- An index of the Never Ending Tour series can be found here.
- Never Ending Tour 2005 part 1: Choice cuts from London and Dublin
- Never Ending Tour 2005 part 2: More choice cuts from London and Dublin.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
The last two posts have been all about the London residency and the Dublin concerts in November, and I’ll certainly be returning to those six concerts for further treasures they contain. However, I want to take time out from London and Dublin to look at two concerts Dylan did in Seattle, one on March 7th and again on July 16th.
The March 7th concert was a regular NET concert, but the July 16th concert was a special event sponsored by Amazon.com. Here’s how it was noted in the Seattle Times:
Amazon.com will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a present to employees — an exclusive concert featuring Bob Dylan, Norah Jones and political satirist Bill Maher. The event will take place in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on July 16.
No tickets will be sold to the public, but the company says it will be broadcast live on the Internet (Amazon.com/showofthanks), beginning at 5 p.m.
I want to start by working through the July 16th concert as what we have here is no run of the mill audience recording, but a beautifully balanced soundboard. This is the best quality sound you’ll find in 2005, Crystal Cat’s famous London recordings notwithstanding. Not only is it the best recording, but it is also arguably one of Dylan’s best performances for the year, again London and Dublin notwithstanding.
Because of this, I’m taking the unusual step of going through the concert from start to finish. It’s the only way to do justice to these performances.
One thing that struck me was the quality of Dylan’s piano playing. Because, with the audience recordings, the piano is often grumbling away in the background, it is not always evident how skilful Dylan’s keyboard playing has become. As always, he never takes the lead, but these recordings show clearly the importance of the piano in creating the musical texture.
I’m going to skip ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ the opening song, as we’ve had two fine performances of this from London and Dublin, and the July 16th Seattle performance is pretty standard. The next two songs, however, are outstanding. Exquisite performances of two songs from NashvilleSkyline (1969), ‘Tell Me That It Isn’t True’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.’ As the years have rolled on, and the songs on Dylan’s setlists have grown darker and more complex, particularly with the arrival of songs from Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, these more modest, lighter songs from Nashville Skyline have grown more precious. These two songs could have been pop songs with a country twist from the 1950s. There is an innocence to them.
These are very accomplished performances; there are no rough edges. Dylan’s performance is restrained and quietly assured, as are the two beautiful harp breaks in both songs.
Tell me that it isn’t true
The necessary touch of melancholy in that song is not found in ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,’ a happy-go-lucky love song which takes a different approach to seduction than the more famous ‘Lay Lady Lay’ – a somewhat more subtle and indirect approach, but with the same aim in mind.
Well, that mockingbird’s gonna sail away We’re gonna forget it That big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon But we’re gonna let it You won’t regret it
Another state of the art performance:
I’ll be your baby
I don’t feel quite so effusive about ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ which comes as number four on the Seattle setlist. I’d like to say that he hits three in a row from Nashville Skyline, but for me this performance is marred by too much upsinging and a sound not quite as smooth as the preceding two. I think he did a better job of the song at Dublin, but we’ll catch up with that in a later post.
Lay lady lay
Number 5 on the setlist is ‘You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine’ from Blonde on Blonde. A nice clean recording, and a superior performance. Nothing particularly special about it, however.
You Go Your Way
‘Blind Willy McTell’ however is special, as Dylan has come up with a totally new arrangement of the song. Fans of his swinging 2012 performances will find the origin of that arrangement here, in 2005. For the first time, Dylan experiments with making the song swing. Swing music originates with the big bands, and does have a technical definition. This is Wikipedia:
‘The term swing, as well as swung note(s) and swung rhythm,[b] is also used more specifically to refer to a technique (most commonly associated with jazz but also used in other genres) that involves alternately lengthening and shortening the first and second consecutive notes in the two-part pulse-divisions in a beat.’
Put more simply: ‘The name derived from its emphasis of the off-beat, or nominally weaker beat.’
It’s odd that such an intense song, with its dark themes of ‘power and greed and corruptible seed’ should work so well put to what is essentially a dance rhythm, but it works. It works well here, and will work well even better in years to come. I still lament, however the disappearance of ‘the ghost of slavery ships’ and that wonderful verse with the ‘sweet magnolias blooming.’
Blind Willy McTell
Now for a real treat. A performance of ‘Watching the River Flow’ that puts me in a ‘best ever’ mood, especially given the fine extended harp break. He performs the song at the March 7th concert too, and we’ll be checking that one out shortly as an interesting comparison. Here it is from July 16th, number 7 on the setlist.
Watching the river flow (A)
Number 8 on the setlist, ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ keeps the energy going. Another superlative performance. Wonderful ending with Dylan playing a duet with himself, harp and piano. Hints of swing here too. It may not be as spooky as the album version, but loses none of the mockery.
Ballad of a thin man
Now for the treat of treats, Dylan singing ‘I Shall Be Released’ with Nora Jones. Dylan invites her onto the stage and an exquisite performance follows. Doesn’t seem like they’d done much in the way of rehearsal, but that just adds to the spontaneous feel of it.
The whole professionally filmed concert can be found on YouTube and ‘I Shall Be Released’ starts around 43.45 mins. There’s a lot of communication going on between them as they work through the song. Nora Jones is watching Dylan closely, and you can feel the buzz between them. Two consummate professionals at work. It’s a pleasure to watch.
I shall be released
The first thing I noticed when moving to March 7th was the difference in spirit between the two concerts. When Dylan does celebrity gigs or special gigs he tends to be more restrained, more careful, and the performances tend to be more polished than the ordinary NET concerts. I noticed the looser feel when I compared this version of ‘Watching the River Flow’ to the July 16th version. This is looser, rougher, not as well recorded of course, but personally I like that less restrained feel. It’s not so perfect, but it has more of the excitement of performance to it.
Watching the river flow (B)
Although it’s not listed on the official Dylan website, he did a performance of ‘The Man In Me’ at Seattle March 7th. This is another quite modest, unexceptional song off New Morning. I like this rougher, 2005 version better than the album’s. He puts a lot into the vocal, and an appreciative audience helps to make this relatively rare performance of the song an enjoyable listen. It begins to sound like a love song.
The Man in Me
In 2004 Dylan began to experiment with slow versions of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, Dylan’s ode to escapism. These slow versions are mesmerising, and bring out the inherent melancholy of the song. I don’t mind his missing the ‘skipping reels of rhyme’ verse, but I do wish he hadn’t dropped a line or two from the last verse. I miss ‘the haunted frightened trees’ and the ‘one hand waving free.’ I think the whole verse is so masterful, missed lines seem like a violation of the song. Nonetheless, this is a different experience from the faster versions, more thoughtful and contemplative, with Dylan slipping into semi-talking in his hushed voice, the harp break similarly restrained.
Mr Tambourine Man
‘Moonlight’ is a beguiling song from Love and Theft that hasn’t changed a lot in performance. However, what is of interest in this Seattle March 7th performance is the way Dylan has speeded it up. This is very different to how he will perform it in London at the end of the year, where he returns to the slower tempo version. This Seattle ‘Moonlight’ could be seen as an experiment he was to abandon.
2003/4 saw some powerful performances of ‘Sugar Baby’ and 2005 continues that run. Another ace vocal performance from Dylan. At the heart of this complex song there is a sense of a stoical resignation. The efforts we make in the world are often futile and pointless, and have the opposite effect to what we intended:
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
Over the years we have also been treated to some powerful performances of ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’ From 2000 on this song has become one of Dylan’s core songs, although with only 76 performances in all, these recordings have all the more interest. I feel that the live performances have helped establish the song as a major work. It is an invitation to friendship, a post-love love song, full of world-weary stoical resignation. The world can be too much with us, people expecting all kinds of things from us.
Now when all the clowns that you have commissioned Have died in battle or in vain And you’re sick of all this repetition Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Let’s finish with a rousing performance of ‘Cat’s in the Well’ which is one of Dylan’s fast-beat rockers with an uncompromising message. What makes this performance special is the swirling violin. That’s Donnie Herron at work. It’s loud and a little messy, but it punches us out of Seattle with a bang. ‘May the Lord have mercy on us all.’
Cats in the well
That’s it for our Seattle stopovers. In the next post I’ll be welcoming a couple of new songs and saying farewell to quite a bunch. See you then.