Never Ending Tour, 2005, Part 6: God knows you gotta weep

An index of the Never Ending Tour series can be found here.

Here are the earlier articles from 2005…

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

In the last post we looked at some of Dylan’s core songs from the 1960s in terms of an increasing rigidity of musical form, a loss of fluidity with what I called the ‘dumpty-dum’ effect. However, if we move forward forty-odd years to Dylan’s more recent work, we hardly notice any loss of fluidity, particularly with the jazz-oriented songs from Love and Theft. Some of these songs, ‘High Water,’ ‘Summer Days’ and ‘Moonlight’ have been covered in previous posts, and we have heard some stunning performances of those songs.

‘Po Boy’ is Dylan’s jazziest composition and 2005 performances reflect that. Despite the jokiness of it, I see it as a protest song, a Great Depression-era song dealing with a black man on the run from Jim Crow laws and the police, trying not to ‘fall between the cars’ (for non-Americans that’s train carriages). In this New York performance (30th April) Dylan turns his upsinging into a jazz style, and Herron’s violin evokes the era in fine swinging style.

Po Boy

We have a particularly good performance from Dublin (2nd night) of ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ which is more of a blues than jazz, and given a lighter touch than in previous years with a minimal instrumental background and a bit of a swing to avoid the dumpty dum. This is my favourite performance of the song, with its consummate vocal and sense of the dance music of the era, the same era as ‘Po Boy.’

Till I fell in love with you

I am however less certain about this London (3rd Night) version of the album’s master work, ‘Mississippi.’ It has all the hallmarks of these great London shows, a strong vocal and a brilliant recording.

My problem is with the skipping, lolloping beat Dylan has put behind the song. He could be aiming to swing it, but it starts to sound a bit dumpty-dum to me. The issue here is the loss of the emotional intensity that drives the song, although I am reminded of Dylan’s attempts to lighten the song, and the wonderful acoustic version on Tell Tale Signs.

My favourite Dylan couplet:

All my powers of expression, my thoughts so sublime
Can never do you justice in reason or rhyme

Mississippi

Finally from Love and Theft, we have that jazzy, 1920’s style ‘Floater.’ There’s no other song quite like it in Dylan’s canon. It’s an irresistible, bouncy piece of whimsy. I remember first hearing it, thinking ‘where the hell does this come from?’ He creates a narrator who is looking back fondly on something of a Norman Rockwell childhood. Dylan doesn’t mess with the song and delivers it straight. With violin and whimsical harp, this one’s a treat. (Sorry, no date for this one.)

Floater

Leaving Love and Theft behind, we go back to Time out of Mind and start with perhaps the jazziest composition in that album, ‘Million Miles.’ I feel a ‘best ever’ moment coming on here. I loved the 2003 performance for its vocal power (See NET 2003, Part 1), but nothing matches the subtlety and bluesy broodiness of this performance (Manchester, 16th Nov). With bonus masterful muted harp break to finish it off.

Million Miles

And if you would like to see Dylan in action:

While on the subject of mood songs, let’s check out ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ from the New York concert. This song will go on evolving right through to 2019. It is the most powerful evocation of approaching death that Dylan wrote (except ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ perhaps). This is a slow, broody version, with a spacey muted harp break. Just how the upsinging works for a song like this however I’ll leave over to you…

It’s Not Dark Yet

There’s a beautifully clear recording of ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ (10th July Illinois.) Dylan is in great voice, and it’s a confident performance. What bothers me with this one is the dreaded upsinging. I do appreciate that Dylan is trying to bring some variety into his vocal expression, and training his voice to make those octave leaps, but it becomes an affectation, a regrettable vocal mannerism. For some songs it might work okay, but for this one, well again, I have to leave it over to you…

Trying to Get to Heaven

Not as well recorded, but arguably a better performance is this ‘Things Have Changed.’ (4th Nov). No upsinging at all, but a swinging, passionate performance enlivened with Herron’s violin once more. The raw power of the song comes across despite the recording. I’m glad this song hasn’t changed.

Things have changed

We have to wind the clock back now to 1991, and Under A Red Sky, for this fast-paced ‘God Knows.’ (Dublin, 2nd night.) The song kicks itself into rocker. A bit of dumpty-dum works fine here. I count this as a protest song which, like ‘Masters of War,’ doesn’t lose its relevance with the passing years. There is a desperation, a feature of the songs from that album, and an urgency to it. The phrase ‘God knows’ is used in both its ironical and straight sense.

God knows that when you see it
God knows you've got to weep
God knows the secrets of your heart
He'll tell them to you when you're asleep

Chilling.

God Knows

Now back to Oh Mercy to catch a shooting star. Since 2000 we have had many intense performances of this song. Those performances expressed the power of the nostalgia that drives the song. Love or salvation, it’s all the same yearning. Despite the upsinging, this is a forceful vocal. Although it needs the slow tempo, this one’s a bit more sedate than previous performances. For some who have enjoyed previous performances, this might lumber along somewhat. The final harp break lifts it, however. (30th Oct)

Shooting Star

Now we have to shoot back to the gospel era, to revisit, first ‘Lenny Bruce,’ generally considered one of the weaker songs from Shot of Love (1981). That may well be, but I think that Dylan, who loves to play with personas and pen dramatic monologues, is playing it straight here. It’s a tribute song. A eulogy, and a eulogy is fond reminiscence of someone who has died, usually delivered at a funeral. It’s a chance to be sentimental and say what qualities of the deceased you most admire. Sincerity rather than literary cleverness is its hallmark. In that respect, the modest ‘Lenny Bruce’ works just fine.

And so does this performance from 16th April.

Lenny Bruce

‘Saving Grace’ from Saved (1980). Dylan played it thirty-two times during the NET, and only twice in 2005. The song, another of those occasional visitors, is on its way out, and will be played only once more in 2012.

It’s not my favourite Dylan gospel song, but I value it for expressing the sense we get sometimes that life is blessed, and that we have been touched by a larger sense of grace. To be in a ‘state of grace’ is to be in a blessed state indeed. (11th April) For my ear, this is one of the better performances. It’s slow but not too thumpy, Dylan pours everything into the vocal and Herron polishes it off with a soul rending violin break.

Saving Grace

‘I Believe In You’ from Slow Train Coming (1979) is in a similar position. It was played six times in 2005, but is also on its way out. By 2009 it will be gone. What seems remarkable, given the vocal virtuosity of the 1980 Toronto performance, is that Dylan can capture the extremity of this passion in these later years even with his throat sounding half gone. The 2004 performance is particularly solid. (See NET, 2004, part 6) There he proved he could do it, and he does it again here, although he keeps it pretty much in the lower register. The shimmering restraint of the harp break gives the song a whole new sense. The sense that this is not a hysterical assertion of faith (Montreal 1980) but something gentler and more considered. A love that simmers beneath the surface. A love that can be more quietly stated, but with just as much dedication.

I believe in you

We now turn back the page a year to 1978 and Street Legal. Dylan’s old friend ‘Senor’ has grown more sedate over the past three years. Consider the wild ending of the 2003 performance (NET, 2003, part 2) with these more controlled 2005 versions.  The first is from Dublin, 2nd night. A high-quality performance.

Senor (A)

Despite the excellence of that performance, this one from London (1st Night) is a good rival. Maybe a touch more desperation. (By the way, I missed this London/Dublin pair when doing my first two posts for this year). A touch of wildness at the end. You have to go back to the 2003 performance to beat that ecstatic harp.

Senor (B)

We have wound the clock back now to Blood on the Tracks (1974) and Dylan’s most regular friend of all, ‘Tangled Up In Blue.’ Where would we be without it? According to the official Dylan website, it has been performed a phenomenal 1648 times. In 2005 this stadium rock song par-excellence suffered something of an eclipse, being played only four times. This epic ruled from 1993, with its twelve/thirteen minute performances, to 2003 with a ‘best ever’ wild performance. It was to come back in 2006, but by 2009 the arrangement was quite different. Those interested in the history of the song might like to check out my Tangled Up In Harmonicas post

This performance from 29th October (Oberhausen) is not particularly remarkable and lacks the harp break at the end which, in previous performances, generated a lot of musical excitement.

Tangled Up in Blue

That brings us back to the 1960s where we began in Part 5, and I have enough room to squeeze in a couple of songs that didn’t make it into Part 5.

This London (1st night) performance of ‘Queen Jane Approximately,’ joins a growing list of stunning performances of this song. It’s a rare but valued visitor, with only seventy-five performances in all. The older Dylan seems to relish the world-weariness of the song, turning it into an eight-minute epic.

Queen Jane

I thought we’d better catch that little ballad, ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ before it disappears from the setlists. This is its second to last performance (the last will be in 2008) and it’s easy to see why so many other artists, including Elvis Presley,  covered the song. It belongs with ‘Don’t Think Twice’ and ‘One Too Many Mornings’ as a song of regret, and is an exquisite lyric:

I can’t see my reflection in the waters
I can’t speak the sounds that show no pain
I can’t hear the echo of my footsteps
Or can’t remember the sound of my own name

That says it all. See you soon with an epilogue for 2005.

Kia Ora

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