NET, 2000, part 3: Master Vocalist: Rock and Roil.

This is episode 50 of our complete history of the Never Ending Tour.  The complete index is to be found here.   The last two episodes were

By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)

For the first two posts on this ace year for the NET, 2000, I was interested in Dylan’s vocal performances, the way in which his singing changed, and came to a peak. 1999 and 2000 are peak years for Dylan all around; the band was tight and disciplined, the songs were arranged to give prominence to Dylan’s voice, and Dylan threw himself into his songs, determined to give them his best.

One of his vocal innovations I have called downsinging, a lowering of his voice at the end of the line. To appreciate this, we only have to listen to ‘To Ramona’, a regular on the setlists over the years but never performed this way. The music is sweet and romantic, it is after all a gentle waltz, but his voice…. hell, he sounds downright triumphant, with a sinister, nasty edge. If I were Ramona I’d be running a mile. He rubs her face in her sorrow in no uncertain terms. This way of performing the song brings it into focus in a manner we’ve never heard before. Is this the true feeling that lies behind the song, and always has? (Portsmouth, 24th Sept).

To Ramona

‘Blind Willie McTell’ is a song perfectly suited to downsinging, as the melody tends to drop at the end of the line anyway. However Dylan does not overuse it, in fact resists it to paint an upbeat, loving portrait of the old blues singer. But the song is ultimately a pessimistic one, too much ‘power and greed and corruptible seed’, and he balances a little hopeful upsinging against the inevitable dropping of the voice at the end. It’s hard to find a better performance of the song than this one, although I get disturbed by the jump in the lyrics that has us missing out on the gorgeous ‘sweet magnolia blooming’ verse. (Cardiff, 23rd Sept).

Blind Willie (A)

That was so nice, let’s hear it again, this time from the first London concert, 5th October. Another wonderful version. Dylan’s voice is more upfront and the downsinging more pronounced.

Blind Willie (B)

In Anaheim on 10th March, Dylan produced another rare one out of the hat. ‘We’d Better Talk This Over’, from Street Legal (1978) had not been played since 1978, and here it pops up for a final airing. Tony Attwood gives a good account of the song and describes the 2000 version as one which ‘totally transforms the song’, although he doesn’t say how. Dylan keeps pretty much the same tempo as the album version, but I think the reason for Tony’s comment lies in Dylan’s vocal performance. Dylan brings out the strained weariness of the song in this sustained and powerful performance. Certain words are drawn out. There’s a pleasing rush of rhyme at the end of each verse, interrupted, in the following case, by drawing out the word ‘bed’.

‘The vows that we kept are now broken and swept

’Neath the beeeeed where we slept…’

He does the same thing, at the same moment, with the other verses.

This is a divorce song par excellence. Its rushing movement sweeps us along to those awful conclusions.

‘Oh, babe, time for a new transition
I wish I was a magician
I would wave a wand and tie back the bond
That we’ve both goooone beyond’

We’d better talk this over

‘Watching the River Flow’ is generally seen as Dylan’s ode to indolence, but there’s nothing indolent about the way the song powers along. Christopher Ricks, in his book Dylan’s Visions of Sin, put the matter rather eloquently, ‘….the song is thrillingly disagreeing with itself. Its rhythmic and vocal raucousness is far from flowing. More like shooting a few rapids.’ Indeed, this river doesn’t flow but rocks and roils. It has a density to it. Ricks again, ‘ ‘Watching the River Flow’ is tarred with a realism that qualifies and complicates the lure of the lazy, although never to the point of abolishing what the words express a hope for: some relaxation, please, if at all possible.’ (Ricks, pages 116/117)

Dylan’s energetic and swinging performance here brings that internal contradiction into sharp relief. And a bit of messing with the lyrics. In these cases I often can’t decide whether Dylan has forgotten the lyrics and is bluffing his way through, or has carefully re-written them. (Cardiff, 23rd Sept)

Watching the river flow

While we’re in the rock and roil groove, let’s take a quick listen to ‘Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat’. It’s a fine piece of sarcasm, given loving treatment here. Yes, fashion can make us all look a bit ridiculous at times, but there seems to be a pinch of that ‘thrillingly disagreeing with itself’ here too, as Dylan evidently loves that damned hat. How wonderfully this clips along. Best performance since the album, I’d say. (London 6th Oct).

Leopard skin pillbox hat

Now I’m in this rocking groove, I can’t escape it, not with a pumping song like ‘Serve Somebody’. Yes indeed! And who does Dylan serve? I don’t think it’s God or the devil; I think it’s us. His audience. Who else is he serving night after night after night? Funny, but as the years pass in the NET, this sounds less and less like a Christian song. More fumbling with the lyrics, but with this song, anything is possible. Another ace performance.

Serve Somebody

Help! I can’t get away from these hard rockers and rollers. I’m still on the dance floor, doing my rhythm and blues. Put together like this, these songs have a cumulative effect, reminding us just what a great rock singer Dylan is, and what better song for us to turn to, and for Dylan to take on, than ‘Cold Irons Bound’. This is a desperate, angry rocker from Time out of Mind, a Grammy Award winner, a hurricane of a song. It has a short, galloping beat and a punky edge. We are pushed right over that edge into existential despair – ‘It feels like, I don’t even exist…’

In this performance (6th Oct, London) there is nothing to soften it. Like the winds of Chicago, the song tears us to shreds. There is no echo to distance the experience. We’re right up against Dylan’s voice.

Cold irons bound

No direction home now, except an uplifting, ‘Just Like a Rolling Stone,’ Dylan’s most famous rock song, an anthem to loneliness and existential angst. This will slow our pace a little, but not the intensity. As always it is the false and the phony that rouse Dylan’s ire. Living someone else’s life, not serving anybody but yourself. It’s a kind of protest song, an attack on social snobbery and classism. That surreal imagery has a social purpose, revealing hollow social identities.

‘Ahh princess on a steeple and all the pretty people
They're all drinking, thinking that they've got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can't refuse
When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal’

There’s no comfort for Miss Lonely out on the street. She feels like she doesn’t exist.

Perhaps no live performance will ever match the 1966 versions, especially the howling performance after the Judas jibe at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 17 May 1966. For a rip it up version, I suggest the reader check out 1988 (NET, 1988, part 1).

This performance doesn’t let the song down, but the master vocalist of 2000 can’t hold the notes as long as he could thirty-four years before. However, he hasn’t forgotten how to give the lyrics a good punch. (Cardiff, 23rd Sept)

Like a rolling stone.

Let’s kick the pace up again. ‘Dignity’, and ‘the land of dry bone dreams’ as he sings in this performance. You won’t find Dignity in the streets, or ‘in the shadows that pass’, and it’s no use asking the cops. Many years later Dylan would write, ‘I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?’ (Pay in Blood, 2012) Here we find an earlier version, written in 1989, of that journey to the netherworld, the ‘land of the midnight sun’.

‘I went down where the vultures feed
I would've got deeper, but there wasn't any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn't any difference to me’

This song had been hanging around in the background since the 1994, MTV Unplugged concert, where it came to prominence. It’s a great mid-tempo rocker. (Anaheim, 10th March) Take it away, Bob.


We can slow down for ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ but we can’t sit it out. Rather than the echoey, woozy versions of the 1960s by The Band and Julie Driscoll, which play on the song’s trippy mysteriousness, Dylan has been developing a much more abrasive, sharper interpretation. I love Julie Driscoll’s performance , which soars into the stratosphere of psychedelic  madness, but there is a much grittier, more sordid aspect to the song, a harsh reminder of ‘favours done’ where the promise that ‘we shall meet again’ becomes a threat. Harsh and uncompromising as they are, I have come to prefer these later Dylan performances to the druggy, insubstantial interpretations of the sixties. (5th October, London).

Wheel’s on fire

Still in the rock and roil department, we suddenly discover a new one, ‘10,000 Men’ from Under the Red Sky, never before performed. The song has a blues structure, and is a nonsense rhyme. Dylan’s use of childhood rhymes and themes in that album has not been well understood. Even the droll masterpiece ‘Under the Red Sky’ hasn’t been that well received. This starts promisingly enough, but turns a bit clunky after a while. The humour is welcome, however. (12th Nov)

‘Ten thousand women all sweepin' my room,
Ten thousand women all sweepin' my room,
Spilling my buttermilk, sweeping it up with a broom.’

10,000 Men

I want to finish with two performances of the magnificent ‘Lovesick’ off Time Out of Mind. A stately, 3 a.m. end to our rock and roil party. I’ve discussed this song in previous posts, and coming to it again I still find it one of the finest expressions of alienation in modern literature. The ghost walks, and leaves us ‘hanging on to the shadow’. It’s the ultimate outsider’s song, best indulged in when you’re feeling sorry for yourself and your lost loves. Both these performances are superlative. Restrained, yet full of tension. The first is from early in the tour, the first American leg (Billings, MT 25th March), and is a little harder and sharper than the second, from later in the year, the European and British leg (Dublin, 14th Sept).

Lovesick (A)

Lovesick (B)

That’s all for now. Stay safe, stay sane and keep rocking.

Kia Ora




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