- Never Ending Tour 2009 part 1 Contending forces: Courting Disaster
- NET 2009 part 2: contending forces: through the tears and the laughter
- NET 2009 part 3 The blood of the land in my voice: Together Through Life
- NET 2009 Part 4 – foundations: the raw and the real
The Index to all 100 previous episodes of this series can be found here.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
There's a moment when all old things become new again but that moment might have been here and gone
For Bob Dylan, no song has a fixed or final form. He grasped that if you try to make your live performance sound like your studio recording, you’ll end up imitating yourself*. We hear that over and over again with singers who want to sound just as they did when their songs became famous. Dylan escaped that trap, despite his audience’s nostalgia or attachment to the ‘originals.’ In this post I want to look at how, in 2009, Dylan renovated his older setlist.
But first, to a couple of rarities.
‘Billy,’ from the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrat And Billy The Kid had never been performed live until the 22nd of March, 2009, when he performed the song for the first and only time at Stockholm. You can hear some of the audience gasp in surprise when they recognise the song. He had no need to make changes to this song; doing it in his cracked and aged voice is enough of an innovation.
It’s a powerful song about the doomed flight of the outlaw, and resonates with Dylan’s 21st Century fascination with sex and murder. Maybe that’s why he chose to revive it.
There’s eyes behind the mirrors in empty places Bullet holes and scars between the spaces There’s always one more notch and ten more paces Billy, and you’re walkin’ all alone
‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’ is an old tub-thumper from Dylan’s gospel period, last played in 1980, reappearing here in 2009 with a brand new set of lyrics, and would be played regularly through to 2011. ‘I’m gonna revitalize my thinking’ Dylan sings in this new version which is haunted by betrayal and death.
I'll tell you something, Things you never had you'll never miss. I'll tell you something, Things you never had you'll never miss. I'll tell you something else, a great man will kill you with a sword, A coward with a kiss.
It’s an upbeat blues, driven here by a resounding organ and a triumphant vocal.
Gonna change my way of thinking
‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ had been performed eighty-eight times since 1976, and was last performed in 2009. In 1976, during the Rolling Thunder tour, he came up with a much starker set of lyrics, lyrics which put a different complexion on the song:
If you’re makin love to her Watch it from the rear You never know when I’ll be back Or liable to appear
In this version, however, he returns to the original, but with some telling changes, not as vindictive as the 1976 version, but not as tender as the album version:
And although our separation Cuts me to the bone Gotta find somebody to take her place I don’t like to be alone.
If you see her, say hello
(I don’t have the date for that one on hand, sorry.)
‘The Man in Me,’ off New Morning, is not a total rarity, having been played about a hundred times during the NET, and would disappear in the great purge of 2011/12. Lyrically, I think it’s one of Dylan’s weaker songs, but it can be heard as a love song, and this performance, (Boston, 15th Nov) is notable for its harp break, Donnie Herron’s gentle trumpet, and Dylan’s recent tendency to break into falsetto. We’ve had the upsinging, which has now largely disappeared or been integrated in Dylan’s vocal style, we’ve had the growl and bark which are still with us in 2009, and now we get the falsetto moments which will become a feature through to 2012. This mannerism tends to give the songs a hysterical edge; it sounds funny in a manic kind of way.
The man in me
‘Man in the Long Black Coat,’ another tale of seduction and murder (you can see it that way), had its peak performance years in the mid 1990’s (if you like the slow, spooky version), and would be last played in 2013. Here, Dylan does what he would shortly do with ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and put a swing to it. This changes the atmosphere of the song completely, creating a dissonance between the happy dance of the music with the darkest of dark tales. It’s not the last time Dylan would use such a dissonance.
(Amsterdam, 11th April)
Man in the long black coat
The mystical Chimes of Freedom is a song Dylan has struggled to make new again. It’s too vast and ambitious for easy renovations, and simply dropping out verses and putting in some circus, rinky-dink organ doesn’t do much for the song. It seems to be one of those songs that belongs firmly to his early, acoustic phase, and is difficult to transplant. Dylan gives it fair go here, but I have to say that if I want to get the full poetic grandeur of the song, and the vision behind it, I will return to the 1964 album version.
Here is one of the verses he doesn’t sing in 2009, a fine example of Dylan’s early lyrical power:
Through the wild cathedral evening, the rain unraveled tales For the disrobed faceless forms of no position Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts All down in taken-for-granted situations Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute For the misdemeanour outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
The disrobed faceless forms of no position? Jeez Bob, where did you get a line like that? And how could you miss it out?
Chimes of Freedom (London 15th April)
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ from the same era as ‘Chimes,’ Had its glory days in the 1990s, and whenever I think of the song I think of the soaring Prague performance of 1995 (see 1995, part 1: The Prague Revelation and other astonishments), but since then Dylan has experimented and struggled with this classic song, not always successfully. By 2009 he has dropped his baroque arrangements and turned the song into a mid-tempo foot-tapper. Despite missing a final harp break, it’s a more successful adaption than we’ve seen, and the circus barker is in fine voice (Boston, 15th Nov). He’s playing the guitar on this one.
It’s all over now Baby Blue
With ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ we are on more familiar ground when it comes to innovation, at least in terms of the lyric; musically, its retained its original tub-thumping heart. There is huge range of variations in the lyric, it would take a book to unravel them, and he never sings it with the same words twice, it seems. Here, however, he strips it back to a few mostly familiar lines. (Amsterdam, 12th April)
The lyrics of a song like ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ cannot be altered as it is a tightly constructed narrative with an obsessively linear drive. It doesn’t play fast and loose with time and place, like ‘Tangled up in Blue’ does, and so, like ‘John Brown’ and ‘Hattie Carroll’ the lyrics have to be firmly fixed in place. ‘Hollis Brown’ is rural blues, and here Dylan uses Donnie Herron’s banjo to give it that country flavour. Yet it remains that discomforting tale of rural poverty, murder and suicide. (Boston, 14th Nov)
The Wicked Messenger has turned it into a pre-rock chugger, really just a shadow of what it once was, nothing like the blistering hard rock versions of 1999 – 2004 with their searing harp solos. (See NET, 2001, part 4.)
The song had been slipping from Dylan’s set lists in the past couple of years, and would not be performed again after 2009. This recording is not up to the standard I prefer, it has a bit too much echo for my taste, but it’s worth including even if just to say goodbye to this NET stalwart, a song which invites comparison with its sister song from John Wesley Harding, ‘All Along the Watchtower.’
Another rocker from the same album, ‘Drifter’s Escape’ finally made its escape from the NET in 2005. I’m not entirely sure of the date of this one, but I suspect it is its final performance in Dublin, 6th May.
‘Senor’ has grown somewhat quieter and more stately since the wild performances of 2003. This is a dark, brooding performance from Stockholm, with harp breaks that succeeds in being both gentle and piercing at the same time, much appreciated by the audience.
The Rothbury performance ‘Senor’ is also worth checking out. The vocal is better recorded, and is possibly more passionate than Stockholm. The only drawback for me is that there are no harp breaks. The guitar breaks don’t do it for me.
“It’s all Right Ma” is another song that’s been through many iterations in terms of musical arrangements, although the lyrics haven’t changed and Dylan tends not to drop verses despite the length of the song. For some years it became quite lumbering when put to the Sonny Boy Williamson riff from ‘Help Me,’ but in 2007 emerged as a fast-paced rocker, while its 2008 version with banjo has earned high praise from our editor, Tony Attwood. This performance from Amsterdam (11th April) is in the same vein. I don’t think it’s quite as mean as the 2008 performance. It needs to be ominous and threatening. This one has a bit too much bounce for me, but hell, who’s complaining, it’s a magnificent performance.
It’s all right ma
Despite some variation in tone over the years, from the desperate to the beguiling, Lay Lady Lay has remained pretty much the same. The softer versions have tended to be more convincing. The circus barker has not quite regained his crooning voice yet, that will come, but the song never fails to transport us into that state of hopeless desire when we’ll say anything just to get between the sheets with a lover. (Chicago)
Lay Lady Lay
‘I’ll be your baby tonight’ comes from the same bag. ‘Kick your shoes off, do not fear…’ This Stockholm performance catches the light-hearted humour of it. A minimalist jazzy harp break with a background sound of a vamping organ, pretty tasteful all around.
I’ll be your baby tonight
I’ll stay in Stockholm to finish this post with a beaty performance with another NET familiar, and another upbeat song, ‘Watching the River Flow.’ It’s hard to get around this tribute to indolence. I think maybe I can skip it this time, but I never can. It doesn’t have raging harp breaks as it did in 2005, and it’s been stripped back to its basic beat, but it seems like we always want to keep our rendezvous with that old midnight café.
Watching the river flow
I haven’t yet done with this multitudinous year and will be back soon with what I hope will be the finale. Until then
* Editor’s footnote: If you wish to pursue this issue of Dylan’s re-writing of songs further you might enjoy the series
- Why does Dylan keep changing his songs Part 1: Constant touring and changing the band
- Why does Dylan keep changing his songs Part 2: Breaking the traditions
- Why does Dylan keep changing his songs Part 3: The options are available
- Why does Dylan keep changing his songs Part 4: Taking chances