Never Ending Tour, 2001, Part 3, In bed with the blues

This series traces the performances of the Never Ending Tour from 1987 onward.  This is episode 56 in the series, and a full index to the series can be found here.

The previous articles on 2001 are

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

For 2001, I’m holding back the best till last, that is, the new songs from Love and Theft. I’m building up to them. The first two posts for 2001 were dedicated to Dylan’s acoustic performances. In this post I’ll focus on his electric setlist and so inch closer to the new songs.

One of the themes I’ve been developing here is the increasingly retro element in Dylan’s performances. Antique music, to use Dylan’s expression, music that takes us back to the 1950s and earlier. The songs from Time out of Mind set us in that direction, and the songs from Love and Theft will take us even deeper into that territory.

The signs are there, not just in the Time out of Mind songs, but in the way in which Dylan is treating his older songs. A good place to start is with ‘To Be Alone with You’, from Nashville Skyline (1969), a bouncy, happy song that, by 2001, Dylan has transformed into a ripping rocker. The opening bars do the trick, straight out of the rhythm and blues music that underpinned rock-and-roll. If Dylan and his band were suddenly magically transported back to the mid 1950s his audience would not be too far out of their depth with this. But it’s not an exact copy of that antique music, rather it evokes the era. To my ear it’s just a bit too sophisticated to be mistaken for the music it’s modelled on. Rock and Roll with a country twist. Is that a fiddle I can hear in the background? This one’s from Seattle 6th Oct.

To Be Alone with You

‘Cat’s in the Well’ (Under a Red Sky, 1991) mines the same territory. With its dark message, this is a more typically Dylan song than “To Be Alone with You” but it gets into a very similar groove. ‘Back alley Sally is doing the American jump…’ I’ve always loved that line for some unknown reason. And the deadly casualness of this:

‘The cat's in the well and the servant is at the door.
The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war.’

This is a great performance to listen to, as Dylan more or less sings his introductions to the band. He’s closing a concert on an exciting note. (Sorry, no date for this one.)

Cat’s in the Well

‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ (1997) brings the blues into the city. Although the backing on this performance is pleasingly minimal, it still derives from big band city blues. What is called Delta Blues migrated to Chicago where blues masters like Buddy Guy created a particular Chicago style. Again, this is not exactly that music, but points us in that direction. I’m also reminded of the versatile Big Joe Turner, the blues ‘shouter’. Dylan has absorbed these influences and come up with his own brand of retro.

What’s so good about this performance is that the backing does not overwhelm the song. Foregrounding Dylan’s voice provides for the variations needed in a rigidly repetitive song like this. Vocal variations carry it, while the band manage to keep it interesting all the way through, and it never becomes rote, which can be a problem with blues. This would have to be my favourite performance of this song.

Till I fell in love with you

Staying with the blues brings us to ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’, the great blues song off Highway 61 Revisited. With its unvarying three chord, twelve bar structure, the blues hasn’t changed in a 100 years. In the 1960s there were rock bands like John Mayall’s blues band. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band made a particular impression on Dylan, who early on had ambitions to be their lead singer. Mamie Smith, the vaudevillian, did the first known blues recording, ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920. She would be quickly followed by Ma Rainy and Bessie Smith. The line ‘blues all around my head,’ close to the last line of Dylan’s ‘Standing in the Doorway’, can be traced to Leadbelly’s ‘Good Morning Blues’ 1941.

The blues is naturally antique, you don’t have to do anything special to it. Here  Dylan does ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh’ as a slow, gutsy urban blues. Note that Dylan changes the traditional lyrical pattern by not repeating the first line. Classic blues only gives us three lines, the first repeated and an extended third line. Dylan turns that into a classic four-liner rock song. An outstanding vocal performance. What a wonderful blues singer the older Dylan makes. He now really is starting to sound like those old travel-hardened, whisky drinking blues journeymen Dylan loves so much. You’ve really got to be sixty or over to sound like you’ve lived the blues. Dylan’s note-bending style works wonders here. He’s got the blood of the land in his voice.

It takes a lot to laugh

‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is not exactly a twelve bar, three chord song, although it comes very close, the first two lines leading to the climax of the third line, with the fourth following to wrap it up:

‘Now all the authorities, they just stand around and boast
How they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms into leaving his post
And picking up Angel, who just arrived from the coast
Who looked so fine at first, but left looking just like a ghost’

Dylan the master rhyme maker is at work here, as the same sound at the end of each line builds to the last line, the cumulative effect of that sound. Despite a little slip with the lyrics, this is a powerful vocal.

Tom Thumb’s Blues

‘St James Infirmary Blues’ was first recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928, but the origins of the song are obscure. By the 1960s it had become a famous blues song, full of grief and sadness at the death of a love, and had been covered by many singers. It’s not surprising then that Dylan picked up on it and used it as a template for ‘Blind Willy McTell’ in 1983. Recognised as one of Dylan’s lyrically finest songs, it quickly became a favourite after its live debut in 1997. Although I’m sure we all love the quiet, spare, piano and guitar version that was eventually released, I’ve come to appreciate the heavier, electric treatment the song gets during this period. It suits the grandeur of the song. On this one Larry is playing a bouzouki, a long-necked plucked lute from Greece. You can also hear Mr Guitar Man himself deliberately wrenching the sound off key. For the thousandth time I have to ask why he does it. There’s a strategy here, and I wish someone would explain it to me.

Blind Willy McTell

Mr Guitar Man also makes some strange interjections in this performance of ‘Lovesick’, another blues-drenched song from Time out of Mind. It’s as if the song’s key signature, and musical structure, is a sheet upon which Dylan can draw crazy patterns. He can use his hollow sounding Stratocaster to scribble over the song. I’m not sure if it’s just plain bad or twisted genius. I have to leave that over to you.

Lovesick

‘Lovesick’ takes a step away from the twelve bar structure, but its sentiment is pure blues, the blues that expressed the despair and alienation of the black culture out of which it sprang. The blues belongs to prisons, chain gangs, cotton fields and lonely streets at night when the emptiness rings in the heart, and there are nothing but shadows to cling to. ‘Lovesick’ reminds me of the insight that the great blues singers did not sing the blues to make themselves sad, but to get out of their sadness by giving it full expression. That helps explain the paradox of the blues, which is how singing about the sad, dark side of life can be uplifting.

The same applies to ‘Cold Irons Bound’. It takes a step further from the blues template while staying within the spirit of the blues, hard driving, urban blues, the expression of a convict heart, one which is cold irons bound. (24th August)

Cold Irons Bound

‘If Dogs Run Free’ brings us a different style of retro, bluesy only by implication, more the slinky jazz favoured by the beat poets, and the lyrics themselves are right out of the beat poetry songbook. The song both satirizes and celebrates the era. Dylan’s treatment of the song hasn’t changed since we heard it in 2000. It’s so different from other Dylan songs from the past, yet it sits quite comfortably with the jazz flavoured songs of Love and Theft, like ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Poor Boy’. (25th Feb) Pity about the hand-clapping.

If Dogs Run Free

Another song reminiscent of the blues without being the blues is ‘Serve
Somebody’. It has a steady tom-tom beat, and a bluesy shift into the minor key. Dylan does his usual trick of slipping in new or revised lyrics, lyrics I suspect him of making up on the spot – ‘sleeping on nails, sleeping in a hollow log’. I think that’s what he’s singing. Can’t catch the preceding lines. It’s time someone compiled a full list of this song’s lyrical variations. They’d fill a book.

 Serve Somebody

While the blues, and bluesy rock, can be smooth, gentle and creamy, Dylan likes to play it rough, gutsy, in a garage band style. It’s a hard-scrubbed sound he gets in this tight performance of ‘You Go Your Way’ (Blonde on Blonde, 1966). It sounds more scrappy than it really is. It’s sharp and edgy. The pissed-off impatience inherent in the song comes out in this performance. It’s a fine old finger pointing exercise; a little truth attack as you head out the door.

You go your way

‘You say you're sorry for tellin' stories
That you know I believe are true
You say ya got some other kinda lover
And yes, I believe you do’

‘You Go Your Way’ has a decidedly urban feel, but with ‘Tears of Rage’, we’re back in the country, that heavy, melancholy country sound that The Band perfected in their first solo album Music from Big Pink (1968). It’s in bed with the blues.

The lyrics are difficult, but the song is full of the sense of betrayal, greed and the inevitability of death. Dylan is in good voice, as usual, but for me his performance is spoiled by too much upsinging. It doesn’t suit the song. It becomes distracting. Somehow the downsinging he does so much of in 2001 is more effective. Right from the start he was bending his voice downward at the end of the line. That’s what gave him his early, distinctive wah-wah voice, brought to perfection on Blonde on Blonde. Upsinging feels less natural, more forced. At least for me.

Tears of Rage

That’s it for this post. I’ll be back shortly to finish looking at Dylan’s electric set for 2001. In the meantime, stay safe and stay sane.

Kia Ora

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