This is episode 61 of the Never Ending Tour series. An index of the previous episodes is provided here. The episodes covering 2001 are
- Never Ending Tour, 2001, Part 1 – Love and fate: acoustic 1
- Never Ending Tour, 2001 Part 2 – The Spirit of Protest: acoustic 2
- Never Ending Tour, 2001, Part 3 – In bed with the blues
- Never Ending Tour, 2001, Part 4 – Down Electric Avenue
- NET, 2001, Part 5: Power, Wealth, Knowledge and Salvation
- The Never Ending Tour 2001 part 6: More Power, Wealth, Knowledge and Salvation
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
On the 4th October, 2002, at the Seattle Centre Key Arena, an extraordinary event took place within the rollout of Bob Dylan’s NET. In the middle of the stage, where Bob ought to be, was an electric keyboard. There was further astonishment when Dylan went on to play keyboard on eleven out of the twenty-one songs presented that night.
Is Bob Dylan without guitar still Bob Dylan? Not everybody thought so. His guitar was more than just an instrument, it was an inseparable part of his identity. From the moment he appeared in the folk clubs of Manhattan in 1962, a kid trying to make a name for himself, it was the guitar-toting Dylan that captured the cultural imagination. Scruffy kid armed with nothing but a guitar and a squeaking harmonica speaks truth to power.
The story goes that it was arthritis that pushed Dylan off the guitar, and I have no reason to dispute that, but most commentators agree that the NET was ripe for change. It was in 1992/93 that Dylan, (I called him Mr Guitar Man), began playing lead guitar, both acoustic and electric, and arguably ten years later that whole movement had played itself out. (If you want to hear Mr Guitar Man at his best might like to check out 1993 part 1 – Tangled up in guitars)
Often dense, dark and intricate, repetitive and obsessive, Dylan’s guitar playing dominated the band’s sound over those years (with a brief interregnum in 1995 owing to illness), and his strange, off-centre playing has been the subject of much dispute among Bobcats.
Those of you who have been following these posts will have seen me register my disquiet with Dylan’s lead guitar playing. I was aware of the inconsistencies and contradictions in my attitude, however. What I liked with the harmonica, I disliked with the guitar. And it sounded better acoustically, even though he might be doing the same thing as with the electric guitar.
What is Dylan up to with these instruments, which he does not play in the standard rock blues manner?
In response to my first Bob Dylan Master Harpist article, a correspondent called Caleb wrote this with regard to Dylan’s harmonica technique:
‘Dylan usually plays a straight harp……meaning that if the song is in the key of G, he uses a harmonica in the key of G. If you blow straight into a harmonica, you get the chord of the straight key. G on a G harmonica. Blues players usually play a “cross harp”, meaning that if the song is in the key of G, they use a C harmonica. To get the G chord on a C harmonica, you suck in on the lower four notes….you not only get the G chord, you get the G7 note…an F, which isn’t the “Blue note”, that takes you into another realm. You can also get the flatted African third, and the “devil tone” …the flatted fifth, by “bending” the third and fourth holes. You suck the air in, in a way that flattens the note…giving that bluesy sound which turns a harmonica into a blues harp….those are the basics…..you take it from there.’
Something similar is happening when Mr Guitar Man gets behind the frets. Our editor, Tony Attwood, after explaining that Dylan didn’t go in for the traditional verse plus guitar break, put it to me this way in an email:
‘Then to liven it up Dylan started playing the notes that you are commenting on which make the song sound somewhat off key. And just as with the harmonica he developed the habit of playing the same notes over and over.
The question is which notes? If playing the blues in G the notes you would commonly use are (with b representing “flat” – ie one semitone lower – typically the black notes on the piano):
G A Bb C D E F G
This is not the key of G major or G minor, but a blues key. G major would be
G A B C D E F# G (# being sharp – up one semitone)
On a blues piece playing an extemporised instrumental break on the harmonica Bob would sometimes play F D F D F D over and over. It sounds very bluesy.
Now on guitar he is doing the same thing, but experimenting with different pairs of notes while the band continue to play the main theme. In effect Bob has introduced a new form of instrumental break based on the same notions of the harmonica break, but using a guitar not a harmonica, and sometimes different notes.
So there is a perfectly sound musical explanation for what he does, and he likes it. I must admit I quite enjoy it too. But it is not in the blues tradition; it is using the blues technique but with different notes.’
I thank both Tony Attwood and Caleb for those explanations and will leave the matter there, and in the hands of my readers, except to say that it is with mixed feelings that I watch Mr Guitar Man put away his ax. He may have had a weird and wonderful style but it was ‘Bob Dylan’ as we’d always known him; the man who hunched in behind his electric piano was someone else.
I have spoken of a rising curve in terms of Dylan’s performances that take us from 1991 right through to 2002. We can now identify the peak years: early peak, 1999; mid peak, 2000 and 2001, and late peak, 2002 up to Oct 4th. At that point a totally new movement begins that will take us on the next leg of this amazing journey. Interestingly, Dylan was asked why he didn’t hire a piano player, and he replied that all the piano players he knew played lead, and he didn’t want that. (Sorry, lost the reference for that.)
Dylan wanted to use the piano as a rhythm instrument, to vamp chords and put in an occasional few notes. He deliberately pushed the sound of the piano into the background, to merge it into the total sound. It was there for rhythm, timing and emphasis.
Let’s tune into that Seattle concert and be in at the birth of that new movement, even if there might be better versions of the songs to come. Fascinating to hear history being made.
Dylan playing piano on the opening song, ‘Solid Rock’ wasn’t the only new thing about it. This loud, hard rock gospel gets the acoustic treatment. Note how spacious the sound is without Dylan’s guitar. It’s all very new and tentative but full of promise. Drummer Dave Kemper has been replaced by George Receli whose less emphatic, more ‘staggered,’ jazzy drumming style had an immediate effect on the sound of the songs.
In another break from the NET past, Dylan had not played this song since 1981.
Song two on the setlist is ‘Lay Lady Lay’, also done acoustically with piano. It’s a sweet, mellow version compared to some we have heard, more of a gentle coaxing than a plea for mortal bliss; seduction rather than instruction. The soft, equally gentle harp break prefigures an alliance between the harp and the piano, as the harp can replace the guitar as lead instrument. Dylan can play the harp with his right hand and keep vamping the piano with his left.
Lay Lady Lay
Song number three on the setlist is ‘Tombstone Blues’. We get our first taste of how the new sound will work with electric guitars. It’s driving, insistent, and without Mr Guitar Man, it sounds uncluttered and minimal. You can sense Dylan relaxing into his new sound, catching the groove of this forever surreal foot-tapper. Note how he punctuates the rhythm by jabbing the piano – plink-plink, plink-plink.
Next up is Warren Zevron’s ‘Accidentally like a Martyr,’ but I’m putting that one aside for a separate post on Dylan’s covers, so we move on to number five on the setlist, another old favourite, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,’ given the brisk, country treatment with a touch of boogie-woogie, partly thanks to Dylan’s plinky-plonk piano. One of Dylan’s lighter, happier songs. Forget the world and enjoy a night of love, or a night of good music – I’ve often thought this song is addressed as much to the audience as to a lover.
A touch of Dylan’s harp reinforces the happy-go-lucky feel of the song.
I’ll be your Baby Tonight.
At this point Dylan leaves the keyboard and picks up the guitar for a rousing performance of the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Brown Sugar’ and an acoustic guitar version of ‘Don’t Think Twice’. He then returns to the keyboard for the eighth song on the setlist, ‘It’s All Right Ma’. 2002 was Dylan’s worst year for upsinging, that is lifting his voice at the end of the line. Judiciously used, it can, like its opposite, downsinging, work quite well, but not when it’s over used. You can hear it in this ‘It’s All Right Ma’, and even more so in the next song, ‘Love Minus Zero’ but, depending on your ear, it doesn’t reach annoying levels.
With the piano, and Receli’s drumming, the song is given a decidedly blues twist. He slows it down, making it a bit more gentle, not so savage, but it does have a bit of a dumpty-dum rhythm.
It’s all Right Ma
Gentle also applies to his performance of ‘Love Minus Zero’, gentle, lush and countrified. If you don’t get too stuck on the upsinging, this is a fine vocal performance. The piano works discretely around the melody. This mysterious song, with its beautiful obscurity, comes across as a love song.
Love Minus Zero
Dylan then picks up the guitar for three more songs before, at slot number thirteen, returning to the piano for ‘Honest With Me’ from Love and Theft, now just a year old. This is a guitar driven rocker which, like ‘Tombstone Blues’, benefits from this more minimal, uncluttered approach. I find this a compelling performance, and Dylan’s cynical, slurred delivery fits the song like a glove. I think he’s making his voice rougher than it need be on some of the notes, because he loves that tearing sound. Receli’s lighter drumming can be felt on this one. It’s more than just a foot-tapper.
Honest with Me
I’ve got two more “Love and Theft” songs to cover from the Seattle concert, ‘Floater’ and ‘High Water,’ but I’m running out of space and will look at them in the next post, when I’ll continue to consider Dylan’s piano performances from late 2002 and the birth of this new sound.
In the meantime, keep with it.