Never Ending Tour, 2004, part 3, Harping On

This is part of a series covering the whole of the Never Ending Tour.  You can find an index to all the articles here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

When looking at 2003, we noticed that Dylan played the harmonica more than in the previous years. (See 2003, part 2, “Pounding pianos and hectic harps”.)

Since Dylan was only interested in the piano as a background, rhythm instrument, the humble harp became his only lead instrument. While we have some beautiful examples of harp work from 1996 to 2002, he rarely played it more often than once or twice per concert, if at all. By 2004 he was playing it four or five times per concert, much to the delight of his harmonica fans (like me).

We saw in the last post how Dylan started to use the instrument in a jazzy, what I call his ‘muted trumpet’ style, and how effective that was.

In this post I will further explore Dylan’s 2004 harmonica playing, and how his style of playing developed as he moved from his ‘squeaky’ sound, playing the high mercurial notes he loves so much, to a richer, fuller sound in the instrument’s mid-range.

A good place to start is with this performance of ‘This Wheel’s On Fire,’ an elusive and mysterious song from the Basement Tapes, often associated with The Band who played it on their first album, Music From Big Pink.

Dylan steers the song away from the woozy, psychedelic versions of the 1960’s into something harder, darker and more trenchant, something perhaps more fitting to the rather sordid tale it seems to be telling. I think the song alludes to drug deals (‘getting your favours done’), but the circumstances of the song are left deliberately vague. That which is ‘tied up in a sailor’s knot’ and hidden ‘in your lace’ remains unrevealed.

Dylan kicks off and finishes this performance, from Poughkeepsie (4th August), with the harmonica, aiming for a sharp, mid-range sound. It’s worth pausing to reflect on how different this harp style is from Dylan’s 1960s and 70s harmonica playing. This newer, more wah-wah sound, is a result of Dylan being able to hold the instrument in both hands, cradling it the way blues players do, to get that modulated sound – very different from when he was using a brace to hold the harp to his mouth while he played the guitar. While in the post-2002 period he did play a lot with one hand, playing the piano with the other, I believe that for this kind of sound, he would need to use both hands.

This wheel’s on fire (A)

Compare that to this version from Newcastle (22nd June). Dylan is in good voice at Newcastle, ready and willing to push his vocal, go for the higher notes. There’s a powerful harp break to finish.

This wheel’s on fire (B)

Gentle and restrained is how I would describe the harp playing on this performance of ‘Under the Red Sky.’ (9th Nov, East Lansing.) The band plays very sweetly on this one, a fragile song reflecting on our creativity, rooted in the fairy and folk tales of our childhood. We could go really deep here, and see the song as a celebration of the divine syzygy, the little boy and the little girl, the sun and moon, and the sadness of their parting as the creative spirit ‘runs dry.’ It is a sad little song, and this is a moving performance of it, with lyrical instrumental prelude before Dylan begins to sing.

Under the Red Sky (A)

That was so nice, let’s pop back to Newcastle and hear it again. Here Dylan’s rich, husky voice comes into its own. He almost whispers. His voice caresses the song into being, and the harp solo at the end, although brief, is touched by anguish and is a fine example of the sounds Dylan can get from the instrument when playing it with both hands. Still gentle but not quite so restrained.

Under the Red Sky (B)

‘Ring Them Bells’ is not a song we associate with the harmonica. In fact, prior to this one, I can’t think of a single example. This song might suggest that Dylan never lost his Christian faith, although direct expressions of it become rare. In that respect ‘Ring Them Bells’ (1989) could be seen as a throwback to the gospel era. Maybe, but the terms of that faith are curiously antique, formal and oddly abstracted.

Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world is on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride

‘Ye heathen’? And what is this about time running backwards? Like many Dylan songs, this may not be quite what it appears to be. The symbology of the fortress and the lilies remains open-ended rather than necessarily Christian.

This one is from Washington DC, Warner Theatre (4th April). As had become a widespread practice, he opens the song with the harp, using it as a prelude for the verses to come. Again, Dylan’s voice is quite remarkable, rough and throaty, rich and gravelly, but he doesn’t let that hold him back from delivering a heartfelt performance.

Ring them bells

While on the subject of songs from Oh Mercy, remember the intense performance of ‘Shooting Star’ in 2003 (See NET, 2003, part 2)? Well, he pulls it off again in 2004, using the same arrangement, if a little slower in tempo, and achieving pretty much the same effect. It is interesting to compare the two performances. There is no loss of intensity, far from it; the 2004 version might even have the edge because of the power of Dylan’s vocal performance. Another one ripped out from the back of his throat, the harp sharp as a razor and full of yearning. The loss of possible love/salvation is keenly felt. This one’s from Saint Paul, 10th March.

Shooting Star

For a change of tempo, we move to ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’ from Blonde on Blonde, and a tranche of 1960s songs. Because of the powerful and distinctive ambience of that album, and constant listening to it as a teenager, I’ve never really been able to get with subsequent performances of the songs. They just burned themselves too deeply into my brain. Several times I’ve mentioned ‘Visions of Johanna’ in that regard. But I have to admit that this vigorous ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’ comes close to capturing the triumphant tone of the original – you go your way and I’ll go mine and see how you like it. Time will tell who will come out on top. (Note by the way the awkward ‘has fell’ to make the rhyme.) Listen to the relish with which he sings:

You say you're sorry for tellin' me stories
You know I believe are true
Say ya got some other, other kind of lover
And yes, I believe you do

 You go your way

Hardly the whining, adolescent tones of the album, but this gutsy, hard-hitting performance nails the song, no doubt of that.

I’m not sure we can say the same thing about ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.’ When looking at the 2003 performance, I commented that the song was in trouble. The somewhat rigid, baroque arrangement constricted the song, and while this 2004 Rochester performance is an improvement, to my ear, Dylan is struggling to get the song across. Again, we are haunted by earlier, superb performances; the tenderness of this farewell song is too easily lost. Still, Dylan was in top form at Rochester and he uses all the formidable resources of his voice to make the arrangement work, although the vocal at times seems too emphatic to me. Some nice, piercing harp work, however.

It’s all over now Baby Blue

Readers might recall the powerful ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ from 2003 (see NET, 2003, part 6). Once more, we have a baroque arrangement that gives the performance the same kind of intensity that we’ve heard with ‘Shooting Star.’ In 2004 Dylan attempts to repeat that success, but I’m not so sure. The 2004 vocal is marked by persistent upsinging, and as with ‘Baby Blue,’ the musical structure seems to hem the song in rather than liberating it. It’s hard to hear that one hand waving free.

There is some interest to be found in Dylan’s rough ‘n tumble vocals, despite the upsinging, but even the harp break at the end sounds somewhat rote, somewhat tame and muted compared to the intensity of the 2003 performance, which is in turn based on a passionate guitar version from 2001, (see NET, 2001, part 1) which is the most successful of this style. Dylan tries to pull it off again with this performance from East Lansing…

Mr T Man

Readers might also recall the powerful ‘Desolation Row’ from the Berlin concert in 2003 (see NET, 2003, Part 1), the urgent piano and blistering harp. That performance remains one of my all-time favourites. Dylan tries to pull it off again at East Lansing, 2004 and comes very close with a great vocal. Choosing between these two versions might be a matter of personal taste, but for me the guitar break in 2004 is not as clean as in 2003, the upsinging intrudes again, and the closing harp break, good as it is, is not recorded well enough to have the impact it needs.

Desolation Row

‘Girl from the North Country’ is another song to receive the baroque treatment (almost a madrigal sound) in 2004. This fares somewhat better than the others of this style we have considered in this post. Garnier bows the double bass, Dylan sings gently and softly, and the jazzy harp break is just what the song needs to balance the rigidity of the musical form. Dylan must have thought so too for he returns to the harp to play a duet with the guitar, with the guitar mimicking his phrases. It’s a crowd-pleaser this one.

Girl from the North Country

I’ve run out of space, with a few songs on my list not covered, but I’ll slip them into a later post. I’ll make my escape along with the drifter with ‘Drifter’s Escape.’

I thought this hard-edged rocker had peaked a couple of years ago, but listening to this performance from Toronto (19th March) I’m forced to conclude that the song is very much alive and well and blistering along in fine style.

I must be losing my grip, however, because listening to the guitar breaks, which are not quite wild enough for my taste, I find myself nostalgic for Dylan’s own wacky guitar interjections back in the day when he still played the instrument (try the two performances in NET, 2001, part 4). Still, Dylan roars out the vocal, the piano digs into the rhythm, and the song finishes with some squealing harmonica flourishes. All in all, a real blast.

Drifter’s escape

I’ll be back soon to join the maestro with more from 2004.

Kia Ora

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