NET 2009 part 2: contending forces: through the tears and the laughter

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. It was the year of both superlative and abysmal performances. It was the year of contradictions, the year of astonishment and disillusionment, at least for followers of the NET.

What was happening to Bob Dylan? His voice sounded like it was on the verge of giving out, his arrangements were strange and staccato, his organ playing rinky-dink and oddly obsessive, his harp playing sharp, rich and high flying. His instrumental backing was often minimal, highlighting that hoarse voice.

In my last post, I featured some pretty abysmal performances, so I thought I’d start here with a superlative one – Po Boy from the Rothbury concert. This is a best ever, folks. Usually I use the term ‘best ever’ with a tongue in my cheek as one best-ever performance will be superseded by another. Not in this case, at least for me; this has remained my favourite.

Dylan hones the lyrics by leaving out the ‘Othello to Desdemona’ verse, which doesn’t fit into the rest of the song, but otherwise, it’s all there.

I have suggested that, despite the wry humour, this is a protest song dealing with the life of a poor black man living under the Jim Crow laws that crept in after the civil war to keep black people subjugated. But it is nothing like the protest songs of the 1960s, being oblique and impressionistic.

Po’ boy, dressed in black
police at your back

The tempo is slow but jazzy, pure 1930s, the harmonica sharp and jagged. Despite the vamping organ, it escapes the dumpty-dum by its syncopation. Dylan’s vocal is superb, as is the recording. Readers may not be surprised to learn that this is another Crystal Cat bootleg; bootlegs that are famous for their sharpness and clarity. Enjoy, and then enjoy again.

Po Boy

We have another best ever with this beaty, ominous performance of ‘Cold Irons Bound.’ (Fairfax, 11th November). The shrieking guitar intro has long gone, the instrumentals minimal, the pace relentless, the atmosphere threatening, and is completed by a slashing harp. Again, this is a genuine best ever… although when we come to 2010 we might find its rival. It’s a fraught, intense performance by Dylan.

It might also be seen as a protest song if the anguished expression of alienation can be a considered protest.

Cold Irons Bound (A)

We can’t leave it there, however, as Dylan performed the song in Chicago. It’s worth listening to if just to hear the audience responding to the lines ‘the winds of Chicago have torn me to shreds.’ Those Chicago folks know what he’s talking about. I don’t think it’s quite as good as the Fairfax performance, although that may be because the recording is a bit more echoey. I don’t find the harp break not quite as slashing or the instrumental sound that wraps up the song quite as frenetic. But I’m sure not complaining.

Cold Irons Bound (B)

Just to show how problematic the 2009 performances can be, we have to now jump from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the superlative to the abysmal, from the best ever to the worst ever.

Compare the sinuous and insinuating ‘Mobile’ on Blonde on Blonde with this jerky travesty. If you can hack it, listen to how Dylan mangles the magnificent last verse by emphasizing the jerkiness rather than singing across it. It’s another Rothbury performance, and so, unfortunately, is brilliantly recorded. I could have tiptoed around it and left it out, but, well hell, it was the best of years and the worst of years…


‘To Ramona’ might be seen as another kind of protest song, a protest against the devastating effect of propaganda and self-delusion:

I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
With worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin' and returnin'
Back to the South
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand
Yet there's no one to beat you
No one t' defeat you
'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad

This performance turns the dumpty-dum into a waltz, the song being carried by Dylan’s rich voice and equally rich organ chords, if you can cope with the rinky-dink and the vocal sometimes falling too emphatically into the 123/123 time signature. (31st Oct, Chicago)

To Ramona

While looking at 2008, I outlined how Dylan would sometimes get out from behind his keyboard and move centre stage, alone with harp or guitar. This added a bit of movement and interest to what was otherwise a static stage scene, and often provided something of a refreshing change. It also brought Dylan out of the comparative anonymity into the limelight. The Fairfax version of ‘Cold Irons Bound’ was a center-stage performance.

The performances too, being free of that omnipresent organ, were of special interest. This performance of ‘Shooting Star’ from Los Angels, 14th Oct, certainly is. Dylan has always been able to generate a lot of intensity with this song; its slow, quiet beat should not be taken for a laid-back sound. It’s the lyrics that generate that intensity, as it’s not just human love that may be lost, but our chances for spiritual salvation. It’s the bridge verse that’s the key to this lift from a love song to a song of spiritual yearning.

Google usefully describes a bridge in a song this way: ‘A bridge in songwriting is a section that differs melodically, rhythmically, and lyrically from the rest of the song. As a structural transition between choruses, a bridge breaks up the repetition of verse/chorus/verse and offers new information or a different perspective. It can also serve as an emotional shift.’

Dylan uses it in ‘Shooting Star’ to up the emotional and thematic ante, to push the song to a new level:

Listen for the engine
Listen for the bell
As the last fire-truck from hell
Goes rollin' by
All good people are prayin'
It's the last temptation
The last account
Last time you might hear

The sermon on the mount
Last Radio is playin'

I wouldn’t list this as a best-ever performance, the song has always been performed well, and at different tempos, and this one is no exception. Dylan as circus barker is in good form and the enthusiasm of the audience when he produces his harp is amply rewarded.

Shooting Star

That obsessive organ vamping of Dylan’s does not always turn the song rinky-dink. In this performance of ‘Lovesick’ from Florence (18th April), the organ, made a little ghostly by being in the background rather than the foreground, is used to great effect. That walking beat that drives the song has its own obsessive aspect. The organ here seems to add a touch of the fantastic to the singer’s midnight walk. It’s a raw and powerful performance.


Similarly, the churchy chords Dylan uses in ‘Every Grain of Sand’ are apposite, and help bring out the grandeur of the song, although they may get too rigid and staccato towards the end. It’s a song in which the contending forces are doubt and faith; we hang in that balance. From the album version on, the song has been used as a showcase for Dylan’s harp, and here it adds a lonely, bluesy edge. Another raw and powerful vocal, even when his voice falls too emphatically into the dumpty-dum. (14th Nov, Boston)

Every grain of sand

‘Tough Mama’ (Amsterdam, 12th April) is notable, not just for the new lyrics but the slow, dramatic ending. The slow, deliberate, loud organ chords give this song a less bouncy ending. It’s more clearly a hymn to the eternal female. With regard to those new lyrics, maybe a reader could decipher them and post them into the comments section; my ear can’t pick them all up, and they sound fascinating, well worth deciphering.

Tough Mama

‘I believe in you’ is another song that can sit comfortably with a churchy organ. After reintroducing the song to his setlists in 2004, having not played it since 1981, Dylan has done some powerful performances of this devotional/love song. It’s all the more powerful for the minimal arrangement in this performance from Stockholm (22nd March). As far as I know, Dylan did not perform this song after 2009.

I believe in you

Perhaps it was Dylan’s sense of humour to play this song immediately after singing ‘I Don’t Believe You,’ one of Dylan’s old acoustic songs from the early sixties that Dylan transformed into a rock song in the mid-sixties. Here it is a mid-tempo foot-tapper. He polishes it off with nice touch of harp.

I don’t believe you

The official Dylan website doesn’t list this performance of ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ from Florence (18th April) but attributes it to Stockholm. As with 2008, Dylan’s broken-voiced performance perfectly suits the song, surely one of Dylan’s saddest love songs. To my knowledge, Dylan has not performed the song since 2009.

To make you feel my love

Staying in Florence, we catch this performance of ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ Dylan’s powerful, circus barker vocal makes up for the rigidity of the beat. The audience loves this one despite the missed verse and lines. This one has to be the best he did in this style. All it’s lacking is the touch of the harp.

Mr Tambourine Man

We do get a touch of the harp however in ‘The Times They Are A-Changing,’ another song that’s been through a lot of changes over the years. This one’s from London (25th April). This anthem never seems to age, as its message around the inevitability of changing time never changes. The triumphant harp break before and after the last verse is a fitting end to the song and to this post.

Times they are a-changing

In the next post I’ll be turning to the album Dylan released in 2009, Together Through Life, and considering a tranche of new and exciting songs that Dylan wrote with Robert Hunter.

So stick around and I’ll see you then.

Kia Ora


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