So far Dylan in 2000 has been covered via
- Never Ending Tour 2000, Part 1 – Master Vocalist: Finding voice
- NET, 2000, Part 2. Master Vocalist – Please heed these words that I speak
- NET 2000 Part 3: Master Vocalist – Rock n roil
A full index to all 50 previous articles in the series is given here.
By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)
The first three posts covering the year 2000 of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour were focused on the Rock Dylan, and we saw some remarkable vocal performances from the jazzy ‘If Dogs Run Free’ to the ripping rocker like ‘Wicked Messenger.’
Dylan brought that same vocal clout to his acoustic songs, delivering full-throated, powerful performances of his early acoustic work. Gone is the thin, nasal whine of his youth. Bring on the full-throated baritone. Those who think Dylan can’t sing might have problems adjusting to performances such as this ‘Desolation Row’ from London, 6th October. I’ve never heard him belt out the song like this before. I invite you to listen to the remarkable vocal performance of the ‘superhuman crew’ verse that starts at 5.28 mins. He flings the words out as if from a high pressure jet and is rewarded by an appreciative audience.
Desolation Row (A)
You’d be hard put to find a better performance of the song. Although I do hark back to the 1995 performance in which he sings all the verses, and plays the harp as well, I concede that this one is the most urgent and vocally powerful.
Compare that to this one from Anaheim (10th March). The performance is softer, not quite so hard-driven, but with a trembling intensity.
Desolation Row (B)
It might be a good idea to pause at this point to notice that I am constantly drawn to the same concerts for my examples. Anaheim is the odd one out, being the first concert of the year in the U.S. The others, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Glasgow, London are from the European and British leg of the tour. Cardiff gets particularly high praise from the commentators, but I think the two London concerts have more vigorous performances. Of course I’ve had to go beyond those concerts to find some of the songs; George of the second American leg and Dresden from the first European leg.
It’s to Cardiff, however, that we’re headed for the next one, a warm performance of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, another from Dylan’s stable of regulars, songs that never drift too far from his setlists. The Cardiff audience is in a receptive mood, and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is greeted like an old friend. It’s a sad song with a jaunty rhythm, best played up tempo as Dylan does here.
One of the bonuses of listening to these live, mostly audience recorded performances is being able to tune in to the rapport between the performer and the audience. Dylan is often accused of ignoring his audience, not talking to them and so on, and while there is some truth in that, what we hear in many of these recordings is Dylan playing to, and in response to, audience reactions. The warm bond between audience and performer is a part of the pleasure in listening to the Cardiff recordings. There is a roar of appreciation when he produces the harmonica and respectful quiet for the whimsical solo he plays. The slow, drawn out ending is greeted ecstatically.
Don’t think twice (A)
That rapport with the audience is not confined to Cardiff, or the other UK concerts. Here’s the same song from George (18th June) on the second leg of the American tour. It’s very similar to the Cardiff performance, but I’m including it here because, to my mind, the George performance has the edge on the more famous Cardiff one. We can say that Dylan is not just playing the song, he’s playing the audience.
Don’t think twice (B)
‘Blowing in the Wind’ is another regular. Having heard this song many times, and introduced it many times in this series, I’m still struck by the underlying pathos of the song. The questions asked in the song strike at our conscience, but the answers are whirled away by forces seemingly beyond our control. The song became an anthem of the protest movement, but in its sadness, it doesn’t lead any battle charge.
Dylan is well aware of its status as an anthem, as this performance demonstrates. I prefer these more nostalgic versions to the strident performances of 1974 and the Rolling Thunder tour, as they are more in tune with the song’s underlying melancholy. This one, again, is from Cardiff.
Blowing in the wind (A)
The potential of the song to be soft and intimate is evident in this performance from Dresden, 24th May. It sounds like he’s almost whispering the verses into our ears.
Blowing in the wind (B)
Or he can take it from the soft and intimate to the forthright with an edge of outrage (London, 5th Oct).
Blowing in the wind (C)
One of the surprises of 2000 was the appearance of ‘Chimes of Freedom’, often thought of as a strong protest song, from The Other Side of Bob Dylan (1964) and rarely performed. It is a protest song in that it is a ringing declaration of sympathy for all those alienated from society one way or another.
‘Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe’
But it is also a song that relates the story of a mystical revelation.
‘Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing’
Dylan’s commitment to freedom does not come from some political ideology or doctrine but from direct revelation.
‘Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder’
Those ‘majestic bells of bolts’ and the ‘mad mystic hammering’ illuminate the soul as well as the human condition: ‘the disrobed faceless forms of no position’.
It’s a grand and ambitious song with a slow tempo and six long verses, no easy song to deliver live. Despite Dylan’s fine singing, this is not the most compelling performance of the song. He fumbles the lyrics at the beginning, leaves out two verses, and only just seems to catch the lyrics in the last verse. This redacted version gives us the flavour of the song, but not the total experience. (West Lafayette, 2nd Nov)
Chimes of Freedom
Staying in the protest vein, we come once more to ‘Masters of War’. This has the same arrangement that Dylan evolved in the early 90s, a quieter, more minimal, threatening version, restrained in its anger. I’d like to refer the reader to my discussion of the Dorian Mode in which the song is written in NET, 1999, part 4. This may well be Dylan’s most explicit and unambiguous anti-war song. Another powerful performance, this one from Dresden.
Masters of War
Dylan’s most comprehensive and scathing attack on the world of false appearances remains, ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, 1964, a song both complex and dramatic. I’m not sure, however, that the light, skipping beat Dylan developed to carry the song serves it best. These complex images need to flash by. It needs to be fast and overwhelming. It needs to rip along, not bounce. Maybe I’m getting spoiled. I can always go back and listen to the scintillating performance from 1990 (see NET, 1990, Part 1). This one does have its virtues: Garnier’s bowed double bass to provide that dark undertone; the musical restraint during the verses; Dylan’s singing, expressive and powerful; the leap into the chorus with the drums… What am I complaining about? Maybe I just think this is not a song that should tempt the audience into clapping along…
It’s all Right Ma
If ‘It’s All Right Ma’ unhinges us with its destabilizing imagery, ‘Mama You’ve Been on my Mind’ reassures us with its familiarity. We all know what it’s like to have someone on our minds, someone we can’t forget, someone who makes us nostalgic for happy times spent together, happy times that are no more.
The very ordinary nature of the sentiment, and the commonplace phrasing and rhymes, might fool us into thinking that the song is ordinary too, but it’s not. It captures a subtle feeling perfectly, with great precision. It’s not despair, but rather a little niggle, a touch of rueful sadness:
‘Perhaps it is the color of the sun cut flat An' cov'rin' the crossroads I'm standing at Or maybe it's the weather or something like that But mama, you been on my mind’
Incidentally, Christopher Ricks (Dylan’s Vision of Sin) contrasts what he calls ‘the impassive calm of mind’ in the line ‘the crossroads I’m standing at’ with the more desperate impasse in ‘One Too Many Mornings’:
‘From the crossroads of my doorstep My eyes they begin to fade’
Sung too slow, the song can drag its heels a bit, get bogged down in nostalgia, but this upbeat performance escapes that. In this case the skipping beat that did not suit ‘It’s All Right Ma,’ suits this song perfectly. I like this version because it skirts the sentimentality inherent in the song and opts for a more resilient emotional posture. We’ve done all our crying and hey! remembering you is kind of fun too. (Dresden)
Mama you’ve been on my mind
It has been suggested that the ‘no, no, no’ of ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ was designed as a mocking echo to the Beatles ‘yeah yeah yeah’ of ‘She Loves Me’. I don’t know how true that is, but the song has come to represent not just Dylan’s rejection of the hippie expectations of a lover, but of all who might mistake Dylan for something he is not. I think the song is about projection – the qualities or whatever that people might project onto us. I’m not that ideal person you thought I was. I’m not here.
Because the song is full of imperatives (go away, go lightly, go melt back) I think it is best delivered softly, with more than a touch of tenderness, as in this performance from Dresden (24th May). Note the gentle, reflective harp solo.
It ain’t me babe (A)
Much as I love Dylan’s sensitive singing on this, I again have problems with giving the song a foot-tapping rhythm, easily turned by an enthusiastic audience into hand-clapping. This second version from Anaheim follows a similar pattern, but you can feel the tension behind the restraint. It’s a little sharper. The harp solo is again reflective but also a little sharper. Two exquisite performances; no complaints.
It ain’t me babe (B)
One more for luck. A lucky last. A decidedly more emphatic version from Horsens, Denmark (21st May). Again the annoying clapping, but maybe the best harp solo of the lot.
It ain’t me babe (C)
That’s it this time around. Next I’ll clean up what’s left of these bedrock songs. Until then, stay safe and happy.