By Tony Attwood
Continuing my personal selection of the greatest moment from the Never Ending Tour, I come to “It’s Alright Ma” from 2001.
Once again we are with a song that those with a musical ear will know from the opening of the introduction and everyone else will know from the opening line and that distinctive chord change.
More than that most of us will know every word of every line, and by 2001 will have heard it at least a few times before live, as well as hundreds of time on recordings. Or to be brief: we already know the piece inside out, despite its lyrical complexity.
But of course this is also not a song that naturally lends itself easily to a full band accompaniment, and if we are to have Bob on his own performing the piece there is not too much he can do to differentiate this performance from others without the changes sounding forced.
So what he brilliantly does here is give us a gentle accompaniment. The speed of the song is just a fraction slower than the album, but above all we have that gentle percussion along with a second acoustic guitar. And the result is a completely new vision created from a song we know oh so well and lyrics that have become part of our very existence.
Indeed amazingly, even though we do know all those lyrics, they now shine through afresh, and bring with them a new realisation of what this is all about. Individual lines that were just part of the mix before now take on a special significance, even though Bob is not emphasising anything beyond the last word of each line.
Indeed much of the effect is achieved by the way Bob treats the last word of each line. The lack of melody vanishes – with the pitch changing in some lines but not every line. And when get to “It’s all right ma” yes for the first time I really do feel that he is explaining himself and his life to his ma. “Don’t worry about what I’m doing ma, that’s how it goes these days.”
What I also find is that for the first time I am appreciating the sound of the lines, rather than the meaning of each word – it is as if at times the vocals are in fact another instrument – it is the sound not the meaning of the words that draws me in.
Of course maybe that is because I know every line so well, or maybe it is through something else in the way Bob ends each line but this really is a most curious effect achieved with such a small change.
Then the whole performance is further enhanced by the way Bob changes the rhythm of the lyrics – not just with the final word of each section, but throughout, often in fairly subtle ways.
For me this is the re-birth of an old favourite that maybe I felt I had heard so often that I could not appreciate anymore. If the writing of the song was a work of genius (as surely it was) this re-arrangement is equally the work of a master at the very top of his game.
Previously in the series.
- 1: John Brown 1987
- 2: Desolation Row. 1990.
- 3: She Belongs to Me
- 4: Tangled up in Blue
- 5: I and I – power without meaning
- 6: It ain’t me babe – go lightly.
- 7: Perfection in desolation
- 8: Girl from the North Country.
- 9: When He Returns