Never Ending Tour, 2004, part 5 Rocking On

An index to the whole series on the Never Ending Tour can be found here.     Below are the previous episodes for 2004.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

While we have considered Dylan’s jazzy tendencies, his roots in folk music, and we have noticed how he leans towards country and blues, that is both urban and country blues, it is rock music that is core to Dylan’s musical project. Dylan is a rocker – the last of the best, as he boasts in ‘False Prophet.’

From the moment he got on stage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a hastily improvised group of musicians from The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and belted out a rough and rowdy ‘Maggie’s Farm’ Dylan was all about rock music. Not folk rock (like Simon and Garfunkel) or soft rock (like The Eagles) but hard rock, solid rock.

Rock music is harder to define than it is to identify. Google describes it as, ‘a form of popular music that evolved from rock and roll and pop music during the mid and late 1960s. Harsher and often self-consciously more serious than its predecessors, it was initially characterized by musical experimentation and drug-related or anti-establishment lyrics.’ It is also described simply as ‘a form of music with a strong beat.’

In his early acoustic, pre-rock period, Dylan liked to start his shows with ‘The Time They Are A’Changing,’ a declaration of form as much as the ‘protest’ content of those early songs. By the time we get to the period we’re looking at now, 2003 – 2005, the folky Dylan has almost entirely vanished, and his favourite concert openers were ‘Maggie’s Farm’ or ‘Drifter’s Escape,’ both blistering rockers.

As it moved further away from its 1950’s roots in rock ‘n roll, rock music became more and more sophisticated. By the time we get to the end of the 1960s the great rock bands, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, were making albums like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Their Satanic Majesties Request in which rock music, having moved away from its blues and rock ‘n roll roots, had become complex, elaborate, Baroque and at times over-inflated. King Crimson’s Court of the Crimson King took rock music to new levels of orchestration and portentousness.

Despite the sophistication of his lyrics, Dylan never went there. As a rocker, he remained true to the music’s ‘primitive’ roots. As a singer he was more drawn to the blues shouters like Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Turner than the gauzy harmonies of King Crimson or the sweet melodious tones of Simon and Garfunkel.

So let’s turn to that prototype of Dylan rock songs, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ the first song that clearly marked him as a rock singer. Here’s how he kicks off the Rochester concert. He’s taken some of the jangle out of it and turned the song into a smooth, somewhat minimal, hard-hitting rock song, with all the emphasis on the compelling beat. The drums and bass sure move it along. Dylan feels entirely comfortable with this one. He rarely plays harmonica on this song, although it feels like the song’s made for it, or at least that’s the way Dylan makes it sound here:

Maggie’s farm

Listening to that, I have to wonder how we ever thought this song was not a protest song. Maggie’s dysfunctional farm is Dylan’s America, the stultifying 1950s by the sound of it. It is satire by absurdity.

A straight-out blues-rocker, ‘Down Along The Cove,’ was also a favourite to kick off a concert or played early. Dylan feels comfortable with this one too. He’s adding new verses. Whether he’s making them up on the spot, which is what it sounds like, or not I wouldn’t know, but it gives the performance an off-the-cuff, improvised feel. A great foot-tapper, mood setter this one. There’s a joyousness in it, a simple unaffected feeling. You see your true love coming your way!

Dylan kicks off the Manchester concert with this one. (11th June)

Down Along the Cove

‘Watching the River Flow’ is another bluesy rocker that Dylan likes bring out early in the concerts. It has a relaxed and easy beat to swing along to. It’s a good one to follow a slow song. Dylan does a remarkable vocal here, slurring his voice, making it sound as if he’s too weary to even catch the beat – but of course he does, appearing to just catch the line in time. That vocal, plus an insistent harp break at the end, makes this one compulsive listening.

Watching the river flow

‘Wicked Messenger’ that obscure little ballad from John Wesley Harding has turned into a real slammer, full-frontal assault. If it doesn’t wake you up, nothing will. We have seen some outstanding performances of this song over the last four or five years. This recording from Plougskeepsie (NY) 4th August, where it is the opening number, is not as good as some we have had, but fans of the song will be glad to know that it’s as wicked as ever.

Wicked Messenger

Now for a change of pace. ‘Can’t Wait,’ is a dark and desperate rocker from Time Out of Mind, and early performances of the song pretty much stuck with the album arrangement. In 2003, however, we saw Dylan transform the song into a quiet, almost sinister, prowling rocker. This 2004 performance keeps that arrangement, and what a powerful performance it is, outdoing the 2003 version in my opinion, as good as the earlier one was (See NET, 2003, Part 1). This has all the prowling energy of a caged tiger. It’s a restrained performance, but like a coiled spring. A powerful vocal pushes at the edges of that restraint. It doesn’t have to be loud to be explosive. [I don’t have the date for this one. It is from a compilation called Gone to the Finest Schools, for which I have lost the paperwork. Apologies.] It comes in at number eight on the setlist.

Can’t Wait

What better song to stir things up after that but ‘Highway 61 Revisited.’ Like Maggie’s Farm it rips a hole in the American dream. Death, deception and war; it’s all there. I’m glad Dylan’s never tried to slow this one down. Over the years it hasn’t changed much, hardly at all. It still rushes along at full gallop. It comes in at number 10 on the Manchester setlist.

Highway 61 Revisited

In Part 1 of this year, I included ‘Lovesick,’ that song of twilight shadows. I have to include it here again, I’m afraid, as I’ve since discovered a performance in which Dylan plays the harmonica, rare for this song. To my ear the harmonica is under-recorded, but it’s Dylan in his old form, playing those high, wild, mercurial notes he loves so much. It adds a certain desperate edge to the song. It’s lurching, emphatic beat makes it a rock song, just slowed down. [Another from Gone to the Finest Schools, slot 7 on the setlist]

Lovesick

We can’t get too deep into any imagined concert without encountering  ‘High Water.’ This one, a vision of ecological and moral mayhem, has a country rock feel, especially when the banjo comes in, but with that heavy back beat and those rock chords, the song is more rock than country. This one comes in at number 9 at Rochester. Dylan belts it out, a compelling performance.

High Water

Many of Dylan songs have the sense of a journey in them, a journey through a dystopic vision of modern America. Remember ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,’ a comic, madcap pilgrimage through modern American life. ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’ is a song like that, out of the same bag. It’s just that the terms have changed, and the vision is darker. You might get the Memphis Blues when you’re coming down off an amphetamine trip and the world begins to look twisted and strange, and you’re trapped in repetitive cycles. I don’t know if post-album performances of the song have quite captured its ambience (Blonde on Blonde) but this Rochester performance is as good as you’re going to get in 2004. It’s certainly raw and real enough.

Memphis Blues Again

‘Lonesome Day Blues’ is a classic urban rock blues. Dylan received some criticism for writing generic, ‘derivative’ songs like this, but that’s what the blues are. There is a familiarity to the best of these urban blues songs. You feel like you might have heard them before somewhere. Did Paul Butterfield play that? No, he didn’t. It might sound like it was written in 1948 for Sonny Boy Williamson, but it was actually written in 2001 for “Love and Theft”. The complaints in such a blues are similarly generic and derivative. That’s what makes such songs what they are. They have the force of familiarity about them. This was number 4 on the Rochester setlist.

Last night the wind was whispering, 
       I was trying to make out what it was
Last night the wind was whispering something, 
       I was trying to make out what it was
Yeah I tell myself something's coming, but it never does

Lonesome Day Blues

‘Honest with Me’ is another generic, derivative sounding song, although the tempo is faster and the lyrics more edgy. Elements of the absurd are woven in. It’s highly repetitive and relies on its wide-ranging lyrics to keep its interest. This is number 13 on the Rochester setlist

Well, my parents, they warned me not to risk my years
And I still got their advice oozing out of my ears

Honest with Me

‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ is one of Dylan’s greatest mid-1960s rock songs. It has a queasy, swaying motion in keeping with its tripped-out lyrics. During the 1966 tours Dylan would play the piano, but that didn’t stop it from being a heavy number. The album version had a spooky feel Dylan didn’t aim for on stage, at least not at this point (later he will try an echo for this song, to give it that feel). This is a solid performance, with Dylan starting to play harmonica more often on this song. This is number eight on the Glasgow setlist.

Ballad of a Thin Man

I’ve run out of space, but before the inevitable ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ always the last song, I don’t want to miss this ‘Senor’ (date unknown). This is a classic performance of another slow and heavy rock song. Slow and heavy yet oddly uplifting. For me the song is about putting an end to what, in False Prophet’ Dylan calls ‘the unlived meaningless life.’ We can overturn the tables of the money lenders, and maybe find salvation. Because of the epic harp solo at the end, reminiscent of the 2003 version, this performance really belonged with the songs in Never Ending Tour, 2004, part 3, Harping On but I’m happy to fit it in here.

Senor

And, as promised, the inevitable ‘Watchtower,’ always the last song on the setlist, or used as the last encore.

This first one’s number 17 on the Rochester setlist. Dark and threatening and slower than usual. Almost quiet during the verses. Note the echo on Dylan’s voice.

Watchtower (A)

This second one is from Glasgow, and is no less of a blast.

Watchtower (B)

Kia Ora

 

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