylan’s greatest masterpieces. I couldn’t overlook this one even though there is nothing particularly notable or outstanding about the performance. There is a beauty in the melodic structure of the song that belies the dark visions that impel it, and Dylan’s rough, late 90s voice suits the subject matter just fine.
Coming to Blonde on Blonde, we find a gentle performance of ‘I Want You’. Not as transcendent as the 1994 MTV Unplugged performance (not included in the official release, see my NET, 1994), or as desperate as some live performances, this one finds the softer, more romantic, less driven side of the song.
I want you
The greatest song on Blonde on Blonde has to be ‘Visions of Johanna’, maybe Dylan’s greatest ever song. A subterranean masterpiece, a moody, early hours of the morning kind of song. As I’ve said before, none of the subsequent performances have the spooky power of the album version, or the 1966 live versions, but this one holds the mood. At least it doesn’t have the pattering beat Dylan often uses during this period. This performance carries the weirdness and darkness of the song, probably due to Dylan’s dark-edged vocal.
Visions of Johanna
What Dylan show would be complete without ‘Forever Young’? This brings us into the 70s, and the most popular song from Planet Waves, a sad anthem to the passing of time and the inevitability of old age. But it’s not really about physical age, is it? It’s about staying young in spirit. It was amazing to hear the 80 year old Dylan give the song a good airing on Shadow Kingdom. As long as you can draw breath, the song holds. There’s a bit of a fumble with the lyrics, and a ragged chorus, but that’s all right if you’re young at heart.
‘Shelter from the Storm’ brings us into the 70s and Blood on the Tracks. Arguably, the song benefits from a slower, more thoughtful version than on the album. Both a wonderful love song and a tribute to the loved one, it reminds us that we are nothing, just a ‘creature void of form,’ if we are not loved. It is a song about the redeeming power of love. Again the steel guitar gives the song a country flavour, gentle and twangy, without sentimentalising the song at all, although there is more of a nostalgic flavour than the brisk album version.
Shelter from the Storm
We’ll pause briefly at Dylan’s gospel period for the provocative ‘Serve Somebody’, a song Dylan often used as an opener in 1999. It has a good strong rock beat. Here he delivers it to an ecstatic audience at Grand Rapids, 15th Feb. While you are up and dancing, listen for lyrical variations and verse mix ups. It really doesn’t matter with this song.
We can’t pass over Shot of Love without listening to ‘Every Grain of Sand’. It’s a song hanging in the balance between profundity and sentimentality, and works best with an unsentimental performance. If the album version is just a tad too smooth for your taste, this rougher more down-home late 90s style might be more fitting. Again there’s the steel guitar to give it that country feel, but that doesn’t push it towards sentimentality, not with that ragged, doubt-filled voice.
Every Grain of Sand
Lets move forward to 1989, Oh Mercy and the forever atmospheric ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. Best served soft and menacing. I still hark back to the 1995, Prague performance with its soaring harp, but this rougher, gutsier version does the job just fine. Ever taken your love to a dance or rave only to have her leave with another, and a dodgy character at that? If you want to indulge that feeling, now’s your opportunity. Innocence falls into the thrall of evil. It’s a cosmic drama.
Man in Long Black Coat
Oh Mercy and Under the Red Sky also saw something of a revival of the old, radical, protest Dylan. What’s a protest song? Well, ‘Everything is Broken’ can’t be anything else. This performance bustles along, just as it should, a recitation of modern evils, but I’m afraid it can’t match ‘It’s All Right Ma’ for the denunciation of everything. It lacks a melodic line, and is too mono-tonal for my taste. I guess it leans towards punk. It’s not designed for aesthetic pleasure, and he rips through it with vigour and alarm.
Everything is broken
I could have dropped ‘I and I’ as this is not the best performance of the song, but we have been following it from the early 90s, watching it grow and develop, and this will be the final year Dylan will perform it. It’s full of the lyrical force of someone listening to their heart, whatever they might be saying. It has sadness, nostalgia, defiance and threat. One of Dylan’s great performance songs. Goodbye is too good a word.
I and I
Before finishing, Shadow Kingdom arrived, just I was finishing the previous post. I was intrigued to see that the ambience, the scene portrayed, was of the 1930 or 40s clubs, dives and speakeasies, and he made his early songs sound like they came from that era. This movement towards the roots of modern music really gets serious with Time out of Mind, its consciously antique feel. There was no Folk Bob in Shadow Kingdom; all the music was brought home to that between the wars milieu. In 1999 you can feel Dylan positioning his songs in that way, a path that would lead to Shadow Kingdom.
Pity he didn’t play his great stadium rock epic, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. With the right arrangement, it would have fitted Shadow Kingdom just fine. But the song was very much alive in 1999, with two very solid performances I could not choose between – so here they both are. The first is a little shorter and faster (date unknown), while the second feels a bit more adventurous. Funny how that guitar backing can bring a Celtic or Irish flavour to the melody. ‘Tangled’ has deep roots in old music, that’s why it sounds so compelling.
Tangled up in blue (A)
This next one is from New Orleans, 3rd Feb. We welcome back the epic, and Dylan’s harp improvisations.
Tangled up in blue (B)
Next post will be the last for 1999. We’ll hear Dylan covering the songs of others, his ‘uncovers’. Until then, stay well and stay tuned.