So far in 2003….
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
2003 is one of Dylan’s most energetic and innovative years as he adapts his songs, old and new, to his shift from playing guitar to playing keyboard. The big difference between Dylan’s guitar and his piano playing is that with the guitar he mostly picks single notes whereas with the piano he mostly vamps, playing chords, and rarely attempts to take the lead.
This gives the songs a different rhythmical foundation. In some cases his piano playing has a baroque feel, an echo of the age of madrigals. We heard that clearly with ‘Love Minus Zero’ and ‘Girl from the North Country’ (see NET, 2003, part 2). We hear it again on this sensitive rendition of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather,’ that most poignant of farewell songs from 1963. One of the few Dylan songs we could describe as a tear-jerker, as a lover bids farewell to his love who is travelling abroad, and she asks him what she can send him ‘from across that lonesome ocean.’
It’s one of Dylan’s best conversation songs as it moves back and forth between the soon to be separated lovers. This one’s from Birmingham, 21st Nov.
Boots of Spanish Leather
The upsinging is noticeable, but I find that, judiciously used, upsinging can lift the mood or spirit of the song. In this case, it suggests the lover struggling to stay cheerful or hopeful in the face of his sorrow.
We could make a similar observation about this performance of ‘I Shall Be Released.’ I found this on the Red Bluff setlist (7th Oct) while the official Bob Dylan website does not show the song being performed in 2003. Again the upsinging seems to suggest hope, hope for the fulfilment of the yearning for release the song expresses – or at least a struggle for that hope. While we might find the upsinging an annoying mannerism, I feel that it may, at least at times, have a function in terms of the emotional valency of the song in question.
It’s an oblique little song that somehow manages to be about innocence, guilt, vulnerability and redemption in three short verses.
There’s a bit too much audience noise on this one for my liking (people who pay good money to blab their way through concerts are a mystery to me) but Dylan’s performance is too good to miss.
I shall be released.
The piano plays a subtle and supportive role in this Red Bluff performance of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ from Blood On The Tracks, this time leaning more towards quiet, Diana Krall style jazz than the baroque. Dylan’s style remains emphatic and ‘primitive,’ like the old time 1930s players, but it nicely underpins this sensitive rendition of the song and is one of Dylan’s best piano performances. Potentially, it’s also a tear-jerker, but there is a robustness to the performance that carries us through the pain of knowing that someone we have loved is out there, ‘in somebody’s room.’
You’re a big girl now.
‘Moonlight’ (Love and Theft) takes us deeper into the 1930s and the ambience of the music from that era. It could be a song from that era but for a Dylanesque twist to the lyrics:
Well I’m preaching peace and harmony The blessings of tranquility But I know when the time is right to strike
The suspicion grows that, since he has to ask her so many times to meet him that the game is already lost. I’m sticking with the Red Bluff concert because of the quality of the performances and the recording. Exquisite.
We hop across to Hammersmith (24th Nov) to catch another ace performance from Love and Theft, ‘Cry A While,’ a song with a complex musical structure as it switches from fast to slow tempo, from jazz to blues and back again. Dylan certainly nails the vocal on this one. I found I had to refer back to the lyrics to follow him, a rewarding exercise as it turned out. It’s lyrically complex too. While the territory of heartbreak is familiar, in typical Dylan fashion the lyrics refer to events and situations not fully explained. Despite the heartbreak and accusations, we find that same strain of humour than runs through the whole album.
Well, there’s preachers in the pulpits and babies in the cribs I'm longing for that sweet fat that sticks to your ribs I'm gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey I'll die before I turn senile
The underlying feeling of the song, however, is of disillusionment and anger. The kind of anger you feel when you’ve done enough crying:
I’m on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears that I can’t control Some people they ain’t human, they got no heart or soul Well, I’m crying to the Lord, I’m tryin’ to be meek and mild Yes, I cried for you, now it’s your turn, you can cry a while
I can’t find high enough praise for this performance. Ricci’s drumming and Garnier’s bass playing are awe-inspiring. The way the tempo switches are managed, the mastery of jazz and blues forms demonstrated, and Dylan’s wonderful piano and vocal, make this a standout performance.
Cry A While (A)
Lovers of the song, however, might also enjoy this performance (3rd Nov, Zürich). While it’s not as crisply recorded as the Hammersmith performance, Dylan does another outstanding vocal
Cry A While (B)
Let’s stay with Love and Theft for ‘Summer Days,’ that fast-paced celebration of a bygone era. The lyrics are a wonderful mix of nonsense and half-sense – with a bit of protest thrown in:
Politician got on his jogging shoes He must be running for office, got no time to lose He been suckin' the blood out of the genius of generosity You been rolling your eyes, you been teasing me
The song is full of exuberance with a kind of throw-away feel to it. This kind of jump jazz was made for dancing. Another Hammersmith performance – wish I’d been there.
Summer Days (A)
That Hammersmith performance is equally matched by this one from Red Bluff. I’ve been jumping from one to the other trying to decide which is best, but there is no ‘best’ here, just excellence all around.
Summer Days (B)
‘Honest With Me,’ also from Love and Theft, is another fast-paced dancing song, but the lyric is much darker despite the vein of humour. Sometimes the humour from Love and Theft reminds me of The Basement Tapes from 1967:
My woman got a face like a teddy bear She's tossin' a baseball bat in the air The meat is so tough, you can't cut it with a sword I'm crashin' my car trunk first into the board They say that my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice Well, I'd sell it to ya at a reduced price
Sarcasm and flippancy mix smoothly in with the deadly serious:
Well, I came ashore in the dead of the night Lot of things can get in the way when you're tryin' to do what's right
Honest with Me
Note the minimal piano, very much in the background.
The first track on Love and Theft is ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,’ a song I’ve not been able to form a close connection with. Perhaps it’s the lack of variation in the melodic/vocal line, perhaps it’s the obscurity of the song, but something doesn’t click. I can’t complain, however, about the performance, this one from London (23rd Nov). I do feel he’s struggling to keep it interesting, but maybe that’s just me struggling to stay interested. Again, a very minimal piano.
Tweedle Dee Tweedle Dum
Before getting any older, we have to listen to two magnificent performances of ‘Things Have Changed.’ It took me a while to get into this song. It wasn’t until I heard a 2012 version that I ‘got it’ and was able to go back and listen to the earlier performances. Dylan’s been singing it for a couple of years now, and by 2003 the song was coming into its own. It creates a paradoxical effect, to sing so passionately about not caring. He cares enough to give the song a most loving treatment.
This first one’s from Berlin, 20th October. The recording is a little muted, but Dylan’s vocal performance is outstanding. My favourite line: ‘If the bible’s right, the world’s about to explode…’
Things have changed (A)
This one’s from New York (8th Dec). The recording’s a bit sharper and Dylan is right on form.
Things have changed (B)
2003 was the last year for ‘Jokerman.’ This 1984 song has been an intermittent visitor to Dylan’s setlists, and has always been, to my mind, a difficult song to pull off. It’s lyrically complex and melodically demanding for the singer. It has moments of lyricism and digs deep into philosophy and theology, even mentioning the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, a book full of measurements, rules and regulations. It’s all about freedom and keeping ‘one step ahead of the persecutor within.’ This wide-ranging lyric reminds me of Street Legal and ‘Changing of the Guards.’ It’s furiously eclectic. It’s well worth pulling up the lyrics to read while you listen.
Let’s finish with three upbeat songs from the London concert. Dylan’s London performance of ‘The Mighty Quinn’ turns out to be another last ever. He only performed it once in 2003 compared to four performances in 2002. It’s a pity in a way, as it might feel like a throw-away song but it has plenty of verve and bounce, makes for a lighter moment. It’s rough and raw and rather raucous, and all good fun.
The Mighty Quinn
‘Down Along the Cove’ aims for a comfortable groove within 12 bar blues structure. It’s a joyous song about meeting your love, your ‘bundle of joy.’ This performance has the feel of Chicago blues about it. It has a fresh feel, and Dylan’s quite happy to make up some new lyrics for it.
Down along the cove
Also raw and rowdy is this performance of ‘You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine’ from Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s voice sounds pretty played out on this one, but it’s nice to hear a bit of harp work. Hardly as smooth as the album version. The title sounds like a popular saying, but other than a cowboy song called ‘You go your way darling, I’ll go mine’ by Eddie Arnold, I can find little reference to it outside of the Bob Dylan song.
You go your way
So we go our separate ways, but I’ll be back shortly with more sounds from 2003.
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