Never Ending Tour, 2003, Part 5 Can there be a perfect performance?

So far in 2003….

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

The more we dig into 2003, the fifteenth year of the NET, the more treasures we unearth. You might think that, given the last four posts have covered some fifty-two performances from that year, we would have run out of material, but that’s not so. I have enough interesting material for another two posts, and I’m nowhere near the bottom of the barrel. It’s a hard year to leave behind, but I hope that by now you can understand why this is one of my favourite years of the NET. (Other favourite years are 1989, 1995 and 2000.)

I’ve no particular logic or theme for this post, so I’m just going to kick off with a couple of performances that caught my attention and follow my nose from there.

That ever-reliable rocker ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is guaranteed to pump up the energy. Dylan’s on the piano but you don’t hear much of it, it is very much about arse-kicking guitar work, and you get plenty of it here (23rd August Niagara Falls). This song has never lost its wild, anarchic edge; the lyrics come hurling at you out of a fast-paced whirl of sound. I’m glad Dylan’s never tried to tame this song, in which we find all the sinister madness of the modern world.

Rovin' gambler, he was very bored
Tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
"I never did engage in this kind of thing before
But yeah, I think it can be very easily done"

Dylan mounts a scathing attack on the mindless materialism of the age with vicious satirical humour:

Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
"I got forty red, white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things?"

Highway 61 Revisited (A)

However you might prefer this version from Berlin (20th Oct). Even though the Niagara Falls recording is sharper, Dylan’s Berlin vocal might have the edge, and the piano is a little more evident. Anyway, it’s fun trying to figure out which is the best.

Highway 61 Revisited (B)

If we want to keep up the pace, we can’t do better than drop into Hammersmith (24th November) for a catchy performance of ‘Tough Mama’ which is a wonderful tribute to a woman. It’s worth keeping in mind that while Dylan wrote his share of ‘attack’ songs, in which a woman comes under fire (‘Rolling Stone,’ ‘Just Like a Woman,’ ‘Positively 4th Street’) he has also written some tender tribute songs in praise of a woman (‘Shelter from the Storm,’ ‘Sara,’ and ‘Girl from the North Country’).

‘Tough Mamma’ has its own tough tenderness. A song full of admiration and praise.

Ashes in the furnace, dust on the rise,
You came through it all the way
flyin' through the skies.
Dark beauty
With that long night's journey in your eyes.

Tough Mama

While in Hammersmith, let’s stay for ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ a song straight out of Dylan’s early protest period when he was still writing topical protest songs, a song that earns huge praise from Christopher Ricks in his Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ricks’ argument is that Dylan’s performance of the song on the album (Times They Are A-Changing) reaches a perfection that could never be matched in later performances.

‘Every song, by definition, is realized only in performance. True. A more elusive matter is whether every song is suited to re-performance…What (for me) is gained in a particular re-performing of this particular song, has always fallen short of what had to be sacrificed. Any performance, like any translation, necessitates sacrifice…Does it not make sense then to believe, or to argue, that Dylan’s realizing of Hattie Carroll was perfect, a perfect song perfectly rendered once and for all.’ (Ricks, p 15)

Ricks sees performances of the song as ‘translations’ from the perfect original found on the album. It is therefore unlikely that Ricks would enjoy this 2003 performance of the song, which has been completely rearranged for the piano. In the spirit of Ricks we have to ask if the piano riff, a little on the dumpty-dum side, that sets the tempo, offers the best structure for the lyrics. Dylan’s half-spoken, hushed performance maybe a little too emphatic, a little rushed perhaps? Something less than perfection?

(On the other hand, of course, we could say that the album version is just another performance in a string of nearly 300 performances to date, and that perfection is an illusion, like my constant discovery of ‘best ever’ performances of certain songs…)

Hattie Carroll

It seems natural to move from ‘Hattie Carroll’ to ‘Hard Rain.’ Both are protest songs, but ‘Hard Rain’ has a much wider range. Some of the imagery is very direct, ‘I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,’ and some images are elusive, ‘I saw a white ladder all covered in water,’ but all together they make up the most powerfully prophetic song ever written.

This recording comes from the London concert (25th Nov). Again, those dark bluesy chords on the piano swing the song along. Dylan uses the same singing style as he does for ‘Hattie Carroll’, starting off half talking, a little breathless, hushed and intimate, slowly building up as the song progresses. When we get to the last verse, note how Dylan uses upsinging and downsinging, in contrast, to raise the dramatic tension. A wonderful vocal climax.

Hard Rain

Let’s stay in the sixties for the next one, ‘Tombstone Blues’, another song which, like ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, has a wild, anarchic edge and is best played fast, the  surreal images flashing by almost before you can catch them. When, in Shadow Kingdom (2021),Dylan sang the song in a slow, solemn, measured, sepulchral voice, as if it were a classical composition, the effect was quite dissonant. I might ask Professor Ricks, is this the way the song should sound? Surely it should sound more like this, driven by fast vamping on the piano, back of the throat vocals, letting it rip.

Tombstone Blues

Here he uses it to kick off the Niagara Falls concert.

‘Don’t Think Twice’ is a song Dylan has played both fast and slow, with some peppy performances back in 1964, and more mournful performances in the 90’s.

As I’ve suggested before, the instruction to ‘don’t think twice’ is really an invitation to do so, and the song works the edge of this paradox. Interestingly here (sorry, date unknown) Dylan leaves the piano and returns to the guitar for this fine mid-tempo performance. Again we face the issue of Dylan’s upsinging, which many of his fans find infuriating. I can hear, in these raised notes, origins of Dylan’s later crooning, the octave jumping style he’ll need to handle Frank Sinatra songs. I also note as before that judiciously used upsinging can contrast with downsinging, balance the vocal and the emotion of the song. I think it works okay here, he’s in such good voice, but it is noticeable.

Don’t Think Twice

The issue rises again in this Red Bluff performance of ‘One Too Many Mornings,’ a song I often like to pair with ‘Don’t Think Twice’ as they both seem to come from the same place, from the same basket.  If you think twice you might end up feeling the way Dylan does in this song. Again, he keeps off the piano and, in doing so, makes these performances of his acoustic material sound more like the Dylan of old, the Dylan his audience is nostalgic for, one kid and his guitar against the world… but the upsinging…?

One too many mornings

When you boil it down, even though it’s steeped in regret, ‘One Too Many Mornings’ is a love song. Although he is accused of it, Dylan never lost the power to write love songs. ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind,’ from Rough and Rowdy Ways is an exquisite love song, as is ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ from Time Out of Mind (1997).

Adele’s perfect performance of this song has thrown Dylan’s own performances into the shadow, but, if I may say so, perhaps Adele’s performance is a little too perfect, a little too smooth. This performance from Niagara Falls (23rd August) is certainly not smooth, but Dylan’s gentle vamping on the piano suits the song and the era it evokes better than guitars do. A rare and unexpected harp break at the end sounds sad and frail. And that much-reviled upsinging… it’s as if he were trying to pull the emotion of the song up out of the mire of that very same sadness.

To make you feel my love

‘Every Grain of Sand’ could be read as a love song, to that invisible presence that animates it.

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, at times it’s only me

This song sounds best slow and stately, with a melancholy undertone. It well suits the big, rich piano chords Dylan puts behind it. I’ve got two offerings of this song. The first is from Berlin and, although the sound is a little muted, it’s a fine performance, with a rare harp break to introduce it.

 Every Grain of Sand (A)

The second one, from Paris (13th Nov), is more clearly recorded. Another powerful performance, with the harp break at the end. This hushed, intimate, half-talking  epitomizes the best of Dylan’s 2003 vocal style. A great place to end this post.

Every Grain of Sand (B)

Until next time.

Kia Ora


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