By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In the previous post, I flipped back and forward between Dylan’s famous London (Brixton) five-day residency, from 20th Nov to 25th Nov, and his two-night stand in Dublin immediately afterwards, 27th and 29th Nov, comparing performances of the same song. In this post, I will be continuing that exploration.
We saw how the sharp but full-bodied recordings (by the bootlegger Crystal Cat), considered some of the best Dylan live recordings ever, stood beside the softer, more muted Dublin recordings. The differences go beyond just recording quality to a subtly different approach to the songs, the Dublin performances being a shade more intimate, somewhat gentler and more contemplative. ‘Visions of Johanna’ was the best example.
That shade of difference is not so evident with the faster rock songs which don’t lend themselves to more intimate performances anyway. Nonetheless, the differences in performance are still interesting. When looking at 2003, we noted that the sound Dylan created was that fitting for a blues or jazz club. You feel that you have walked in off the street to catch a bunch of musos at work, having fun and improving new arrangements. By the time we get to the London residency in 2005, these same songs have morphed into stadium rock with a well-settled, rich and full sound. But the Dublin performances still recall that clublike feel.
Take for example ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ Dylan’s standard opening song, a great piss-take of American family life and its enforced conformity. Listen to this London performance (4th night), to get that stadium rock feel.
Maggie’s Farm (A)
A great warm-up song. Here’s how it sounded in Dublin.
Maggie’s Farm (B)
Perhaps it’s my imagination warped from listening to too much Bob Dylan, but I find the Dublin performance more as you would hear in a rock club than in a stadium. And it doesn’t feel as busy, with Dylan’s voice more prominent in the mix.
With the London residency, Dylan varied his setlist so the same songs were not played every night. An exception to this was ‘Summer Days’ which was performed on four of the five nights of the residency. In this case, I think the 3rd night performance takes it away. This is as close to a perfect performance of the song as you could get. Note Garnier’s wonderful bass. Back to the 1930’s we go. Not even Dublin can match this one. (It’s a final song, so the track ends at 7 mins with 3 mins of clapping.)
Summer Days (A)
Here’s the Dublin performance from the 1st night. Is this just a pale version of the London performance? I’ll let you decide. To my Dylan addled brain, this sounds a bit jazzier in the 1930’s style, the guitars coming in like the brass section of the era’s jazz bands.
Summer Days (B)
‘Cold Irons Bound.’ The most concentrated dose of alienation you will find anywhere in Dylan, compressed into a brain-shredding rocker. I’m not surprised this song won a Grammy Award. In this case I lean towards the sharper London performance. The brasher recording suits the song, although there is no loss of power at Dublin, just a smoother sound. Dylan has not changed the musical arrangement of the song since the album version in 1997, but there are some signs that he wants to provide some contrasts by quietening the song down just before he begins to sing a verse, to shift a little from a solid wall of sound to a more nuanced performance. Listen out for a wonderful jazzy riff powering the song around 3.39 mins
The London performance is from the 2nd night.
Cold Irons Bound (A)
And here’s the Dublin performance, 1st Night.
Cold Irons bound (B)
Considering the two performances, I think I’ve come to like the Dublin version because it’s a bit easier on the ears, and Dylan’s voice is clearer in the mix. The Crystal Cat recording of the London concert has been criticized for its very virtues, being too sharp and jangly, a bit too busy. Arguably the Dublin performance is leaner and meaner, at least in the recording.
We could say similar things about the satirical 1960’s rocker ‘Highway 61 Revisited.’ Looking back now, I can only wonder why we didn’t see that these early rock songs, with their satirical drive, were a logical continuation of Dylan’s protest period. They are another kind of protest. Songs like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ were not as literal and earnest as some of the protest songs, but they had a sharp, cutting edge to them in terms of their social message.
More evident than in ‘Cold Irons Bound’ is Dylan’s 2005 urge to bring some drama into the song by quietening it down before cranking it up again. In this case, in both performances, at around 4.25 mins, he strips the song down to its rhythm section, light piano, bass and drums, before launching into the last verse, at the same time keeping the backing minimal during the singing of the verse. This builds up the tension for the break-out of the final instrumental. For me, this contrast works better with the Dublin performance, but really, who’s complaining?
This is from London, 1st night.
Highway 61 Rev (A)
And here it is in Dublin, 1st night.
Highway 61 Rev (B)
That satirical drive was to deepen over the years from 1964, with the first side of Bringing It All Back Home, to 1966 and Blonde on Blonde. Much of the surrealism and absurdity of the lyrics during those great years were attacks on the mindless, godless materialism which Dylan has consistently lambasted. To further that aim, he created a host of named characters and bizarre circus figures that flick in and out of the scenes he paints. These characters reflect some attitude or social role Dylan wants to highlight.
‘Desolation Row’ from Highway 61 Revisited is a seminal song in this regard, being populated with characters from ‘the blind commissioner’ (political wankery) to Casanova, victim of propaganda and manipulation. Dylan widens the range of these circus figures in Blonde on Blonde. We have ‘the dancing child in his Chinese suit’ from ‘I Want You’ to ‘the riverboat captain’ in ‘Where Are You Tonight Sweet Marie?’ But no song better picks up where ‘Desolation Row’ leaves off than ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.’ We have a host of characters here from grandpa to Shakespeare (‘with his pointed shoes and his bells’), the Senator (another wanky politico ‘showing everyone his gun’) and then there is Ruthie. It’s one of Dylan’s longest songs.
‘Mobile’ is more zany than ‘Desolation Row,’ as Dylan appears in every verse as comic protagonist, a Chaplinesque figure escaping from one situation to another, but both songs end with a similar feeling. In ‘Desolation Row,’ we have the claustrophobic reference to ‘the time the doorknob broke’ and a suggestion of illness and incapacity (‘right now I can’t read too good’) while ‘Mobile’ ends with a Groundhog Day paranoia and claustrophobic repetition:
Now the bricks lay on Grand Street Where the neon madmen climb They all fall there so perfectly It all seems so well timed An’ here I sit so patiently Waiting to find out what price You have to pay to get out of Going through all these things twice
‘Mobile’ is a much harder song to carry in performance than ‘Desolation Row’, which has a sweetness of melody and Dylan was able to work the song into a climax vocally and with harp. ‘Mobile’ remains determinedly lateral in the sense that it can’t be structured as ‘Desolation Row’ has been.
Both the London and the Dublin versions are vigorous performances, but to my mind not up to the standard of my other choice cuts. There’s a scrappy feel to them. My complaint, aside from the upsinging, is that Dylan messed about with the verses. Jumping around the song and leaving out verses. In Dublin he sings the third verse twice, then leaves out three verses. It’s pretty haphazard. The problem with dropping out so many verses of a long song like this is that it loses its epic dimension. We don’t get the song, just the flavour of the song.
If you love the song, you may face disappointment here.
First up London, 1st night:
Stuck inside of mobile (A)
Dublin, 2nd night:
Stuck inside of mobile (B)
The concerts mostly end with ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ the signature last song and most commonly played song of all. In this song the band usually pulls out the stops and lets rip. The song tears along like a climate-change driven hurricane. By 2005, however, there are some signs of change. As with ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ Dylan wants to push the song away from a wall of sound to a piece of music with more drama, to quieten right down in places before opening it up again.
I listened to the performances expecting the same old same old, even if done well, and unexpectedly found myself caught up in the new arrangement, the band going soft and minimal while Dylan is singing, while cranking it up in-between the verses and of course at the end in an annihilation of guitars. The effect is more pronounced at Dublin, where it goes so quiet the sound almost disappears before surging back. There’s a musical tension in these performances often lacking from the song. The thrumming beat is urgent and ominous, as are the lyrics.
You can take your pick of these performances. The loud, harsh, Crystal Cat sound of London would seem to suit the song, the louder and harsher the better, but the Dublin performance brings out the drama more clearly. There’s that quiet moment before the last verse that recalls the well contained, acoustic album version. I’ve wondered how it would sound if Dylan abandoned the Jimi Hendrix approach and returned to that quiet little masterpiece from John Wesley Harding for inspiration. At Dublin, just for a moment, I get the feel of what that might sound like.
This is from London, 4th night
And this is from Dublin, 1st Night
That brings to a swirling end this set of comparisons. We haven’t finished with London and Dublin, as there are performances of interest that were not repeated, but in the next post I’ll be getting away from those two concerts for a quick stopover at Seattle.