By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In 2011 things do indeed start to get interesting. Dylan, now turned 70, stands on the threshold of a transformation that will set the tone for the next eight years, and usher in one of the most remarkable decades in Dylan’s performing career. Dylan will astonish both his supporters and detractors alike with this transformation, and those who said that by 2010 the NET was played out and that Dylan was at the end of the line would eat their words.
2011 is the last year of the era I have dubbed ‘the circus barker and the organ grinder’ which began in 2006. In 2012 Dylan will switch to playing the grand piano and his new album, Tempest, which released a new set of songs into the mix, will set a new benchmark for live performances. The dumpty-dum of the circus baker years will evolve into swing, and his voice too will evolve from a bark into rough-edged singing and crooning.
You don’t have to subscribe to the ‘black hole’ interpretation of those circus barker years to sense the new energy in Dylan’s 2011 performances, as we shall see soon enough, but something else was happening that can’t be picked up by just listening to sound files. Dylan was starting to do strange things on stage, especially during his centre-stage performances, which in 2011, became more prominent. In previous posts I have discussed how, starting in 2006, Dylan retreated behind his keyboard, often leaving centre stage vacant. This I called his anti-performance performance and anti-spectacle spectacle. In 2008 – 2010 he would front up with his guitar and harmonica for two or three songs to show his audiences something of the Dylan they remembered and perhaps craved.
In 2011 Dylan began to use those centre-stage appearances for extraordinary performances, spectacles of a riveting but disturbing nature.
Andrew Muir, who wrote One More Night, referred to a number of times in previous posts, quotes blogger Rainer Vesely “Since Dylan crawled out from his hiding place behind the keyboard, where he ducked away from 2005 -09, he is staging a 90 to 100 minute drama, in which he puts much, much more emphasis on his physical presence than ever before. He really acts (!) and recites, gestures, mimics, uses, very consciously, his weird way of walking, knee bending, staring, half closing or wide-opening his eyes.”
Muir supports this with his own experience of the Manchester concert. “Dylan (was) centre stage for much of the time, giving an extraordinary display of visual gestures, body contortions and facial engagement.”
The liner notes on the bootleg album for the first Hammersmith concert read: “Skilfully balancing and retaining the necessary duality of professional arrogance and humility, Dylan half passes, extends, collects, pirouettes, and counter-can-ters effortlessly through his show. At times, he lopes with the modest style of a crooner or old music-hall entertainer … skipping, reeling rhymes ..”
It’s time we had a look at a couple of these performances to see what the fuss is all about. I get the feeling you had to be there, but videos give something of the flavour of these shows.
The first I’ve picked is ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ from Manchester, 10th October.
It’s an unsettling experience, watching that performance, the facial grimaces, the strange shrugging of his body inside his long black coat, the way he touched his face and the back of his head. His combination of crooning and barking, and slipping somewhat hysterically into falsetto on the words ‘you’ and ‘blue’ can only add to the weirdness of it. It’s strangely compelling, but also very good. Note the power of those harp blasts.
Here is the sound file of that performance in case the video suddenly becomes unavailable.
Tangled up in Blue.
(There are other 2011 videos of this song on You Tube but I can’t recommend them as the sound quality is too poor. There is mass of material on You Tube now, but much of it is inferior in terms of sound and/or video quality.)
This well-known video of ‘Can’t Wait’ from Milan (22nd June) may not be able to match the 2010 performance (See NET 2010 part 1) in terms of its musical power, but sure is showy, with Dylan pacing about, throwing his arms out and generally acting histrionically. But doesn’t he get a little grin on his face when he points to the audience and repeats ‘I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know how much longer I can wait’?
I’m not quite buying it, but it’s fun to watch
And here’s the sound file:
This might not be Mick Jagger’s cavorting, David Bowie’s costume dramas or even Leonard Cohen’s deadpan stage act but is certainly a spectacle in its own right. Show bizz.
Not only the performances but Dylan’s outfits were souped up, what I call his riverboat gambler costume. Here’s how he’s described in the liner notes to the second Hammersmith concert:
“At this point it should be said that Bob was pretty much wearing a long black coat tonight. Garbed in a three-quarter length black jacket/coat with four brass buttons, over a blue shirt and blue neckerchief drawn together by a silver ring. On his jacket were more brass buttons and the occasional glimpse of his shirt sleeve revealed sparkling cufflinks. He wore black trousers with white piping vertical stripe on the outside of each leg and, of course, a hat, tonight’s being light grey, with a small feather to one side. A stage dandy from head to toe. With that kit on you know you’re in show business.” (My emphasis)
Then there is that puzzling Eye of Horus used as a backdrop on stage.
Lots of ink has been spilled on trying to decode the symbolism of this, and I would encourage the reader to look at the articles on the subject by Larry Fyffe here at Untold Dylan.
The problem is not just the eye itself, but the figure above the eye which seems to have flames coming from it. That figure has been interpreted as Baphomet, or the Goat of Mendes – in short, the devil. This has fed into the narrative you can find on You Tube that Dylan sold his soul to the devil in return for fame and fortune.
It has also been interpreted in the completely opposite sense: “The Dylan Eye Logo, the eye being the eye of God, the crown being King of kings and lord of lords, Jesus and the diving Dove being the Holy Spirit. Performing in front of a huge symbol for the trinity has to have profound significance for what the man believes.”
Or it could be the eye of a falcon. “The Eye of Horus has been used for many metaphors over the years, i.e., Eye of the Mind, Third Eye, Eye of the Truth or Insight, the Eye of God Inside the Human Mind. The ancient Egyptians, believing in its mystic powers, gave all of these names to the Eye of Horus.” (National Library of Medicine.)
It wasn’t only used as a backdrop but Dylan Eye Logos were available at concerts in badge form.
So Dylan’s bizarre performances, his dandified costumes and his Eye all go to create a renewed interest in his concerts, which was surely his aim. Despite his apparent indifference, he can’t have been happy with reports of his audience deserting his concerts early, and the NET’s sinking reputation in the few years prior to 2011. But, for me anyway, it is the vigour and passion of the performances that really tell the story. Take this performance of ‘Love Sick’ from the third Hammersmith concert (21st Nov), for example:
I can’t bring to mind any other performance of the song that matches this one for power and clarity. As soon as I heard it, it joined my list of ‘best evers.’ All the vocal resources he brought to ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ he brings to bear here to deliver a remarkable performance.
I have introduced this song many times, but feel I’ve missed something. That it expresses a profound alienation from the world (the walking ghost) may be true enough, but it also expresses an intense spiritual state.
“The opening line of the first track on Time Out of Mind set the theme and tone for the entire proceedings: ‘I’m walking through streets that are dead.’ The stark imagery and the gritty, gravelly vocals channelled those of a biblical prophet. And indeed, the lyrics of that first song, ‘Love Sick,’ were rooted in the love poetry of King Solomon, whose aptly titled Song of Songs — commonly understood to be an allegory for the love between God and the people of Israel — has the exiled collective seeking His comfort from afar, explaining, ‘For bereft of Your Presence, I am sick with love.’ Or, put another way, Israel is ‘lovesick” for God.’’’ (Seth Rogovoy at forward.com – shared by Jane Carol Seff on Untold Dylan’s Facebook page).
This confirms the impression I’ve always had that this song was not about a woman, or at least not only about a woman.
Dylan brings this new vigour to these performances of ‘Things Have Changed.’ This Manchester performance is a hard one to beat. The song bustles along with Dylan nailing every line.
Things Have Changed (A)
That has all the hallmarks of a Crystal Cat recording (sharpness, clarity etc), but even that compelling performance may not be the best. This one from Memphis (30th July) is a contender, and interesting in itself in terms of audience reaction. You can feel the enthusiasm of the crowd, and the sound is not as abrasive as Crystal Cat recordings can be.
Things Have Changed (B)
Seth Rogovoy also had some interesting things to say about ‘Not Dark Yet’ and other songs from Time Out of Mind. “A triptych of songs — ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,’ ‘Standing in the Doorway’ and ‘Not Dark Yet’ — took their themes from the Yom Kippur ritual. In ‘Standing in the Doorway, the singer insists, ‘There are things I could say but I don’t / I know the mercy of God must be near.’ The song ‘Not Dark Yet’ captures the liminal state of consciousness that overtakes one over the course of Yom Kippur worship:
‘Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day’
‘I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still’
‘Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.’”
(Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement” and the holiest day of the Jewish year. Healthy adults are commanded to refrain from eating and drinking from sunset to sunset to remind us of the frailty of the human body and our own mortality.)
As with ‘Lovesick,’ a spiritual state is being expressed here. This is another Hammersmith (second concert) Crystal Cat recording of ‘Not Dark Yet.’ Wonderful the way Dylan uses the harmonica to create a fading echo.
It’s Not Dark Yet (A)
Lovers of the song might appreciate this performance from Lille, France (16th Oct), equally exciting.
It’s Not Dark Yet (B)
Looking at what Seth Rogovoy calls ‘a triptych of songs’ we can’t include ‘Standing in the Doorway’ as it disappeared from the setlists in 2005 (It will reappear for a single performance in 2017), but we do have ‘Trying to Get to Heaven.’
“And ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’ offers a detailed description of the Neilah service, the final service of the day, offering worshippers their last opportunity to make teshuvah [repentance/return] before sundown, before their names are inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year (or not). In Dylan’s words: ‘You can seal up the book and not write anymore / I’ve been … tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.’ Words spoken by someone on intimate terms with the arc of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.”
Here’s the Hammersmith performance (second concert):
Trying to Get to Heaven (A)
And here’s the Lille performance:
Trying to Get to Heaven (B)
That’s it to kick off the year. I’ll be back soon to dig deeper into 2011
- The Never Ending Tour – over 100 reviews, over 1000 recordings. The Index (The index has just been updated – 16 Feb 2023 – and one or two glitches corrected).