The Never Ending Tour, 2006, part 4 Strange Brews

Part 4 Strange Brews

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

While I have been generally upbeat about Dylan’s 2006 performances, it’s not hard to see why some long-time followers of the NET became disillusioned, and why there were such sharp divisions in their camp. This performance of ‘Desolation Row’ from Lincoln, 25th October, is a good place to start to understand what was going wrong. Everything seems in place. The recording is good, Dylan’s voice is strong and forceful, the band sounds sweet and Dylan’s circuslike vamping on the organ does not seem out of place given the imagery of the song.

But something is off. It starts okay, but soon we get the feeling that Dylan is using his considerable vocal resources to make the song sound as unlike previous performances as he can. It’s not just the upsinging, he seems determined to throw his voice all over the place in an effort to make it sound different. He succeeds, but, we would argue, at the cost of the song.

Take for example the verse about Cinderella that begins around 3.40 mins. It may be the emphatic phrasing, the way he breaks the lines up so they don’t connect flowingly. This is a variation of the dumpty-dum effect we noticed in 2005 (See NET, 2005, part 5, Old Friends). You could argue that this is just another interesting variation, but I doubt it will go on anybody’s list of favourite performances.

Desolation Row

The case is clearer, perhaps, with this performance of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ from Rome (16th July). It’s not just the missing lines and verses but that sense of disconnect from the song’s vital energies that is offputting. It’s all over the place.

Mr Tambourine Man (A)

At first I thought that the poor recording was the problem, so I turned to this one from Sun City (8th April), and in some respects it is better, and the performance gathers some intensity, with Dylan putting his all into the vocals, but the somewhat aimless instrumentals lose the tension. By the time we get to the last verse that emphatic, dumpty-dum quality has taken over, and the performance ends up less than exhilarating.

Mr Tambourine Man (B)

From the frying pan into the fire we go with the crowd-pleasing ‘It Ain’t me Babe’ from Springfield (22nd April). Again, it starts promisingly with an interesting new riff to carry it, and a forlorn harp break to open it, but it soon loses its springiness, becomes rigid and emphatic, and we struggle to retain our interest in the performance.

It ain’t Me Babe

Dylan also repeats words and phrases to fill out the vocal line. ‘I’m not the one you want, babe/ I’ll only let you down’ becomes, ‘I’m not the one, I’m not the one you want, babe/ I will only, only let you down.’ Never were truer words spoken.

I turned to the beautifully recorded Las Vegas performance to see if that was any better. The opening lines are sung like this:

‘Go away from my window, leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one, I’m not the one you want babe
Not the one you need.’

It’s marginally better than the Springfield performance but doesn’t catch fire.

It ain’t Me Babe (B)

‘The Time’s They Are A-Changing’ meets a similar fate. Again, we can’t fault the recording or the sound system. It’s another excellent recording from Las Vegas. Except for getting the words a bit mixed up, it’s a forceful vocal performance. All the elements are in place yet once more musical rigidity takes over, and Dylan’s vamping on the organ fails to provide the urgent rhythmical support that the piano provided in previous years. The tooting harp break at the end fails to offer any relief, rather emphasizes the rigidity of form. What’s happened to that lovely swing that used to carry this anthem?

Times they are a changing

Arguably, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ from the New York concert (20th Nov) fares a little better, owing to Dylan’s hushed, partly spoken performance, but the over-emphasis on the beat makes it sound like the others, and Dylan’s circus barker voice fails to carry the tenderness of the song. It’s too rough and abrasive for the sentiment.

Boots of Spanish Leather

At least with ‘To Ramona’ I thought that the natural waltz-time would carry the song without it having to fall into the dumpty-dum, and to some extent that’s true. The song flows along sweetly enough, and Dylan gives a performance full of feeling. Certainly, it’s the best we’ve heard so far in this post, and a rare harp break gives the performance an added interest. (Springfield, 22nd April)

To Ramona

The gentle, lilting opening to ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is promising, and to a large extent that promise is fulfilled, despite the upsinging and Dylan rinky-dinking on the organ. In this rather beautifully minimalist performance it becomes clear that it’s the way Dylan plays the organ that is partly the problem. The long sustained notes are not the issue, rather when he vamps to the beat, accentuating the dumpty-dum, that performance takes on that marionette feel. The liquid smoothness of the song has gone. (Sun City)

Every Grain of Sand (A)

That’s about as good as it gets. In this version from Boston (Nov 12) we can hear Dylan breaking up the flowing vocal line to accentuate the emphasis. He’s foregrounding the dumpty dum.

‘In the fury of the mo-ment
I can feel the master’s hand…
The flowers of indul-gence
And the leaves of yest-ter-year..’
And so it goes on…

Every Grain of Sand (B)

We can get away from all this by playing something fast. Something like ‘Maggie’s Farm.’ This is a foot-tapper from Stockton, and has a lot of bounce, but then, so did the original, the rock and roll ripper that shocked the folkies at Newport back in 1965. I like the new riff that carries the song, and while it’s a long way from any favourite performance, and you won’t hear me blathering about ‘best ever,’ it’s an enjoyable, celebratory experience.

Maggie’s farm.

A countrified ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ from Las Vegas is a further antidote to musical rigidity. The crowd loves this rollicking version, which is not surprising. It’s a warm-hearted invitation to love, quite unique in the Dylan canon.

I’ll be your baby tonight

We move further from staccato rhythms with a particularly sweet and gentle performance of ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (Stockton). Raucous versions of this song, with the band joining in on the choruses, have long gone and the song has been restored to its original melodic form. If anything, a certain pathos has crept into the song with age. The singer doesn’t sound quite so smoothly confident as he once did; the outcome of the seduction not as sure as it might have been in his younger days. When you have to keep asking, the cause might already be lost.

 Lay Lady Lay (A)

This isn’t the only gentle, tremulous performance of the song. Here’s another one from Las Vegas.

Lay Lady Lay (B)

The apocalyptic ‘God Knows’ has always been pretty thumpy, if not dumpty-dum. Dylan has never messed much with this song, changed its pace or melodic line. It starts quietly and builds. This one from Sun City joins a long line of successful performances of the song. I particularly like the background riff which enhances the obsessive flavour of the song.

God Knows

For some years now Dylan has been developing a ‘John Brown’ with a Celtic flavour. The thumpy, heavy beat is a long way from the smooth rock version of 1994, but is a successful adaption of the song. It gives the anti-war story an ancient flavour. In that heavy beat we feel the threat of war, the tread of war. The dramatic confrontation between generations has not lost its power. (Madison, 31st 10th)

John Brown

Similarly, there is a natural stridency to ‘Masters of War.’ The slow, threatening arrangements reached their apex in the Berlin performance of 2005 (See NET, 2005, part 5), and Dylan stuck to the same arrangement in 2006. I miss the threatening rumble of the piano we found in 2005 but the churchy organ in this Boston performance is an interesting variation.

Masters of War

‘Don’t Think Twice’ is a bitter-sweet, reflective little song which Dylan has been turning into a celebration, allowing the song to build from those opening tender moments to a rousing end. That movement is evident here, with the crowd-pleasing slow-down at the end. It really is ‘all right’ after all. (Sun City)

Don’t think twice.

The vituperative ‘Positively Fourth Street’ originally derived its power from the mix of ‘happy,’ bouncy music with sharp-edged lyrics. The bounce has been replaced with that staccato dumpty-dum, and the circus barker sounds rough around the edges but the jeer has not been lost, even if the sweetness of the bitter pill has. (Boston)

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is to see you

Positively Fourth Street

Let’s finish this post, and the year 2006, with our old friend and NET companion, ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ 2006 is very much a mixed bag with some exciting new sounds from Modern Times and some strange brews from yesteryear, with Dylan’s controversial organ playing in the spotlight. High, sustained quavering notes, emphatic rinky-dink rhythms that create a staccato sound so difficult for NET aficionados to deal with.

Next post we turn to 2007 for more of the same as Dylan enters more deeply into these new sounds he’s creating, for better or for worse. Those who find it all pretty hard to deal with will be relieved to hear that ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ hasn’t changed much, at least not yet. This song’s greatest days may be behind us, but listening to this hectic recital from Boston, we may for a moment convince ourselves that not much has really changed, that he keeps on keeping on just as he’s always done.

Tangled up in Blue

Kia Ora

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