By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
It’s natural that the more recent songs, in performance, find Dylan at his most enthusiastic. While we have had some powerful performances of ‘It’s Alright Ma,’ ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown,’ some of those old chestnuts like ‘Mr Tambourine Man,’ ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ have started to sound pretty jet-lagged. Missed verses, mixed up verses, dropped lines and flubbed lines, a sense of strain trying to make the songs sound fresh, is what we can find.
But with songs written from 1997 (Time Out of Mind) through to 2006 (Modern Times), we can feel Dylan engaged and enthusiastic. In my last post (NET, 2007, Part 1), I started to look at Dylan’s 2007 performances of those songs, and I want to continue that in this post. Let’s start with ‘Spirit on the Water,’ a song that is very much in the same spirit as ‘Beyond the Horizon.’ A bright and breezy surface, but in this case, a sting in the tail. The singer will not be able to join his love in paradise because he ‘killed a man back there.’
Wikipedia says, ‘In their book Bob Dylan, All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track, authors Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon discuss the song as exhibiting Dylan’s “love for jazz”, noting that “the atmosphere is light and bright” and that “Dylan sings with his crooner voice, which foreshadows his 2015 album Shadows in the Night“.
For my ear, this performance from Birmingham (17th April) has an edge on the 2006 performance (See NET, 2006 part 2).
Spirit on the Water (A)
The sharpness of the Crystal Cat recordings is hard to resist, although some find them a bit abrasive. This one, from Newcastle (12th April), is also a Crystal Cat recording, but the performance is somewhat muted compared to Birmingham, somewhat lighter and more airy perhaps.
Spirit on the Water (B)
‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ is an upbeat, rock-and-roll tinged song (See NET, 2006, part 2) that bustles along, Dylan once more mixing the political and the personal as he does. I offer two recordings here, quite different in spirit. This first one is from St Louis (22nd Oct), and has been my favourite. Dylan belts it out in fine style.
Levee’s Gonna Break (A)
But I’m also aware of the appeal of this one from Florence (26th of June) which is not as high-powered as the St Louis performance (a different key?), with Dylan singing in a lower register. Take your pick.
Levee’s Gonna Break (B)
Judging by the number of performances, ‘Summer Days’ must be counted as Dylan’s favourite from Love and Theft. Somewhere around number 14 on his setlist, this song is guaranteed to lift the energy in any concert. Full of humour, sexual innuendo, classic blues complaints about infidelity in love, and some wild touches, this one’s a crowd pleaser. I’m struck by the contrast between the way this song ends, in rabid defiance, and the bitter-sweet farewells of ‘Don’t Think Twice.’
Well, I'm leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift Yes, I'm leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift Gonna break in the roof, set fire to the place as a parting gift.
And here’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’:
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn Look out your window and I'll be gone You're the reason I'm a-traveling on But don't think twice, it's all right
Never let it be said that Dylan mellowed as he got older.
In terms of recordings, I have an embarrassment of riches here. Four excellent versions. I’ve chosen two, regretting the loss of the other two. This first one is from Birmingham again and is full of brash energy.
Summer Days (A)
This second one is from St Louis, with Dylan’s vocal to the fore.
Summer Days (B)
There are a couple of very slow songs on Modern Times, ‘When The Deal Goes Down’ and ‘Nettie Moore.’ The first is a melancholy ode to love, the kind of love that sticks with it right to the end. It’s a precursor to that wonderful ballad from Rough and Rowdy Ways, ‘I Made Up My Mind.’
The song is shot through with a stoical acceptance of time, love and death.
In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light Where wisdom grows up in strife My bewilderin’ brain, toils in vain Through the darkness on the pathways of life Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air Tomorrow keeps turning around We live and we die, we know not why But I'll be with you when the deal goes down
It’s a haunted but determined state of mind. A love song to God. It’s hard to beat this Birmingham performance:
When the Deal Goes Down (A)
But for those who like their recording with a bit of a softer edge, this one from Florence has its charms. On balance, this one is my favourite.
When the Deal Goes Down (B)
The blues soaked ‘Cry A While’ used to jump from one tempo to another just as the lyrics jump from a particularly Dylanesque defiance of fate and the world to grief and sorrow. Here Dylan smooths over those tempo changes to produce a more standard, consistent bluesy riff. I miss the tempo switches and find the 2007 versions somewhat less interesting. To my mind, this doesn’t stand up to earlier versions. For a contrast, try the performance from 2003 (NET, 2003, Part 4).
It’s worth noting the constant edge of rueful humour in the song:
I'm gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey I'll die before I turn senile
This one’s from Florence.
Cry a While
Did Dylan test his audiences’ patience by singing the dead-slow ‘Nettie Moore’? Dead slow can turn dreary. It seems not. The audience stays with this one (Stockholm) and appreciates the progression of the lyrics. While this is a love song, the lyrics are wide-ranging and there doesn’t seem to be a lot holding it together.
Nettie Moore (A)
For those who like the sharper, Crystal Cat recordings, this one from Sheffield might do the trick.
Nettie Moore (B)
For a change of pace, let’s go to ‘Thunder on the Mountain.’ This is the ultimate chuggy song. It’s relentless, funny, and at times profound:
Feel like my soul is beginning to expand Look into my heart and you will sort of understand You brought me here, now you're trying to run me away The writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum Gonna sleep over there, that's where the music coming from I don't need any guide, I already know the way Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day
It’s easy to miss the depth of this. We might need to remind ourselves that he’s probably addressing his god.
The song is all about movement, and momentum. There’s no time to think, to mull over a verse, as the next one is right on top of you. That thunder just keeps on rolling.
This first one’s from St Louis, and Dylan uses a descending vocal, starting high and moving low. It helps keep our interest in the performance.
Thunder on the Mountain (A)
This one, from Florence, doesn’t use the same trick but vocal expressiveness is to the fore here.
Thunder on the Mountain (B)
I can’t resist, however, popping in this one from Stockholm. The vocal’s not as gritty as Florence, or as adventurous as St Louis, but it’s smoother than both of those and is becoming my favourite.
Thunder on the Mountain (C)
Staying in Stockholm, let’s catch another of those generic blues songs the critics didn’t like because they thought Dylan’s compositions were getting a bit melodically lazy, and that Dylan was using such songs as album fillers. I don’t get that impression at all. Once he got rid of the repetitive guitar riff you hear on the album, the song bedded down very nicely. It thrums along with a suitably ominous edge.
Honest With Me
No one could accuse ‘Working Man’s Blues #2’ of being generic, even if it does reference the Merle Haggard song. It’s a very atmospheric song, political passion mixed with nostalgia for the world we have lost as we get ground down with globalization’s race to the bottom:
Where the place I love best is a sweet memory It's a new path that we trod They say low wages are reality If we want to compete abroad
It’s a call to arms, but a sad, reflective one.
This Birmingham recording has to take top slot.
Working Man’s blues (A)
This one from St Louis, with its more hushed vocal, caught my ear. The softer feeling may suit the song better.
Working Man’s blues (B)
‘Rollin And Tumblin’ takes us back, once more, to classic urban blues. Tony Attwood has an excellent account of the song here; I can’t add much to his account except to say that, like the best blues, it expresses the anguish of mind and heart when it comes to failed love. You may study the ‘arts of love’ all you want but you’ll still end up rollin and tumblin and crying the whole night long.
This Newcastle performance won’t leave you in any doubt. In this case the abrasive Crystal Cat recording fits the song like a glove.
Rollin and Tumblin
I’ll finish this post with another Newcastle performance, ‘High Water (for Charlie Patton).’ To my mind, the song reaches its performance high point in 2006 (see NET, 2006, part 3), which is an interesting contrast to this one. The 2006 performance features Donnie Herron’s banjo more prominently, but in both performances the darker undertones of the song are brought out by that heavy guitar riff.
The song hasn’t lost its bounce, or with increasing floods a consequence of global heating, its relevance.
‘Don’t reach out for me’, she said, ‘can’t you see I’m drowning too?’
That’s it for me this time around. Keep body and soul together and join me next time for another round of sounds from 2007.
Mike’s earlier series: Bob Dylan Master Harpist is also available on Untold Dylan.
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