This series reviews the Never Ending Tour from its origins in 1987 through to its cancellation with the outbreak of the pandemic. A full index of the articles is available here,
We’ve now completed 2000: the six articles are
- 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
- NET 2000 Part 4: Back to Bedrock I
- NET 2000 Part 5: Back to Bedrock II
- Never Ending Tour, 2000, part 6 – Beyond Dylan
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Everybody knows about 9/11. Perhaps the most famous date in modern history, many see it as the true beginning of the 21st century. Only us Bobcats, however, appreciate the other monumental event that took place that day – the release of a new album by Bob Dylan, “Love and Theft”. It took a while for it to sink in that this could well be Dylan’s most adventurous and lyrically dense album ever. I don’t know if anyone has added them up, but I wouldn’t mind betting that on “Love and Theft” Dylan belts out more words than on any other album (Maybe Street Legal).
It’s tempting to spend this first post jumping right in with the new songs, as I did in 1997 with Time out of Mind. Because the album didn’t come out until late in the year, there has been much focus on the last three months of 2001, during which Dylan performed eleven of the twelve new songs from the album. They were great concerts, but they do tend to overshadow Dylan’s achievements earlier in the year, while the focus on the new songs may be at the expense of appreciating his treatment of his classics even during those last three months.
So I’d like to hold back on this new material to tune into his familiar songs from both before and after the release of the album, to give us a feel for what he sounded like in 2001, and what else was happening in that year.
For a start, interesting things were happening to Dylan’s voice. It was distinctly rougher than in 2000 and 1999. Dylan always liked to give his voice a tearing edge. (You can hear it on very early recordings like ‘One Kind Favour’.) By 2000 he could make his voice go soft or rough at will. In 2001 we find his voice thicker, less comfortable with the high clear notes found in 2000 in songs like ‘Gates of Eden’ (see NET, 2000, Part 1), but full of power and expression for all that.
I’m going to start with the acoustic Dylan, the Folk Bob, for he is very much alive during 2001. These are the old songs we’re well familiar with. I have called them his ‘core’ songs and his ‘bedrock songs,’ ‘vintage Dylan’ and so on, but to me there is something special about these performances, as this will be the last full year in which Dylan will play the guitar on stage (except for odd occasions), either acoustic or electric. In 2002, Mr Guitar Man will hang up his hat and take to the keyboards, and the distinction between the acoustic and electric sets will be further blurred.
By 2001, Dylan no longer divides the shows into two sets, one acoustic and the other electric, tending to mix them up, but the distinction remains. The band put down their electric guitars, pick up their acoustic guitars, the drums fall silent or go soft, and we have the Folk Bob back with us, singing his old songs – but like never before. So I’m going to follow my practice of previous years, pluck the acoustic tracks out of the concerts and create my own acoustic concert, 2001 style.
His classic ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ is a good place to start, as his treatment of the song is radically different from previous versions. The jingle-jangle rhythm of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ gives way to a sound slower and denser. It’s like a different song, with a different chord progression. This performance from later in the year (Madison Square Gardens, 11th November) is extraordinary in its intensity. By not allowing any pause at the end of each line, but ripping into the next one straight off, Dylan creates a momentum and vehemence unmatched by any previous performance. He discards the dumpty-dum rhythm, slows the tempo as he has learned to do over the past years, and with his newly cracked voice turns the song into an expression of agonised yearning. That yearning is amplified by a wonderfully jagged and insistent harmonica.
Mr Tambourine Man (A)
It’s so good you almost don’t mind him missing out a verse, the ‘skipping reels of rhyme’ verse I’ve always loved because that phrase itself seems to characterise the song.
Before the words ‘best ever performance’ pass your lips, you should listen to this one from earlier in the year (21st August, Telluride). The arrangement is the same, but the singing is much darker. The way Dylan bends his voice down at the end of each line (downsinging) is more pronounced, and the optimistic bounce of the original 1960’s song is gone. The journey sounds more like a descent into hell than a plea to go tripping.
Mr Tambourine Man (B)
As he has been doing in the last few years, Dylan turns ‘Don’t Think Twice’ into a celebration, playing it up tempo and building it to a rousing conclusion, with, in this case, a stirring harmonica break at the end. This pitiless little song takes on a warmer feel with the mature Dylan. This one is also from the MSG concert.
Don’t think twice (A)
The song is less than an apology but more than a simple good-bye. It’s an explanation, with some unexpected subtleties for such a simple sounding ditty. Words are in question here. Words are not always what they seem. Words are powerless and deceptive:
‘But I wish there was somethin' you would do or say To try and make me change my mind and stay’
‘Goodbye is too good a word, babe So I just say, "fare thee well"’
‘I once loved a woman A child I’m told’
‘I ain't a-sayin' you treated me unkind’
‘We never did too much talking anyway’
It’s what people say or don’t say that determines the fate of a relationship.
This second version may have the edge in terms of vocal performance, but without the harp it feels incomplete to me. (20th August)
Don’t think twice (B)
We have another double happy coming up now in the form of two performances of that great epic ‘Desolation Row’. The 2000 performances of this song are hard to beat (see NET, 2000, part 4) because of the full-throated power of Dylan’s baritone in that year, but in 2001 we find strong, vigorous performances. A bit rougher but by no means less compelling. The first is from Lancaster and clips along with minimal backing. It’s a wonderful tour through the stranger parts of town.
Desolation Row (A)
These performances both make Desolation Row sound like a gritty rather than a spooky place. The ‘best ever’ 1995 performance has Dylan’s voice smoother and more ghostlike, which makes for a different sounding song. Dylan aims for that more spectral effect in this performance (Sorry, lost the date of this one), and roughens it up as it goes
Desolation Row (B)
‘Girl from the North Country’ always sounds good with a softer treatment. In past posts we have seen some exquisite performances of this tender and sad love song. A song untouched by bitterness but tinged with regret. This performance from Telluride, 20th August doesn’t disappoint. The rough-voiced Dylan can sing softly and quietly when he wants, with just a little tear in his voice to add to the regret. Beautifully underpinned by Tony Garnier’s bow-drawn double bass. Pity there’s no harp break. Don’t let a couple of idiots in the audience distract you from this fine, warm-hearted performance.
Girl from the North Country
‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ seems a natural fit here, after ‘Girl from the North Country’, since both songs come from the same poignant bag. Again, there is no bitterness, just the turning screw of regret. It’s all about time. Today…tonight…tomorrow… echoes and reflections…softly poundin’ hearts…a bed that was once yours…
The soft gentleness of this song can get lost on these big, stadium rock audiences; you need a quiet and receptive audience for it, which is exactly what Dylan gets for this performance from Hiroshima (10th March). Sure, I like to joke about ‘best ever’ performances, because there’s always another one, but I find this performance of ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ hard to match. It’s beautifully balanced and clear, the band sounds as gentle and tender as Dylan, who delivers a restrained and heart-breaking performance.
Tomorrow is a long time
It’s a natural movement from that to ‘One Too Many Mornings’, although this song is darker than the previous two. As he sings in ‘Restless Farewell’, another song from the same era, ‘someone’s eyes must meet the dawn’, so in ‘One Too Many Mornings’ we find that same ‘restless hungry feeling’.
‘The crossroads of my doorstep’ is an intriguing image as it suggests choices and decisions, to turn back or to go on, but in the end we’re all just ‘one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind’. The song is heavy with the sense of fate. This performance from Seattle, (6th Oct) does the song full justice. Larry’s steel guitar works like a string section, providing a more lush backdrop to Dylan’s superb vocal.
One too Many Mornings
Where else to go but ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’. ‘She never escaped my mind’, he sings on ‘Tangled up in Blue’, and ‘Gotta get you out of my miserable brain’, he will sing in ‘Ain’t Talkin’. ‘Walkin’ with you in my head’, he sings in ‘Lovesick’. Someone’s got a hold of his heart and never let go, and, hell, some loves ‘take a long time to die’, as he sings in ‘Cold Irons Bound’ (21st August, Telluride. Pity the audience was a bit chatty)
Mama you’ve been on my Mind
‘To Ramona’ might seem like it comes from the same bag, but it doesn’t. It could be read as a reproach, but these recent versions with their extreme downsinging give the song quite a nasty edge. Unless you hate the downsinging, this is a great performance.
What better way to finish this round up of these more personal songs than three rousing, best ever performances of ‘Tangled up in Blue’, where time and memory get a shake up and ‘she’ is still around, even after splitting up on a ‘dark sad night’. The past will always be close behind. The outlaw is always only one step ahead of the posse.
But isn’t three performances a bit excessive and indulgent, even if they are best evers? Yes, totally. So let’s indulge. This first one’s from the Hiroshima concert. I love the sound he gets in this concert, and the focus of the audience. Dylan’s vocal performance is hopelessly, wonderfully good. I want to create a new category for it – best-best ever. High and clear and floating. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. Prepare to be entranced and astonished. (Pity about the lack of harp.)
Tangled up in Blue (A)
Speed it up a bit, and roughen it up some more, and it sounds like this:
Tangled up in Blue (B)
That one’s from 18th March. Now for the indulgence. This one’s from Australia, 23rd March. A full-bodied sound with a harder, nasal edge. Like good wine, it only gets better.
Tangled up in Blue (C)
Had enough Dylan yet? No? I’ll be back soon with more acoustic sounds from 2001.