NET, 2003, Part One. Things come alive or else they fall flat

A full index to the Never Ending Tour series is here.    This article launches 2003; the articles for 2002 are…

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

2003 is one of my favourite NET years. Not that there weren’t problems. Charlie Sexton left the band at the end of 2002, to be replaced by Billy Burnette, in turn replaced by Freddie Koella after a couple of months. It took a while for these guitarists to bed down. More importantly, Dylan’s voice continued to show cracks and strains; a new roughness had entered that amazing voice, including the emergence of what fans of the NET call his ‘wolfman voice,’ a low, throaty growl. Dylan’s rhythmic piano playing, begun in October 2002, also continued to attract negative comment from those more wedded than Dylan himself to his guitar.

And yet there is a rough vigour in these 2003 performances that is hard to match. The Dylan compiler CS at A Thousand Highways, who also confesses his liking for the year, calls his collection of songs ‘Piano Blues and Barroom Ballads,’ pretty much a perfect title to capture the unique spirit of the year’s performances. The sound is more like what you would find in a blues or jazz club, or indeed a barroom.

The concerts of the past two years became finely honed, hard-edged and disciplined. The Atlanta concert of 2002 is a perfect example. (See NET, 2002, Part 4) This is stadium rock at its most gritty. By contrast, the 2003 concerts are generally looser, jazzier and more free-spirited. More like club music. It’s Dylan’s shift to the keyboards that does the trick, abandoning the cold iron sound of his Stratocaster, and using the piano to drive the rhythm forward while evoking a bygone era of piano blues and barroom ballads (Remember Shadow Kingdom?). If it weren’t for the songs and those words of his, we could be back in the early 1950s.

Close your eyes and wander into a bar. Maybe you’re in Berlin, or New Orleans. There’s a bunch of guys rocking the joint while people smoke and flirt and live and die. There’s an old guy at the piano who thinks he’s Jerry Lee Lewis.  It’s an exuberant performance. His voice is as rough as guts, sounds like he’s been on the job too long, and his piano playing’s even rougher, but it has a joyful spirit, and is sort of beguiling. (Berlin 20th Oct.) It sure rips along.

To Be Alone with You

He can’t really play like Jerry Lee Lewis, but he can pretend, with a bit of a nod and a wink, and everybody has a good time without the old guy actually having to put his foot up on the piano.

But the next song – sheoot! It’s about some place called Desolation Row and a bunch of people all dressed up doing weird things. It knocks our sox off. Nobody knows where to look; some of us laugh. Maybe that old guy’s been snortin’ too much of the silly stuff, you know, to write some screwed-up song like that. Funny thing about that Desolation Row place, it’s like I’ve been there before. It slips in between familiar streets. It used to be called Lonely Avenue. It’s where you go to cold turkey. It’s right there in front of us every day. It’s like we all live there but don’t know it. Even after the song finishes, I don’t want to go out and look up at the street sign. That old guy’s got the voodoo. I used to know Cinderella (we all did); she lived just around the corner.

But man, does he drive it along with that piano! putting funny little bunches of notes in before every verse, bluesy and forceful, and he bellows it out, a voice rougher than sandpaper but packed with power. You can bring the roof down with a voice like that; you can blast ‘em right out of their seats, and that rough and ready harmonica rips the air open like a chainsaw. This song will mangle your mind, lock you in a room and break the key, leave scratch marks on your fate.

 Desolation Row

Moving from guitar to piano means more than just swapping one instrument for another; it shifts the whole balance of sound away from ‘hard rock’ Atlanta 2002, to a more rollicking, jazzy blues sound, the kind of sound you hear in this ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh.’ Without the guitar, Dylan lacks a lead instrument, and that’s where his harmonica comes in handy. He sits it up on the piano, within easy reach, and can keep the rhythm going on the piano with one hand and play the harmonica with the other as he does here. He can’t do that with the guitar. 2003 saw a revival in Dylan’s harmonica work, as if rediscovering the instrument after a long break.

The piano is a softer instrument than the electric guitar. It has different roots, taking us back through the jazz years to Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller with their ragtime jumps. We hear echoes of blues shouters like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patten in the ragged vocals. More than ever, now the guitar has gone, we get the feeling that this is the kind of music out of which rock music grew. Old classics sound new again. (23rd Nov, London).

It takes a lot to laugh

Those who want to catch a look at how Dylan plays both instruments at once can find it here, a video of the London performance.

We get the same kind of rollicking sound with ‘Dear Landlord.’ Dylan played piano on the album version (John Wesley Harding), so it’s not too surprising that he should revive the song in 2003, but with a less fragile and more rollicking version. We may suspect that Dylan’s pleas to the masters of his fate will fall on deaf ears; you don’t make deals with the gods – unless you’re Bob Dylan. Just a little mutual respect is what he’s asking for. Give me a chance to use my ‘special gift.’  It’s a blues prayer. (24th Nov, Hammersmith)

Dear Landlord

You could argue that a song like ‘Million Miles’ from Time out of Mind doesn’t come fully into its own until Dylan gets in behind the keyboard. The roots of the song are much closer to smoky jazz than rock music, and the piano is the instrument of smoky jazz. It still rollicks, but with a slower, skippier beat. The sense of being in a blues or jazz club is even stronger. The lyrics feed into that atmosphere. ‘I’m drifting in and out of dreamless sleep…’ We’re way down Lonely Avenue at 3 a.m thinking about telling lies, how impossible it is to feel close to someone with all those lies, how impossible it is to get a decent night’s rest with all those ‘voices in the night trying to be heard.’ (This is another one from Hammersmith, 24th Nov).

Million Miles

That slinky, jazzy feel starts to creep into Dylan’s arrangements of other songs from Time out of Mind. ‘Can’t Wait’ gets a prowling, descending bass line that transforms the song, making it quieter and more menacing. Someone’s on the prowl, padding through the night, someone who’s reached a final, desperate edge. A compelling performance. (3rd Nov.)

Can’t Wait (A)

Again, it strikes me that the song seems to come into its own with that obsessive little riff he plays on the piano, a little gentle syncopation towards the end, again pushing away from rock towards jazz. Some particularly effective backing guitar from Freddy Koella, whose guitar playing can sound oddly like Dylan’s own.

I thought I could leave ‘Can’t Wait’ there, but this performance from Berlin (20th Oct) is so good I couldn’t leave it out. The same arrangement, but perhaps bit more vocal power from Dylan, a bit edgier maybe? He’s pushing the song for all its worth.

Can’t Wait (B)

As with 2002, the better concerts seem to be clustered towards the end of the year. The first leg of the tour, Australasia, is not held in high regard. A simple comparison tells the story. This is ‘Floater’ from the Wellington, New Zealand concert, 24th Feb. In New Zealand we have felt a bit short-changed by Dylan concerts, as if he’s using his down-under gigs as rehearsals. Just a suspicion. It’s not clear how much rehearsing Billy Burnette had before being thrust into the limelight

Floater (A)

Not bad, but it pales in comparison to this performance from Hammersmith. It’s not just the recording that’s sharper and clearer. The music’s full of vitality. Who said anything about a worn-out star? Edwin Muir, in his book One More Night sees in these later performances a miraculous recovery after a patchy year. ‘Energised and resplendent in his white shirt, Dylan took the stage…’ (Describing the Hammersmith Show, page 310)

Floater (B)

One thing for certain, old NET fans were falling out over these 2003 concerts. These are serious Bobcats who follow the concerts around as much they are able, and who found themselves with divergent views of some concerts. I think it was all a bit exaggerated, but then, it’s all very well for me, I can cherry pick concerts and performances, and in the process, inadvertently give the impression that a particular year was stronger than it really was. I wasn’t driving for hours, lining up to buy tickets, only to find myself disappointed at yet another mediocre concert.

Dylan’s performances may have been uneven, but I persist in feeling that some of these songs, like ‘Floater’ and others from Time out of Mind sound just right with a piano backing in Dylan’s vigorous, ‘primitive’ style, as it places them more firmly in their era. Dylan’s gentle backing in this performance of ‘Trying to get to Heaven,’ is a case in point. He uses that soft piano vamping to back a wonderfully hushed, almost breathless performance of the song. It’s to do with creating a midnight atmosphere. Dylan’s guitar was often so weird and forceful it would tend to dominate the sound of the band, and therefore the atmosphere of the song. Here, the subtleties of the song get their full expression. And what a vocal performance! From power notes to soft whispering, from crooning to crackling. This can only be Dylan at his mature best.

‘Gonna sleep down in the parlor
And relive my dreams
I'll close my eyes and I wonder
If everything is as hollow as it seems’

Trying to get to heaven

You could make a similar argument for ‘Cold Irons Bound,’ another Time out of Mind gem. With Koella and Larry Campbell on the job, we have plenty of antique guitar sounds. I always thought it was a bit too guitar heavy. Here Dylan’s minimal piano, just a touch or two here and there during the verses, is enough to anchor us in the ‘piano ballad’ era, and to create a different balance of sound.

Cold Irons Bound

That’s it for this post. I’ll be back soon to continue looking at this fascinating year of the NET.

Until then

Kia Ora.


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