The complete index to the Never Ending Tour series of articles has been updated to include the six articles covering 2006. You can find the full index of all 86 articles here.
2006, Part 1, Enter The Organ Grinder
By Mike Johnson
We now enter a difficult and problematic period for the NET. It will last until 2012, when Dylan will abandon the organ and return to the piano. These six years I referred to in my Master Harpist series as the time of the Organ Grinder and the Circus Barker. Organ grinder because of Dylan’s unique and peculiar organ playing, and circus barker because of the devolution of his voice into a bark.
NET commentators have tended to avoid this period. Andrew Muir in his study of the NET One More Night, after having written a chapter on every year, passes over the years 2005 – 2009 in a single chapter entitled ‘In Which Your Author Becomes Lost.’ Muir, a dedicated follower, confesses to ‘falling out of love’ with the NET. After an inconclusive discussion about ‘authenticity’ he seems to conclude that Dylan lost his mojo during these years and was not worth following. He describes the period as ‘the slough of despond’ for NET fans.
Similarly, at A Thousand Highways the Dylan compiler CS, after pretty much working through the NET year by year, covers the years 2006 to 2012 in two posts.
Stories were told of audiences walking out of concerts, and the critics, sensing blood, began to circle.
So, what was going on during this period? Did Dylan really lose his mojo? I’m not so sure. Certainly, those who never liked Dylan’s piano playing liked his organ playing even less. The anti-keyboard brigades had their day. These ex-NET fans began to call the keyboard the IOT (instrument of torture) and there were deep splits in the Dylan camp. (See Muir Chapter 19)
The strange, thin, wiry sounds Dylan made with the organ were like nothing else anybody had heard, except perhaps at the circus. That style was described as ‘rinky-dink’ and was met with general incomprehension if not outrage. And Dylan’s increasingly rough voice didn’t win him many new fans and lost him some old ones.
And yet…and yet when you listen to some of these performances you can hear Dylan doing what he has been doing all along, reinterpreting and reconfiguring his songs. Trying out new arrangements, pouring some new wine into these fine old bottles.
I was struck, for example, by this performance of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ in which Dylan delivers a hushed, half spoken version of the song Christopher Ricks declared only had one perfect performance – the album version. I wonder what Ricks would have thought of this:
That recording (from Sun City, 8th April.) shows Dylan at his inventive best, pretty much reciting the song as if it were a poem. Sounds pretty good to me. This performance lifts the song to another level.
‘She Belongs to Me’ from Stockton, 3rd April, sounds pretty good too. Dylan is in full voice and the performance shows the song continuing to evolve into the powerful march we’ll hear in 2012/13. That solid pounding beat and restrained, bluesy harmonica are all in place. The song is turning into a tour de force.
She Belongs to Me
As with the piano, Dylan is not interested in playing lead with the organ, but nor is he using it entirely as a rhythm instrument. Rather it seems he wants to weave the organ notes into the instrumental background, creating the kind of musical texture he’s after. You can hear that in this performance of ‘Tears of Rage,’ another of Dylan’s old favourites and a difficult song to get right, I think, because of its slow, ponderous tempo. I find this version, also from Stockton, hard to beat. It’s that hushed, half-spoken, half-sung delivery that does the trick.
Tears of Rage
It’s really only when he begins to emphasise the beat that the organ begins to sound rinky-dink and the tempo becomes too emphatic, with the dumpty-dum effect I spoke of in my 2005 posts creeping in. You can hear it in ‘Tears of Rage’ where it is used deliberately to create a kind of stilted effect, particularly at the end when we get a beautiful duet between Dylan’s staccato harmonica and his organ. The alliance between the harp and the keyboard is still very much alive. He plays the organ with the left and and the harp with the right.
You can hear that alliance at work again on ‘Girl from the North Country,’ another perennial, which he gives the baroque treatment, familiar from the last three years. Dylan upsings on this one, I think to give the song some lift, but if you can deal with that, it’s a powerful performance. Dylan is obviously and consciously singing, rather than intoning or murmuring or growling. (Foggia, Italy, 19th July.)
Girl from the North Country.
It’s in 2006 that I found a performance of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ to rival the powerhouse performance of 2003 (see NET, 2003, part 2) which on balance remains my favourite. The tempo is faster than the 2003 performance, it kicks along, the vocal is vigorous and the triumphant harp break at the end little short of divine in the way it feeds back into itself, creating an eerie, echoey sound.
Tom Thumb’s blues
‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ goes well with ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ and this New York performance (13th Nov, Uniondale) creates that air of mystery, that atmosphere so integral to the song. He doesn’t use a voice echo, which he has tried and will try again, but the natural echo of the theatre’s acoustics does the job. We’re in a spooky place and we don’t know what is happening!
Ballad of a thin man (A)
Fans of the song might appreciate this alternative version from Lincoln, NE (25th Oct), as good as the New York performance. Here, the circus-like organ is perfect for the song, which is all about bizarre performances, circus characters like the geek and the sword swallower.
Ballad of a thin man (B)
For four years now Dylan has been exploring slower, more contemplative versions of ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ The performances in 2000/1 were very intense, but when Dylan shifted to the keyboards, the song became more dreamy than intense, not a defiant declaration but soft surrender. This performance from Sun City (8th April) keeps the same arrangement, and Dylan even misses out the same lines as in 2005. He is in fine vocal form, and the gentle, pensive harp break proves as big a crowd-pleaser as any of his wilder performances of the song.
Mr T Man
Another song tamed along the way is ‘Senor.’ We moved from the ecstatic 2003 performance to the more stately but powerful 2005 performance, and onto this one, which has a bit of bounce in it. Hear how he bounces the ending with the harp. This performance may be a little too upbeat for the desperate tone the song needs to get across its atmosphere, but it begins to take the song in a new direction. (Another from Lincoln).
Let’s kick up the pace and move to Stockton and catch this ‘Highway 61 Revisited.’ Like ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ Dylan had been honing this song down for a while now, taking out the jangle and giving it a quieter, more threatening beat. Without the piano, it’s up to the rest of the band to push the rhythm, and they have no problem with that here. Again, that swirling, circus-like organ gives the song an oddness it didn’t, as a straight rocker, have. Dylan’s 2006 vocal style, which goes deep and dark, brings out the sinister edge of the song.
Highway 61 Revisited
Dylan sticks with the same arrangement for ‘It’s All Right Ma’ that he’s been using over the past years, a Sonny Boy Williamson rock rift. I still don’t think it is entirely suited to the song, and I’m nostalgic for the fast-paced acoustic versions of the past rather than this lumbering super-beast, but nevertheless it can stand beside any similar version, as good as any I’ve heard in this style. You get into it and it thumps you along. (Stockton)
It’s all right ma
Donnie Herron’s violin gives this version of ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ a country twist. This is a song for anybody who’s been stood up, left waiting ‘inside the frozen traffic’ for a date that never turned up. It needs a resentful, accusatory, jealous edge in the performance, and I think it achieves that, but not everybody will enjoy the thumpity-thump, almost square-dance feel to this performance (Sun City). That loss of fluidity I noticed in 2005 is evident here, despite the vitality.
Absolutely Sweet Marie
‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ is another song that Dylan has been honing by stripping it back. It’s fascinating to listen to the original Basement Tapes recording, which is fluid to the point of queasiness, trippy if you like, compared to this sharp, bare, strangely insistent performance. The distant sound of the organ enhances that sense of strangeness that infects the song. The restrained, echoey harp polishes it off. (Also Sun City)
This Wheel’s On Fire
Dylan would roll out ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ towards the end of the shows, often the second to last song before ‘Watchtower.’ Hitting this famous anthem is a means of signalling the end of the show. Despite the accusatory nature, it’s a rousing song which, in its effect, celebrates the existential state of having ‘no direction home’ and being stripped of pretensions. If this song attacks anything, it is snobby pretentiousness.
Dylan keeps this one (from Stockton) at mid-tempo, doesn’t rush the words, and delivers a hard-hitting performance. Funny, hearing his upsinging on the chorus ‘How does it feeeel’ made me realize that Dylan has always upsung on certain songs; it’s what helped give his vocal style its distinctive rise and fall.
In 2006 Dylan introduced a new guitarist, Denny Freeman, to complement Stu Kimball. Maybe he thought to beef up the rhythm section to make up for the loss of the piano. Freeman has a distinctive, lyrical style evident in some of the songs in this post, but particularly in ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ always the final song of the night. Like ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ ‘Watchtower’ has been stripped back during the verses to a bare minimum, creating a dramatic tension between loudness and softness, restraint and letting loose. This one from Stockton is a favourite.
Listening to these recordings, I have to conclude that some of the negative reactions to Dylan’s shift to the organ were a bit over the top. Yes, the organ does sound strange, those thin often creepy notes, but Dylan is clearly engaged with his material, in good voice, still innovating, and playing the harp like the master he is.
What’s to complain about?
In August, 2006, Dylan released his follow up album to Love and Theft, Modern Times. We’ll turn to those new songs in the next post.