The Never Ending Tour: 2003, part 2, Pounding pianos and hectic harps

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

In 2003 we find some of the most exciting rock music Dylan ever made. That music is the result of the three-way marriage between Dylan’s voice, never more expressive, his piano and harmonica. Putting these three elements together is like letting a genie out of a bottle, or the mixing of three potent elements into the alchemical vessel of the music to, from the heat of performance, produce pure gold.

In Part 3 of my Master Harpist series I covered five songs from 2003, ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ ‘Senor,’ ‘Drifter’s Escape’ and ‘Desolation Row.’ I included the Berlin performance of ‘Desolation Row’ in my previous post, as well as ‘Floater’ and ‘It Takes A Lot to Laugh,’ but these were only the tip of the iceberg. I want to use this post to dig deeper into that territory and to get a feel for how that alchemical process worked and the results that emerged.

In the last post I noted the celebratory vigour of the 2003 performances, the openness and looseness of the arrangements, the jazzy bass lines and the beguiling roughness of Dylan’s voice. Add to that some whimsical blasts on the harp, with openings in the music for the rhythms beneath to show, and you have a description of ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.’ A delightfully irreverent, irrelevant, bouncy, happy-go-lucky song. This one’s from the Hammersmith concert.

You ain’t goin’ nowhere

Keeping with the happy mood, let’s go to Sydney (17th Feb) and catch ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.’ In my previous post I said that the Australasian leg of the tour was not well received in comparison to later concerts, but there were still some fine performances. It’s a wonderful jaunty performance from Dylan.

I was going to leave this one out however because, towards the end, just as we are enjoying a jazzy harp break from the master, we suddenly hear a voice in our right ears asking us for our tickets. The down-under security boys are on the job, and either the bootleggers themselves or someone very close to them are instructed to return to their seats. On balance, however, I decided to retain the track, not just because of the quality of Dylan’s performance, but because the interruption captures the spirit of these audience recordings, reminding us of what a chancy business these informal, unofficial recordings are.

 I’ll be your baby

Dylan’s New Zealand concerts are also not without interest. This spirited ‘Lay Lady Lay’ from Wellington (24th Feb) is worthy of inclusion. Despite not being as vigorous and hard-driving as later performances, it captures the balance between instructing and imploring needed to make the song work. Is he ordering her to lay across his ‘big brass bed’ or pleading, is the tone seductive or desperate? – it’s all in the performance. The album version is certainly seductive, and would have us throw our panties overboard no questions asked, but later performances have moved from entreating to beseeching. As Dylan’s voice gets rougher and older, the outcome of this petitioning has become less certain. Does he get her onto his bed or not is the burning question, and the song may work best when the outcome remains in doubt, hanging in the balance.

Lay Lady Lay

‘Love Minus Zero,’ is a celebration of the great mystery of love; the intensity of the poetry transcends the subject matter but keeps all the feeling. The album performance worked because of the contrast between the sophistication and beautiful obscurity of the lyrics with the brevity and simplicity of the ballad form – it takes under three minutes (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965). Later performances tend to take advantage of the exquisite melody line to create a slower, richer, more sumptuous effect. We have a beautiful example of that from the 1994 MTV Unplugged concert. By 2003, Dylan is still working in that vein, but here he adds Larry Campbell’s steel guitar to create the feeling of a sentimental country song. Despite the surreal verses, this remains a love song, lit by melancholy.

The wind howls like a hammer,
The night blows cold and rainy,
My love she's like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.

That melancholy is underpinned by Dylan’s quiet piano riff, nicely syncopated towards the end of the song, and given a lonely edge by the frail yet insistent harp break. (21st Nov, Birmingham).

Love Minus Zero

We have seen some epic and spectacular performances of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ and this one from 15th October can join the ranks of those great performances. The song is a world-weary offer of companionship and understanding in the face of the demands of the world and ‘all this repetition.’ It makes most sense when seen as an address to another artist, another musician (as usual, Joan Baez is suggested as the most probable recipient of these sentiments) – ‘When you’re tired of yourself and all of your creations…’

The harp break sounds under-recorded to me, but maybe that far off, distant wailing is what Dylan is after here. It adds to the forlorn effect of the song.

Queen Jane Approximately

I’ve introduced Dylan’s gentlest and most piercing love song, ‘Girl from the North Country’ many times now, as it is a song that Dylan hasn’t let drop. No wonder. It’s a marvellous tribute to a past love, with just enough regret to drive it forward. This 2003 arrangement, however, is completely new. There is a baroque feel to the piano riff that gives this performance its structure and rhythm. Unexpectedly, it works with this slow and steady beat. Dylan’s voice veers between a croon and a whisper, and, as he does more often in 2003, he uses the harp to introduce the song. In this case, however, he picks the harp up again towards the end.

With Dylan playing electric piano on all the songs, the old division between his acoustic and electric sounds is further blurred. We can still have an acoustic guitar backing, but with Larry on steel guitar and Dylan on piano, the difference is far from evident. ‘Girl from the North Country’ is the perfect acoustic folk song, but this performance is more acoustic in spirit than in actuality. (Hammersmith)

Girl from the North Country

‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is certainly electric, but in this case gently so. We have heard much harsher versions than this. The 1966 electric versions are seriously kick-arse, but so is this, although there is a lyrical effect here thanks to Freddie Koella’s gentle guitar sounds. It’s George Recile’s drumming that is the secret of this performance’s success. It’s that foot-tapping rhythm as much as Dylan’s emphatic vocals that makes this my favourite version of the song. And the wailing harp, again a little in the background, gives the performance that nerve-racking edge the song needs. The piano is where Dylan likes it to be, vamping away in the background supporting the rhythm, pushing it along. (3rd Nov)

Tom Thumb’s Blues

‘To Ramona’ can sound a little like a prequel to ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’ In ‘Queen Jane,’ Dylan sings

Now, when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you
And the smell of their roses does not remain

whereas in ‘To Ramona,’ he sings

For the flowers of the city
Though breathlike, get deathlike sometimes

A comparison of the two songs shows a fascinating evolution of mood from the accusations and admonitions of ‘Ramona’ to the empathy and rapport of ‘Queen Jane’.

Vocally, Dylan makes a meal out of this one, pulling his voice downward into a cynical snarl or rising triumphantly. It’s not so much a love song as a mockery of a love song. Those Mexican sounding guitars should be serenading a waltzing bridal couple, not this rather nasty-edged good-bye, but the sharpness of the opening harp break gives fair warning of what is to come.

To Ramona

We pop back to Sydney to catch ‘Just Like A Woman.’ This is one song from Blonde on Blonde that Dylan has been able to transform in later performances. Sheered of  the sneering tone of the album, which hid the hurt, that hurt, and the vulnerability to hurt, can now show. The eloquence of the opening harp solo takes us directly to the emotional complexity of the song. With the vocal, Dylan tends to break up the lines as if each word or phrase was its own line. It breaks up the continuity of the lines and emphasizes the importance of each word or phrase. This is how he sings this verse:

Queen Mary
she's my friend
Yes, I believe
I'll go see her again
has to guess
that baby
can't be blessed
'Til she sees
that she's just like all the rest
With her fog
with her amphetamine
and her pearls

This is a much less smooth and confident voice than that of the album. Add to that a quietly understated piano and we have a compelling performance.

Just like a woman

For me, any subsequent performances of ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ invite invidious comparisons to the 1995 Prague performance, one of the greatest moments of the NET. However well he builds this one up, and he does so quite nicely, I can’t help but miss those soaring tones. This one’s from the Birmingham concert.

It’s all over now baby blue

The end of the world haunts ‘Shooting Star’ from Oh Mercy. It works as a love song, but also as a valediction, a goodbye to the world. The shooting star is the star of earthly love, but it also represents the last chance for salvation. People used to see shooting stars as portents; Dylan does that here.  A wonderfully intense performance.

Shooting Star.

I’m going to finish this post with a quick intro to three more songs, those already covered in Master Harpist 3. I would encourage you to go to that post to pick up my comments on each of these songs.

This ‘Drifter’s Escape,’ from Hammersmith is the last in a long line of best ever performances. Urgent and gutsy.

Drifter’s escape.

We have this ‘Senor,’ perhaps the most desperate performance of this dark and desperate song, ending with a primal scream from the harmonica. The crowd goes crazy. An overwhelming, ecstatic performance.


Last but not least, ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ the most ecstatic of all best ever performances, driven by an urgent, rumbling piano and jubilant harp. This is Bob Dylan at his very best, powerful and celebratory, voice rich and suggestive. One of the finest moments of the NET, and a high note on which to complete this post.

Tangled Up in Blue

Kia Ora


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