This is part of a series covering the whole of the Never Ending Tour. You can find an index to all the articles here.
- NET, 2004, Part 1 – The best singing audience
- NET 2004 part 2: The Jazz Connection
- Never Ending Tour, 2004, part 3, Harping On
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
When I came to the end of Part 2 of my survey of 2004, which I entitled ‘The Jazz Connection,’ I thought I had done a pretty good job of covering the jazzier side of Dylan’s music for that year.
In fact, I’d missed out big time by forgetting two songs that Dylan did with the Wynton Marsalis Band, a big jazz band with a traditional line up of horns as in the late 1940s. The reason for my slip, or rather my poor excuse, is that these two performances were not part of Dylan’s regular tour schedule, not part of the NET, but part of a project by the Wynton Marsalis Band to perform with a number of different artists. Dylan took time out from the NET in early July to make these recordings, which are live.
So here they are. I have to say that Dylan sounds rather subdued, if not constrained. He sounds oddly flat. He certainly doesn’t sound as relaxed as he does with his regular band. These performances are interesting, rather than exciting. My own feeling is that Dylan would have needed more performing with this band to properly find his feet. He does sound as if he is not entirely in his element, and perhaps a little nervous; Wynton Marsalis is one formidable cat.
I’m also rather surprised that Dylan chose two of his old stand-bys, ‘It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ rather than his newer, jazzier songs like ‘Million Miles’ or ‘Summer Days.’ These might have been a better fit.
Here’s ‘It Takes A Lot to Laugh’
At least that one is a blues, and swings. ‘Don’t Think Twice’ sounds like even a more awkward fit.
Don’t Think Twice
Back with the regular NET, I also missed this jazzy performance of ‘Sugar Baby’ from “Love and Theft”. The difference from the album version is that here (Pittsburgh, 7th Nov) Dylan gives the song more swing. It becomes less dirge-like. The song is a melancholy reflection on a past relationship with that wider context that Dylan is so masterful at providing:
Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick Any minute of the day the bubble could burst Try to make things better for someone, sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse
I finished off Part 2 with two wonderful performances of ‘Summer Days,’ one from the famous Glasgow concert and the other from Rochester, equally brilliant. If you didn’t catch those, don’t miss them. However, I missed out the most interesting, if not the best. At Comstock Park (24th August), Dylan played the song with well-known jazz guitarist Tommy Morrongiello. Morrongiello rips into it and Dylan does his usual sterling performance. I might have missed this because the recording is not quite as crisp as those from Glasgow and Rochester.
Enough with my sins of omission! Hovering close to my list to include in the Jazz Connection post was this rocking version of ‘To Be Alone With You.’ I have a fondness for the rip-snortin performance of this song from 2003, where Dylan appears to be channelling Jerry Lee Lewis, and while Dylan’s vocal is similar in this 2004 performance, the backing is quite different, and reminiscent of early jazz-influenced rock and roll. Listen to the backing carefully, and you can imagine it played with horns, late jump jazz style. If the original ‘Rock around the Clock’ man, Bill Haley, had played this song he might have done it like this. Of course, he could never have sung it like this. (20th March, Toronto)
To Be Alone With You
Of course, there are crossovers between blues and jazz. Each has influenced the other in their evolution. In 1963 the great blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson released a song called ‘Help Me,’ which built a strong blues riff that Dylan was to use in these later versions of ‘It’s All Right Ma.’ If you want to hear the origin of that riff, and Sonny Boy’s recording can be found here.
Interestingly, thinking of Dylan’s most recent album, the Blues Foundation describes Sonny Boy as ‘a strong-willed bluesman known for his rough and rowdy ways.’
However, whether or not that riff entirely suits ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ is another matter. Maybe I can’t get past the fast-paced, solo acoustic versions Dylan played right from the start in 1964, and which you can hear with wonderful effect in 1991 (See NET, 1991, Part 1), but this later arrangement is too rigid, even though Dylan gives it a bit of swing. What makes ‘Help Me’ work is the simplicity of the lyric and the short lyrical line. Neither of those things are true of ‘It’s All Right Ma,’ the words don’t always fit easily into the musical line, and the tempo may be a little lumbering for the song. That’s a personal take; it’s still a powerful song, powerfully performed. This is another one from Glasgow.
It’s All Right Ma (A)
Much as I like the Glasgow performance, I think it is eclipsed by this one from Amherst, 20th Nov. A superior vocal performance?
It’s All Right Ma (B)
Another protest song that Dylan gave a bit of a swing in 2004 is ‘Hard Rain.’ You could almost waltz to it. In that respect it’s moved a long way from the original folky ballad of the original. Giving a lilt to it like this certainly moves it along, although it’s far from jazz. I’ve included it here because of the outstanding nature of this acoustic performance. There’s nothing old and tired about this performance, from Motil, 7th October. Dylan tears out the vocal like there’s no tomorrow (and maybe there isn’t). Listening to this masterpiece, inadequately described as an ‘anti-war’ song (it is, but it is also much more than that), I can’t help thinking of the present war in Ukraine. I saw a heart-rending picture of a child with a rifle from that war, and thought of that line from the song ‘I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.’
Time doesn’t age this song, not as long as we are still ‘wounded in hatred’ and war continues. The song has never been timelier. Its images feel like they are hot off the press.
We switch countries to catch this performance of ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ from the Glasgow concert, and the light-hearted harp break that kicks the song off. I was never going to be able to fit in all of Dylan’s outstanding harp solos into one post, although I got quite a few of them into my last post, NET, 2004, part 3. I had a few songs left on the cutting room floor from that post, and ‘I’ll Be your Baby Tonight’ was one of them, as the harp work is brief enough, but it’s a great mood setter. This is a nice change of pace.
I’ll be your baby tonight.
Now for a rarity. We have to go back to 1995, and before that to 1992, to find ‘Unbelievable’ from Under The Red Sky. It’s a hard-hitting rocker aimed, as is so much of Dylan, at the rank, godless materialism of modern America:
It's undeniable what they'd have you to think, It's indescribable it can drive you to drink. They said it was the land of milk and honey, Now they say it's the land of money. Who ever thought they could ever make that stick. It's unbelievable you can get this rich this quick.
That’s as trenchant as anything Dylan wrote during his protest era. Just as trenchant, hitting another familiar Dylan theme, the imminence of war, we find this:
Kill that beast and feed that swine, Scale that wall and smoke that vine, Feed that horse and saddle up the drum. It's unbelievable, the day would finally come.
Dylan is the master of fusing the political and the personal. His anguish at the state of the world slips easily over into a personal anguish. This is what that godless materialism has done to our relationships:
Once there was a man who had no eyes, Every lady in the land told him lies, He stood beneath the silver skies And his heart began to bleed. Every brain is civilized, Every nerve is analyzed, Everything is criticized when you are in need.
The ending is as dark as you might care to find.
Turn your back, wash your hands, There's always someone who understands It don't matter no more what you got to say It's unbelievable it would go down this way.
That’s as true today as it was in 1991.
I’m quoting at length here, partly because the chance won’t come again, this is the last time Dylan will perform the song, and partly because to my mind these are some of the finest lyrics Dylan wrote. It’s too easy to miss them because of the hectic pace of the song. I keep imagining how the song might sound if he slowed it down a bit, lingered over those incomparable lyrics.
You go north And you go south Just like bait in a fish’s mouth Must be living in the shadow of some kind of evil star It’s unbelievable, it would get this far
Again, thinking of Ukraine, these lines give me a shiver.
I think that ‘I Believe in You’ qualifies as a rarity, although it was performed twelve times in 2004, having something of a revival in 2003/4. This passionate avowal of faith belongs to Dylan’s gospel period (1979 – 81), although taken out of context, it doesn’t have to be seen as a Christian song, more like a great love song. It is however a demanding song in terms of the vocal. We have to be convinced of the intensity of that faith that is unshaken by anything and everything that the world can throw at it, when you are forsaken by friends and when ‘white turns to black.’
This Glasgow performance achieves that, no question.
I believe in you
That’s it for now. Back soon with a look at of the rockers Dylan performed in 2004.