NET 2010 part 1 – in which Mr Guitar Man makes a startling comeback.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
How you view 2010 depends very much on the narrative you construct around the NET. For Andrew Muir, author of One More Night, and others who share his narrative, the NET fell into a black hole from 2005 – 2009, and 2010 was the year of Dylan’s emergence. He entitles this chapter ‘2010 – 2011: In which your author is mysteriously saved.’ He begins by saying that guitarist Charlie Sexton’s rejoining of the band (which he left in 2002) ‘was the first step in a rejuvenation and transformation of my NET experience.’
Reading between the lines, what Muir really means is that Dylan underwent the rejuvenation and transformation, just as in his previous chapter “2005 – 2009: In which your author becomes lost” he really meant that Dylan became lost. He suggests that during these years Dylan fell into doing zombie concerts and lost his musical and moral bearings, cynically wrecking his old songs mostly by means of that ridiculous rinky-dink organ, known as the IOT (instrument of torture), turning up just for the sake of the paycheck.
There was a feeling around Dylan circles at the time that he should put his suitcase down before he lost his voice completely and trashed the NET, that he had become a parody of himself and had been on the job too long.
If you have been following this series you will know that I don’t buy into this narrative. Having listened to hundreds of concert recordings I simply don’t find it credible. During these so-called ‘lost years’ we find Dylan hard at work doing what he has always done, reconfiguring and reimagining his songs, adapting them to his changing voice, ‘making old things new again’ with the same passion and commitment he’s always had. Not only that, but by 2009 we discovered that he was pushing his evolving arrangements towards an ‘uncovering’ of the foundations of his songs, musical foundations that reached deep into the first half of the 20th Century. Rather than imitate himself, he stripped back these songs to their most basic, unadorned selves, often using a churchy, circus like organ and his circus barker voice to do it.
Oh, I had my problems with the ‘dumpty-dum’ as I called it, and didn’t always like these old/new arrangements, not all of which seemed to me to work, but I had no doubt that there was a method in Dylan’s madness. And, looking back over these years, you can find some astonishing performances.
What first struck me about 2010 is its continuity with 2009. I’m not sure I could do a blindfold test and distinguish some of these 2010 performances from 2008/9, not unless I listened for Sexton’s felicitous guitar licks. The same project, to strip these songs to their foundations, is at work, the same prominence of the harmonica, the same circus barker vocal delivery, the same vamping organ.
And yet, changes are talking place. We begin to move away from the dumpty-dum into arrangements more trenchant and gutsy, more bluesy in fact. And he begins to play the guitar more often, two or three songs per show. I can only speculate that Dylan recognized that his audiences were missing their guitar-playing troubadour. What this means for the theory that Dylan stopped playing the guitar because of arthritis I’m not too sure. Perhaps he just wanted to give his audiences a break from the IOT.
Vocally, he begins to break into falsetto more often, especially on the word ‘you,’ giving these performances the manic, almost demented edge he will carry through into 2011 and 2012.
I want to dedicate this post to those centre-stage performances in which Dylan came out from behind his IOT to front up with either his harp or, more often, his guitar.
The harp features on this performance of ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ from Osaka, 16th March. Talk about trenchant and gutsy! Warning: best-ever performance coming up. Long gone are the queasy, psychedelic arrangements of the 1960’s, epitomized by Julie Driscoll’s marvellously wild rendition set to Brian Auger’s swirling organ…
In its place you find this stripped down, edgy, desperate performance which brings the mystery of the lyrics into sharp, bitter relief. We don’t know what ‘favours’ the singer has done for the person addressed, but it’s something that has to be hidden from us. There’s a druggy feel here. Things hidden, things forbidden. ‘You know that we shall meet again’ becomes more of a threat than a promise. Dylan’s harp work turns this performance into a tour-de-force.
This Wheel’s On Fire
The first leg of the tour, Japan and Korea, has gone down in NET history for its five-night run in Osaka and seven-night run in Tokyo. (For a review of Osaka see here.)
This centre stage performance of ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ is another best-ever performance in my books and comes from a two-night run in Nagoya (19th March). I’ve written about this performance in my Master Harpist series (see Master Harpist 4). There I describe it as one of Dylan’s greatest vocal/harmonica duets ever. We go beyond the idea of a harp ‘break’ or solo to what becomes, after the first verse, a duet for voice and harp, with the harp ‘talking’ back to the voice. Long gone is the sweeping, lush album version (Shot of Love, 1981) and we are back with trenchant and gutsy, a performance that brings us to the dividing line between doubt and faith. I would love to have been there.
Every Grain of Sand
Dylan’s superlative harp work is again featured on another centre stage performance, the moody ‘Forgetful Heart’ from Together Through Life, an ode to the bitterness of memory – was love ever even on the cards? Co-written with Robert Hunter, this song became one of the stand-out songs performed over 2009 – 2012. Driven by nostalgia and doubt, it’s a great dramatic monologue. In my imagination I see a man walking the streets in the early hours, lonely and despairing, interrogating his heart, his ever-forgetful heart.
Again, I’m not sure I could distinguish this performance from Billings (11th August), from similar 2009 performances.
Dylan divided his centre-stage performances between the guitar and the harp. Always good for a change in mood from the edgy and desperate, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ remained a concert favourite, usually early in the show, and an opportunity to front up with guitar. This performance from Lintz, Austria (12th June), number 3 on the setlist, beautifully captures the careless mood of the original, fast tempo and upbeat. Very tasteful. I’ve heard better vocal performances, but few as exuberant.
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (A)
Lovers of this song might appreciate this version from Pardova, Italy (15th June) where it was number 4 on the setlist. It’s pretty much the same as Lintz, maybe the recording’s a bit clearer and sharper. This probably has the edge on the Lintz.
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight (B)
At Lintz, Dylan stayed onstage to do a guitar-driven, acoustic ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ his great NET standby. His audience would have been happy to see their old Bob, still tangled up in everything, picking away as if their Mr Guitar Man had never abandoned them for the IOT.
Tangled Up in Blue
Number 3 on the Pardova setlist was his 1960s classic ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.’ Just seeing Dylan centre stage with guitar had its own nostalgia value. Dylan had gone through many arrangements of this song, not all of them successful, but this upbeat performance, with a bit of swing to it, is as good as any we’ve heard in recent years. You can dance to it. It may not have the emotional intensity and drama of some of the great performances of the song (go back to 1995 and check out the Prague performance) but Dylan’s vocal is pleasingly suggestive.
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue
In Palma, Italy, 18th June, Dylan did four songs on the guitar, scattered across the setlist. While most of these centre stage performances are early songs from the acoustic era, here’s a rare performance of ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ (another from Together Through Life) featuring Dylan on guitar. I still prefer the rowdier harp and trumpet performance from 2009, but appreciate the clean sound on this one.
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
Talking about nostalgia for the early, acoustic Dylan, at Palma we find ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ at number 2 on the setlist. As with its sister song ‘It’s All Over Now,’ Dylan plays this upbeat with a hint of swing. With this arrangement, the song loses something of its acerbity and the passion of renunciation, but it works pretty well as a foot-tapper too.
It Ain’t Me Babe
In Dornbirn, Austria (19th June), he does something similar with ‘Don’t Think Twice’ at number 2 on the setlist. This is another survivor from his early period, and would last through to 2019. I’m glad. There’s nothing quite so bitter-sweet as this little gem, a reflection on a relationship that didn’t quite make it. In the moment of the song, it’s the ‘dark side of the road’ that claims him. A hushed, acoustic, undramatic performance. It’s him, babe!
Don’t Think Twice
At Dornbirn, Dylan follows ‘Don’t Think Twice’ by picking up his electric guitar for a rare version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.’ We’ve grown accustomed to his keyboard and harp driven versions of this song, so this one comes as a refreshing change, although, again, it’s not as intense or desperate as some performances.
Tom Thumb’s Blues
In Kansas City (7th August) Dylan again picks up the electric guitar for a punchy performance of ‘My Wife’s Home Town’ from Together Through Life. Another ‘slight’ song from the Dylan/Hunter team, but it swings along like an old big-band number from the 1940s. This bluesy version is my favourite. Just the bare, minimal guitar suits the song admirably.
My Wife’s Home Town
Unexpectedly, Dylan plays the electric guitar again on ‘Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee’ putting a new slant on this Love and Theft song. Lyrically and musically it’s a busy number, and Dylan has never varied the arrangements much.
Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee
I’ve saved the best till last. First, this brooding, dark performance of ‘Can’t Wait’ from Lintz ranks as my best over, and you won’t hear me say different until we get to 2019, when we’ll meet another best ever. The Lintz performance has all the intensity of a tiger pacing in its cage. For brooding intensity this performance is unmatched. There are occasional, brief interjections from the harp, but it’s all in the vocal (Dylan’s not playing guitar). This is one to be savoured, folks.
Finally, also from Lintz, yet another best ever (again until 2019), ‘It’s Not Dark Yet.’ Spoiler: an outstanding harp solo, hard and insistent. Amazing what Dylan can do with just a few notes. As I’ve suggested before, this song grows more convincing as the years pass and Dylan, now on the verge of 70 years old, takes us deep into his mortality.
It’s not dark yet
Songs covered in this post give us the flavour of how Dylan sounded away from the organ. Next post we’ll look at some more outstanding songs from 2010. Until then,