By Mike Johnson
Because Dylan put aside the guitar and took up the keyboards at Seattle on 4th October, some commentators have suggested that prior to that concert Dylan had been running out of steam, that the NET was flagging, and that the movement begun ten years before in 1991 had played itself out. According to this view, Dylan took to the keyboards in a desperate effort to revitalize his performances.
There’s no evidence for this. While Dylan’s voice was clearly thickening up (compare his voice now to what it was in, say 1999, and you can hear the difference), there was no lack of power and passion, nor innovation. The great innovation of him taking up the keyboards in October might have overshadowed his achievements earlier in the year; a natural attention to those last two months of 2002 might have kept us from appreciating how good Dylan was in the rest of the year and seeing how his shift to the keyboards might be the outcome of a fervent pushing of the boundaries rather than flagging energy.
We are lucky to have a wonderful recording of a top-notch concert in Manchester on 9th May. You can find bad recordings of good Dylan concerts, and good recordings of bad concerts, but an excellent soundboard recording of a concert with Dylan obviously on fire, is a chancy and comparatively rare thing. The Manchester concert is one of those.
Remember, the first song Dylan played at the Seattle concert was an acoustic version of the rock gospel ‘Solid Rock.’ He kicks off the Manchester concert with an acoustic performance of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ (popularly known as the song that Dylan used to first hit his folkie audience with his raucous electric sound at the Newport Folk festival in 1965), and follows that up with an acoustic performance of ‘Senor’, never before performed acoustically as far as I know. Here’s ‘Senor.’
The ever-versatile Larry Campbell is playing a cittern (pictured above), described as a ‘plucked stringed musical instrument that was popular in the 16th–18th century. It had a shallow, pear-shaped body with an asymmetrical neck that was thicker under the treble strings.’
Let’s leave the Manchester concert for a moment and hear another ‘Senor’, this time electric but with Larry, I believe, on violin, capturing for a moment the spirit of the Rolling Thunder Tour of 1975/76. A heavier but equally powerful performance from Dylan. (No date for this one, but it’s from the Summer Tour)
Before we get any older, let’s slip back to the Manchester concert, the acoustic ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ and have a quick listen to that. Larry’s on the mandolin (what can’t he play?) and Dylan’s voice is right to the fore. Not quite as wild and anarchic as in 1965 but, although sounding minimal without those electric guitars, still a hard driving foot-tapper.
And how long has it been, I wonder, since we have heard an acoustic ‘Forever Young’? As with ‘Senor’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’, getting rid of the electric guitars strips the song back to its basics. There might be a bit too much upsinging on this one, but it’s a vibrant, heartfelt performance nonetheless. The band sound wonderful on the chorus. This is not from Manchester, and again sorry it’s undated.
Also undated, but from the Summer Tour, is this acoustic ‘Man in the Long Black Coat.’ I haven’t heard such a powerful performance of the song since the famous 1995 Prague concert. Again, it wasn’t written as an acoustic song, and has always been given an epic, electric treatment. Yet, it perfectly suits the half-singing, half-talking style Dylan was experimenting with in 2002. This drama of a girl falling into the clutches of evil has not been told with such a sense of astonishment and outrage.
Man in the long black coat
Dylan has been singing ‘I Don’t Believe You’ live since it was written in 1964, but it has never sounded like this. He has replaced the slower, more ponderous tempos he has been using with a foot-tapping beat to drive the song, adding a bit of harp to the opening bars. You can argue that it’s not the scream of pain we heard with the fully electric performances of 1966, and that the vocal is a bit rushed, but it gets the message across okay. Although it’s electric it has that minimal feel that marks Dylan’s sound in 2002. Another undated one from the Summer Tour.
I don’t believe you
Further evidence of Dylan’s innovating drive in 2002 is the reappearance of ‘In the Summer Time’ from Shot of Love (1981), not performed since 1981. That album and subsequent 1981 performances, wonderful as they are, don’t strike me the way this one does.
The opening verse suggests a mystical encounter, and has been interpreted as Dylan’s meeting with Jesus:
‘I was in your presence for an hour or so Or was it a day? I truly don't know Where the sun never set, where the trees hung low By that soft and shining sea’
But by the last verse it’s starting to sound a bit like a love song, with echoes of ‘Let’s Keep it Between Us.’ Yes, Dylan may want us to think of Jesus, but I can’t help speculating (and it is pure speculation) that the religious sentiments of some of these gospel songs have got mixed up with Dylan’s love affair, and marriage in 1981, with backup singer Carolyn Dennis.
‘Strangers, they meddled in our affairs Poverty and shame were theirs But all that suffering was not to be compared With the glory that is to be And I'm still carrying the gift you gave It's a part of me now, it's been cherished and saved It'll go with me unto the grave And into eternity.’
There is general agreement that this is not one of Dylan’s strongest songs, but this is probably the strongest performance of this song that you will hear, notwithstanding Dylan’s performance peak of 1981. (2nd Nov)
In the Summertime
Now let’s slip back to the Manchester concert for a top-quality performance of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, possibly a ‘best ever’ performance, at least it’s a best ever recording. Since introducing this song to the NET in 1997, it has become a regular on his setlists, and, at this stage not changed around much – that would come later. This vision of a corrupt America has never sounded more convincing. I think Larry’s on the cittern again here, and Mr Guitar Man has never sounded better.
Blind Willie McTell
At Manchester, Dylan sang four songs from Love and Theft, still barely a year old, and while we have heard how Dylan handled these songs after shifting to the piano, it is interesting to compare those performances with these. You might like to go to the previous two posts for a comparison, and to catch my introductions to those songs. (Seattle Showdown and Tickling the Ivories).
First up is ‘Moonlight,’ number 6 on the Manchester setlist. It features Tony Garnier on the double bass, and is paced a little slower than the album version. It’s gentle, minimal, and Dylan sings with a delicious sense of the irony, and perhaps hidden menace, inherent in these ‘sugar coated rhymes,’ a phrase from ‘Bye and Bye’ that perfectly suits ‘Moonlight’ too.
‘Well, I’m preaching peace and harmony The blessings of tranquility But I know when the time is right to strike’
Next up, and number 8 on the Manchester setlist, is ‘Lonesome Day Blues’, one of the 12 bar blues on the album. I don’t think Dylan did a piano version of this song in 2002. I find the force and clarity of this performance has the edge on the 2001 performances, but that could be owing to the superior recording. This song keeps referencing the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the classics. (see NET, 2001, Part 6: More power, wealth, knowledge and salvation)
‘Well, they're doing the double shuffle, throwing sand on the floor They're doing the double shuffle, they're throwing sand on the floor When I left my longtime darling, she was standing in the door’
The ‘double shuffle’ is described in the dictionary as: ‘a clog dance characterized by fast syncopated taps of the feet,’ or ‘a dance in which a person makes shuffling movements twice with each foot alternately.’ This dance movement is generally dated to the rave scene in the 1980s/90s, thought to have originated in Melbourne, but I think Dylan was probably referencing a much earlier use of the term from an 1883 song called ‘Sambo’s Double Shuffle’ published by Phil B Perry. That harks back to the era in which they would throw sand on the dance floor to make the floors less slippery.
Clearly Dylan is digging deep into musical history for the imagery in this song, and others on Love and Theft. It makes me wonder just which war Dylan is referring to when he sings ‘Well, my pa he died and left me, my brother got killed in the war.’ Could be WW1, could even be the Civil War; perhaps it’s just whatever war you have in your mind. Dylan excels at this kind of open-ended imagery.
Lonesome Day Blues
‘Summer Days’ might be the jazziest song on Love and Theft. Coming in at number 13 on the Manchester setlist, it features some outstanding double bass (stand up bass) from Tony Garnier once again. ‘Summer Days’ is a celebratory song, although it sings of an era that is ‘gone.’ We find similar open-ended imagery here when he sings:
‘Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing Well, I'm standin' on the table, I'm proposing a toast to the king…’
What king? Maybe Elvis. Maybe those early Roman kings; whatever king you have in your mind.
If you want to practice your ‘double shuffle’ this is the song, and this is the performance, an outstanding one by any standards. And if you can’t do the double shuffle just do any old soft shoe shuffle you like, but take time to listen to how wonderfully guitarist Charlie Sexton, adept of the ‘new wave,’ rides this old one:
Last up from Love and Theft, and number 19 on the Manchester setlist, is ‘Honest with Me,’ a much darker song than ‘Summer Days.’ The lyrics are wide ranging, but despite an element of jokiness, the sentiment takes us back to the gloomier days of Time Out of Mind and the spectre of despair:
‘Well, I'm stranded in the city that never sleeps Some of these women they just give me the creeps I'm avoidin' the south side, the best I can These memories I got they can strangle a man’
The riff on which the song is built is sharply repetitive, which may put some listeners off. I think it best to flow with the lyrics rather than let the riff take over. That sharpness is there for a purpose, to jolt us over and over, to throw us into that city that never sleeps and make sure that we never sleep.
Honest with Me
That’s it for me today, I gotta run, but see you next around with more sounds from 2002 soon.
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