This is part of a series covering the whole of the Never Ending Tour. You can find an index to all the articles here.
The review of 2003 is now complete: the articles for that year can be found at
NET, 2004, Part 1 – The best singing audience
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
“Listen to me; you are the best singing audience we’ve ever had. We play that song a thousand times and nobody could sing with it.” (Bob Dylan onstage, Glasgow, 24th June)
The problem with 2004 is that it lies in the shadow of 2003. In many respects it is an extension of 2003, or a repeat of it, often with the same arrangements and style as the earlier year built around Dylan’s keyboard playing. We have seen what an innovative year 2003 was, the arrangements and style forged in that year carrying Dylan through to 2005. In 2006, another major shakeup takes place as Dylan moves from the piano to the organ.
And yet when we look more closely at 2004, we find it is not a pale imitation of 2003. The arrangement may be the same, but the sound is often heavier and thumpier, with Dylan’s voice richer and throatier. He may have been riding on the energy of 2003, but some of the 2004 performances outshine those of the previous year.
Dylan’s relationship with his audiences has been as contentious as everything else that he does. He is accused of ignoring his audiences (because he refuses to butter them up with lots of ra-ra talk about how wonderful it is to be in that town etc), never speaking to them and so on. Dylan is famous for coming onstage, playing his songs and walking off without a (spoken) word or a smile. His grumpiness is also legendary. At one concert in 2003 he cleared the two front rows because of their disruptive behaviour. But this caricature of a boorish Dylan is far too simplistic. Dylan’s relationship with his audience is complex and nuanced. He can perform through the racket of a rowdy audience as if they weren’t there, but can also woo an audience and respond to a quieter, focused concentration with exquisite performances.
The Glasgow concert of 2004 (24th August) is famous in the history of the NET for the warm relationship between Dylan and his Scottish audience. Dylan is in good form, and soon has the audience eating out of his hand. Their enthusiasm is palpable This audience, eager to participate, starts to sing along. By the time they get to the fourth song, ‘Just Like A Woman,’ the audience takes over the chorus, and Dylan gives them the reins. They even sing in tune. After describing the venue, Barrowland Ballroom as a ‘sweaty, intimate vibrant setting,’ Bobcat Andre Muir tells the story:
“ ‘Just like a Woman’ saw the beginning of the main event of the night: the crowd trying to sing along with Bob. Dylan for once revelling in this but still trying to maintain control. Yet when the crowd roared out the title line, Dylan had no choice but to let them go, such was the volume they engendered. It seemed like a moveable wall of sound was bouncing all around you, from the stage and the singing crowd, careering off the ceiling and reverberating in one direction before being blasted back from another. To regain control of the song, Dylan followed a few beats behind, originally to try to throw the audience, but by the end of the song, just to maintain some kind of parity in the performing stakes. You could see him quite clearly chuckling on one of the choruses before grinning broadly as he allowed the audience to participate to the point they demanded.” (Muir, One More Night, p 328)
Here it is:
Just like a woman (A)
By way of comparison, let’s drop into the Washington concert earlier in the year (2nd April) and hear how the song sounds without the audience singalong. It’s another beautiful performance, the slow, lilting, contemplative tempo more evident, and while it’s rare for Dylan to play the harmonica in this song, he does so here, with a thin, muted solo, full of pathos. Done this way, the song is dominated by regret; it starts to sound like a love song – ‘Maybe I’ll go see her again…’.
Just like a woman (B)
Towards the end of the Glasgow concert, we get another attempt at audience participation with ‘Just Like A Rolling Stone.’ Muir describes the event this way:
‘Dylan’s voice was a blurred burr and yet powerful and compelling as it competed with a deafening crowd…Clearly loving the audience reaction and interaction Dylan was smiling and pointing as he belted out ‘No direction home’; the band was busting a gut to keep up with, and make as much noise as Dylan and the audience… Dylan was singing lines before and after he knew the crowd would be, it was like being present at an audio wrestling match. This is the kind of tussle that Dylan had a lifetime of experience of not only dealing with but triumphing in; but on this night he had to admit defeat. This he did graciously, laughingly and with obvious pleasure as the delirious crowd eventually drowned everything but themselves as they belted out the famous chorus.” (Muir p 329)
Here it is:
Just Like A rolling stone (A)
Glasgow, however, is not the only outstanding concert in 2004. While Glasgow is unmatched for audience participation, the Rochester concert (13th Nov) is arguably better both in terms of the recording and Dylan’s performance. I’m not sure what the magic is here, maybe the venue’s superior sound system, but whatever it is, this full-bodied recording is one of the best you’ll hear in Bootleg land, at least audience recordings – soundboard recordings can be superior as they cut back audience noise. But this Rochester sound is better than most soundboards even, for my ear.
Compare the Glasgow performance with this one from Rochester. There is no struggle for control here, and it turns into one of the most enthusiastic performances of the song on the NET.
Just like a rolling stone (B)
2004 was a big year for ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown,’ not heard of since 2001, but erupting into 2004, being played twenty-five times. It’s a gripping tale of how poverty can destroy a person, drive them to murder-suicide. It’s a masterpiece of narrative construction as each verse takes us deeper into this poor man’s stress and eventual madness, leading to the grisly denouement. The laconic last verse shifts us to a larger, even more chilling context:
There’s seven people dead On a South Dakota farm There’s seven people dead On a South Dakota farm Somewhere in the distance There’s seven new people born
This one is from Rochester once more, again demonstrating the superiority of that concert’s recordings.
Anyone bothered by the upsinging? Not me. In this case it is in balance with the overall vocal performance. I feel that he’s in control of it, and using it as an integral part of the overall vocal effect.
‘I Believe In You’ was performed twelve times during 2004, having been played comparatively rarely over the previous five years. A fervent avowal of faith from Dylan’s gospel era, we last encountered this song in 2003 (See NET, 2003, part 3). Both that and the 2004 version are ardent performances. The 2004 version, a little slower, has a finer sense of vocal drama, with Dylan singing low then lifting his voice for dramatic effect, but the 2003 version is the sharper performance. The one thing we can say is that while he can’t match the vocal pyrotechnics of his 1980 performances, the older Dylan can pull the song off magnificently in terms of conveying the passion of the song. I love this song’s chord changes, so melancholy. This one’s from that Glasgow concert, which helps explain the warmth of tone; easy to imagine the song is addressed not to Jesus, or a lover, but the audience itself.
I believe In You
Glasgow and Rochester were not the only good concerts of 2004. We have already heard one song from the Washington concert, but we need to go to Manchester (11th June) to find the most compelling performance of ‘Cold Irons Bound.’ It’s a desperate song, and Dylan usually hits it with everything he’s got. This performance is no exception. From the opening, threatening chords to the sharp, urgent beat that carries the song, this is a wild ride. Dylan is learning, however, to keep on top of the song, and not let his voice get drowned in the fury, moving towards a more minimal backing during the verses. And catch Tony Garnier’s wonderful descending bass, dragging us into the maelstrom of the song.
This is the first time I know of where Dylan uses a repeating echo on his voice. It sounds like Dylan’s ghost repeating the lines after him. It works on this song, I’m just glad he didn’t make it a habit.
Cold Irons Bound
Let’s stay in Manchester to enjoy ‘Blind Willie McTell’ a song Dylan brought into prominence at the same time as the Time out of Mind material. Dylan hasn’t yet changed his approach to the song; it still has the same arrangement as when it débuted in 1997. Dylan’s vocal is outstanding. He pushes his voice into the nasal on the name ‘Mcteeeeel’ to produce his famous snarl, yet can sing with soft sensitivity on the elegiac verses.
Blind Willie McTell
We have to hop back to Washington to catch ‘Love Sick.’ Perhaps because of its distinctive beat and atmosphere, ‘Love Sick’ is another song that hasn’t changed much in performance. It’s a song about walking at night, among the shadows, both shadows of night and the shadows of the past. (…I’m walking…I’m walking…)
It is one of Dylan’s most atmospheric crepuscular songs. Dylan is the great poet of the night. We have songs ranging from ‘After Midnight’ to ‘Visions of Johanna’ that celebrate night, particularly on Time out of Mind (they would make a wonderful playlist), but ‘Love Sick’ is surely the most concentrated of them. Little light shows, just enough to make ‘silhouettes in the windows’ and to light the imagination with ‘lovers in the meadows.’
A great performance.
‘Not Dark Yet’ is straight out of the same bag. In this case approaching night (shadows are falling…) is a metaphor for death, and the inevitability of death. It also expresses the utter aloneness we might feel before that final moment (don’t even hear/the murmur of a prayer). You can’t rid yourself of this song. The older you get the more true it becomes. It’s the same with Dylan. The older he gets the more true the song sounds. We’ll follow it right through to 2019, when it becomes most chillingly true.
Another Washington performance.
Not Dark Yet
I’ve run out of space, but I’m going to squeeze in this ‘Standing in the Doorway’ and finish the post with a triptych from Time out of Mind. Now we are ‘walking through the summer nights’ and we have to face our grief ‘under the midnight moon.’ A sombre note on which to finish the post, but an irresistible Rochester performance. In a rare move, Dylan starts the first verse a second time after the first couple of lines, having apparently lost it first time around.
Kia Ora, see you next time with some jazzy sounds from 2004.
Standing in the doorway
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