Never Ending Tour, 2005, Part 1: Choice cuts from London and Dublin

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

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

Discussions of Dylan’s performances in 2005 have been dominated by the extraordinary five-day residency at the Brixton Academy, London, at the end of the year – November 20th to the 25th. Compiler CS at A Thousand Highways dedicates his fourteen-song selection from that year entirely to the London residency as if the rest of the year did not exist.

That residency casts a long shadow, not just over 2005, but the whole NET, with some commentators suggesting that these are Dylan’s best-ever performances. That shadow stretches all the way back to the three-day Prague residency of 1995, and the Supper Club residency of 1993.

There are good reasons for the pre-eminence of the London shows, not least the quality of the recordings. In the shadow kingdom of Dylan bootlegging, the outfit known as Crystal Cat are famous for the sharp clarity of their recordings. I’m no techie, but I suspect that recording technology was taking some big leaps around this time with the rise of compact, hand-held devices. Studio techies started complaining that the bootleggers were making better recordings than they could!

But Dylan also revitalises his lineup for 2005, bringing in Stu Kimball on lead guitar with Denny Freeman on backup guitar, as well as multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron who will remain with Dylan until 2019. The eternal Tony Garnier stays on bass with the accomplished George Recile on drums. This lineup leads to richness and fullness of sound we haven’t heard before.

Dylan is also in wonderful voice in 2005, throaty but powerful, and his harmonica playing reaches new heights of sublimity.

It is not, however, all sweetness and light. Some NET followers find the Crystal Cat recordings too sharp, too trebly, too abrasive, too brash, and in need of some filtering. And then there is Dylan’s persistent upsinging to deal with. I’ll have more to say about this as we go along, but this salmon leap of the voice at the end of the line has been an issue now for several years and, for my ear, mars some otherwise magnificent performances.

And while we might admire the richness of the recordings, not everybody is going to like some of the arrangements for some of the songs. I detect a movement towards less flexibility, or free-flowing rhythms. Some of these arrangements become dogmatic and thumpy and might seem to run counter to the spirit of the songs. This heralds a move away from the looser, innovative, club-jazz sounds of 2003, towards the more rigid, bluesy tempos that will mark the post-2005 years.

What we can say about the London residency is that it is the triumphant fruition of the sound that Dylan has been developing since he shifted to the piano in October 2002. This is where it’s all been leading. It’s a fascinating exercise to go back to those rather thin, tentative beginnings in 2002 and compare them to the full-bodied, confident sounds of 2005. We have a rising curve here that starts in 2002, is developed during the innovative and free-spirited 2003, consolidated and enriched in 2004 and brought to a head in 2005, particularly at the London residency.

But I have another, albeit playful, argument to make here. While the London residency is rightly famous, it casts its shadow over two, to my mind equally remarkable concerts Dylan did in Dublin, after just one night’s break from London – 26th and 27th November. The recordings from the Dublin concerts are not by Crystal Cat, and tend to be more muted and softer. I tend to push the volume up to hear them better. They don’t sound as dramatic as the London concerts, and the sound of each instrument does not come across so clearly, but to my mind, it’s not just the sound that’s different, it’s that Dylan’s approach to the songs is subtly different, warmer and more intimate. Less brash and more sensitive. In some cases I’m going to suggest that the Dublin performances are a cut above the more famous London ones.

So, it’s time to come to grips with what I’m talking about. I’m starting with ‘Shelter From The Storm’ (London, 4th night) as it must surely be one of the most choice of these choice cuts and a wonderful way in to the London shows. Spoiler alert, a best-ever performance coming up.

Shelter from the storm (A)

How well that jaunty, somewhat countrified sound suits the song!

The best Dylan songs never wear out, which is the case with this love song, this celebration of the universal female principle (and archetypal hippy chick).

Now let’s compare that performance with this one from Dublin (1st night).

Shelter from the storm (B)

You can see the fun we’re going to have trying to decide which performance is ‘the best.’ And there’s no wrong answer. I detect a gentler spirit at work in this Dublin performance. A refinement of feeling which brings out the nuances of the song. Which is what the harmonica does.

Let’s try another comparison. Another of the choicest cuts from London would have to be this ‘High Water (For Charley Patton)’. This is from the 3rd night and really cooks up a storm. Note how a cool little sequence of piano notes around 4.54 minutes in is picked up by the guitar and worked into the musical fabric. Donnie Herron comes to the fore with his banjo. It’s a grim song, yet somehow celebrates life with that infectious beat.

High Water (A)

The Dublin performance is not quite so effusive, yet sounds more pointed to me, and I can make out the lyrics better. It’s fascinating that around 5.40 mins the band goes quiet and Dylan has the chance to do some fancy piano work, as in a jazz break, if he wants to. He doesn’t. He sticks to that cool little piano riff and just lets the song ride on the rhythm section for a few bars.

High Water (B)

Time for a change of pace, and another comparison. We turn to ‘Cry Awhile’ and start with the London 4th night performance. Another ‘best ever’ coming up, folks. At this stage Dylan is still singing all the verses to this complex song with its exciting shift in tempo when it drops from upbeat into a slow blues. Superb work by Garnier here.

There’s a gangster feel to this song, not surprising as when he wrote the song Dylan was reading, and filching a few lines from, Confessions of a Yakuza, an obscure 1989 biography of a gangster by Japanese writer Junichi Saga.

The first three lines are a compact piece of vindictiveness:

Well, I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith
Nasty, dirty, double-crossing, backstabbing phony
I didn't have to wanna have to deal with

There are subsequent mentions of lawyers, horses that run the wrong way, and funerals, but behind the tough guy, there’s a broken heart at the heart of the song.

I'm on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears 
                                   that I can't control
Some people they ain't human, they got no heart or soul

Cry Awhile (A)

Again, the Dublin performance is not as strident, or perhaps striking, but Dylan’s vocal is every bit a match for the London performance. In fact, although the Dublin recordings are softer, Dylan’s voice is clearer in the mix.

Cry Awhile (B)

Coming to ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ I’d make a firmer claim for the superiority of the Dublin performance. This song is probably first equal with ‘Hard Rain’ as Dylan’s finest protest song, a song very much directed at the ‘unlived meaningless life’ he excoriates in ‘False Prophet.’ He’s still using what to me is the rather clunky Sonny Boy Williamson riff from ‘Help Me,’ but Dylan swings it along in this London (2nd night) performance. Whereas Dylan once understated the vocal, it now lurches along with a fine swagger.

It’s all right ma (A)

We have the same swagger with the Dublin version (2nd night), but am I mistaken in finding it more nuanced, with Dylan’s voice soaring through the verses which come across with their full dramatic weight?

It’s all right Ma (B)

There is a certain grandeur to ‘Every Grain of Sand’ that makes it hypnotic listening. It is a song about faith as much as it is an expression of faith. There is a little upsinging in this London (4th night) performance, but it is well integrated into the vocal performance. And there is a beautiful, troubled harp break at the end.

Every Grain of Sand (A)

If anything, the Dublin performance (2nd night) is quieter and more contemplative than London. I would certainly prefer this performance if it weren’t for the upsinging, which becomes an issue here. Properly used, upsinging can lift the mood of a song momentarily, bring a little light into the darkness. But when repeatedly used in one verse, it draws attention to itself in an unwelcome way. Hear the way he slips into it during the Baudelairean ‘flowers of indulgence’ verse, starting at 2.42 mins, going through to 3.38 mins. A magnificent performance magnificently ruined? This song can only take so much mood lift. It is a sombre song.

Every Grain of Sand (B)

I’ll finish this post with a pair of performances I hope will establish beyond all doubt the superiority of at least some of the Dublin performances. ‘Visions of Johanna,’ perhaps the most ambitious of all Dylan songs (with the exception perhaps of ‘Tell Ol’ Bill’), an hallucinatory mood song that somehow never seemed to make it out of the 1960s in performance terms. (That’s a purely personal judgement.) Damnation and salvation swirl about in this after-midnight trippy-trip through the underworld.

It contains the famous line, which both the London and Dublin audience recognize, ‘the ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face’ but there’s lots more trippy stuff.

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voice echo this is what salvation must be like after a while

The London performance (2nd night) gives it a good go, but to my ear it is the Dublin performance that nails it. It needs that quieter, more subdued if not spooky atmosphere, which is maybe why Dylan didn’t follow up on his fast versions during the Blonde on Blonde recording sessions.

The Dublin performance is sweetly melancholic, as is the thoughtful guitar break by Stu Kimball.

But first the London performance.

Visions of Johanna (A)

And now for the Dublin ace:

Visions of Johanna (B)

That’s all I have room for, although I have not finished this comparison of choice cuts from these shows. I’m about halfway through, so I hope you’ll join me soon for more choice cuts.

Kia Ora

 

 

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