Never Ending Tour 2002 part 4: magnificent performances, superb recordings

A full index to the Never Ending Tour series is here.    The articles for the first three parts of 2002 are 

By Mike Johnson

As we have seen in the last three posts (above), 2002 was a year of energy and innovation for Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour. In the latter part of the year he began playing piano onstage, he sang a number of new non-Dylan songs, played acoustic versions of some of his electric songs like ‘Senor’ and ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and also sang a number of songs never or rarely performed during the NET. In the last post we heard, ‘In the Summer Time,’ not performed since 1981.

‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ Dylan’s great rap song from the 1960s had not been performed since 1989, but pops up again in 2002.  Hard to say why the neglect, as this bouncy number is one of Dylan’s best-performing songs in terms of commercial success. This may not be the best version you’ll ever hear, but it does remind us of this great song.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

‘Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)’ was only ever played live six times, and by 2002 had not been played since the Isle of Wight concert in 1968. It was played four times in 2002, in suitably swinging raucous performances. This is from Baltimore, 18th August. It’s a great nonsense rhyme, full of verve and humour, and is an exercise in sheer fun, but I can’t help but get a sneaky feeling that Quinn is the dealer, bringing the good stuff to those who are hanging out.

Nobody can get no sleep, there's someone on everyone's toes
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here
Everybody's gonna wanna doze

Or, as my ear picks it, ‘Everybody’s gonna want a dose.’ There are times when Dylan plays on the ambiguity of sounds. (‘He plays a futile/feudal horn’ – Shelter from The Storm.) It seems to me also that he adds a new verse, but I can’t make out the words, which is more the pity.

The Mighty Quinn

While we’re in a Basement Tapes mood, let’s take in ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere,’ another song full of light-hearted nonsense. It’s hard to know to what extent the lyrics are driven by appealing rhymes. Maybe sound is more important than sense in such songs. (29th Oct)

Now Genghis Khan, he could not keep
All his kings supplied with sleep
We'll climb that hill, no matter how steep
When we get up to it

You Ain’t going nowhere

‘Sugar Baby’ from “Love and Theft” is far from light-hearted nonsense. It is one of the darker songs from that album, with a slow, funereal movement, taking us back in spirit to Time out of Mind. The song speaks of the futility of trying to take action. In ‘Things Have Changed’ Dylan sings, ‘you can hurt someone and not even know it.’ In ‘Sugar Baby’ the situation is worse:

Try to make things better for someone
sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse

In the previous post we noticed the fine quality of both recording and performance of the Manchester, 9th May concert. It is not the only excellent soundboard recording from earlier in the year. We have another beauty, Atlanta 9th February. The Spring Tour of 2002 has a bad reputation because of Dylan’s incessant upsinging, but the Atlanta concert is largely an exception. There is some upsinging, but in general there is a better balance than what was to come in the next couple of months.

At  Bobsboots there is quite a rave about this concert: ‘The soundboard for this show is simply flawless. Not only is the sound exquisite, but Bob and the band are brilliant. Dylan bends and drags his words as only he can do. The band is tight and keeps up beautifully with Bob’s driving vocals. This recording proves just what a force that Dylan and his band are.’   I cannot however agree with their opinion that anything else from 2002 would ‘pale horribly’ in comparison to this concert. They can’t have noticed the Manchester concert, or the piano weighted concerts from 4th Oct.

The Atalanta performance is my favourite version of Sugar Baby. Dylan’s voice has the power and range to get the song across. A moving performance.

Sugar Baby

I’ve written myself into a corner with ‘Drifter’s Escape,’ blathering on about best ever performances for the 2000 and 2001 versions, and find I’ve got no epithets left for what could well be the real best ever performance from Atlanta. It has a hard-edged, scrubby sound that gives the story being told a desperate, urgent feel. The song’s comic, Kafkaesque tale suits this kind of rough and rowdy treatment. Chaos is breaking loose. Maybe the drifter really has finally escaped.

Drifters Escape (A)

But wait! Maybe he hasn’t escaped after all. Here’s another performance, equally compelling. You can hear the difference between a soundboard recording (Atlanta) and the second (date unknown), an audience recording. Both performances feature some wonderfully wacky guitar playing by Mr Guitar Man himself, in very fine form, and a scintillating harmonica from the master harpist.

Drifters Escape (B)

Well… things have changed – but have they? He’s still up there singin’ just for you, isn’t he? Still sounding as passionate as ever about not caring…?

Odd thing about this performance of ‘Thing Have Changed’ is that suddenly Dylan’s voice is no longer cracked and crackling like bacon in a pan. His powerful ‘tenor’ voice is back in action (I think he’s a baritone, but let’s just let the point slide), clear and largely free of throatiness. I say largely because he can turn it on when he wants to; hear him sing ‘All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie’ and you can hear him slip into it. How does he do that? Are there good nights and bad nights, or can he turn that crackling on and off. Maybe there are some songs, or some lines in songs, that make him want to sound old and crusty, or suit that sound.

I’m never going to use the term ‘best ever’ again (I promise) but I find this performance from 15th Nov, Philadelphia, compelling. I don’t hear Dylan on guitar on this one, but then I can hardly hear the piano either (it’s there, isn’t it?). It’s possible he’s playing the piano softly, as to himself, but focusing on the vocal. One of the criticisms of Dylan’s early keyboard work is that often it can’t be heard, and maybe that too is deliberate.

Things have changed (A)

However, if we wind back the clock to the February Atlanta concert, with that scrubby, gutsier sound, driven by Mr Guitar Man, it sounds as if he’s tearing the song from his throat, with only moments of clear singing. Different night, different audience, different sound…

Things have changed (B)

We can do pretty the same comparison between two performances of ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe.’ This first one is from 7th October, Red Bluff. It is quite soft and restrained, without too much of a crackle in Dylan’s voice. A fine performance, although I think the harmonica should be mandatory for this song; there’s been some wonderful harp solos over the years.

It Ain’t Me Babe (A)

Back to Atlanta and we find a rougher performance, although still acoustic – and we get a harp break at the beginning of the song which sets us up nicely for this heartfelt performance. I think this one has a vibrancy that the Red Bluff performance doesn’t quite achieve. Too much upsinging, maybe?

It Ain’t Me Babe (B)

It Ain’t Me Babe is one a group of core songs that Dylan never loses sight of. They are songs that have defined him in the public mind since the 1960s and although in 2002 he didn’t sing them as often to make way for new material, they were still around to remind us of the old, caring Bob. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ is such a song, almost too familiar to bother listening to.

Funny thing about this song, the more I hear it, the less simple it gets. It used to be obvious to me what it was about, almost too obvious, but the idea that it’s a straightforward song has been fading. Readers might have heard the term ‘koan’ which refer to impossible questions asked by a Zen master to still the mind of the scatterbrained disciple. What’s the sound of one hand clapping? is probably the best-known koan. But ‘Blowing in the Wind’ is full of such impossible questions.

How many time can a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

That question has very koan like quality to it. What is the answer? Forty-two?

‘The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner… Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, “Aha! the answer is three!” They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths—the inner regions beyond knowing.’ (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/zen-buddhism-koan_n_563251dce4b0631799115f3c)

At its best his song has that effect. It opens up those inner spaces to understanding by intuition or spirit.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?

I don’t know, and the more I think about it the more I don’t know.

This Atlanta performance, complete with opening harp solo, doesn’t play to the sweet, gentle aspect of the song, but the ‘surgical tool’ aspect. You can’t just ride through these lines, they cut back at you. A wonderfully insistent performance.

Blowing in the Wind

Masters of War is another of these core songs, but there’s nothing too mysterious about it. The arrangement hasn’t changed much since the masterful Brixton performance in 1995. The song doesn’t march, as it did in the 1960s, but rather surges forward and back, a minimal but ominous sound. I miss the surging harmonica from the 1995 performance in this Altanta performance, but I’ve no complaint about Dylan’s vocal. It’s not spooky threatening, as in 1995, but rough and forceful threatening. A voice at the end of its tether. You’d think that those masters of war would have to heed such a voice, but they’re just making too much money to care, even though all that money won’t ‘buy back their souls.’

Let’s just take a moment to recognize the religious undertone that drives the song’s moral outrage, with mention of Jesus, of Judas, and those already sold ‘souls.’

Masters of War.

That’s it for this time around. I’ll be back soon with more of Dylan’s 2002 performances. In the meantime, as my great-great grandfather would say, ‘keep your powder dry…’

Kia Ora

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