Never Ending Tour 2011: Part 3. I lit the torch, I looked to the east

This is episode 111 of the Never Ending Tour series – you can find a complete index of previous episodes here.

By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)

Among the innovations of 2011, Dylan’s new performance act and his banner, the Eye of Dylan, covered in the previous two posts, we also find him taking his songs to a new audience in the east: Hong Kong, Taipei, Ho Chi Minh City, and China – Shanghai and Beijing. This was the summer tour at the beginning of the year, and while the recordings from these concerts seem to be no match for the Crystal Cat recordings in Britain at the end of the year, there were some brilliant performances from that leg of the tour, particularly the first concert of the year in Taipei on March 4th.

Let’s start with a moving performance of ‘Forever Young’ from the second concert of the year in Beijing on March 6th. In 2011 Dylan largely abandoned the thunderous ‘All Along the Watchtower’ as the final song of the night in favour of the more elegiac ‘Forever Young,’ finishing the concerts on a nostalgic rather than apocalyptic note. I might hanker for a better recording, but hardly for a better performance.

Forever Young

The Chinese leg of the tour had its controversy, with The Washington Post accusing Dylan of caving into pressure from China to avoid certain songs, in short, allowing himself to be censored by the Chinese Government.

Dylan took the unusual step of issuing the lengthy rebuttal, entitled ‘To My Fans and Followers,’ concluding, ‘As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.’

Much was made of the fact that he didn’t play his famous protest songs ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They are A-Changing,’ but anyone familiar with Dylan’s changing setlists would have known that he didn’t play these songs at every concert anyway. A media beat-up, it seems to me.

There are at least three songs from the Shanghai concert (March 8th)  worth picking up on, and we can start with ‘Don’t Think Twice,’ a centre-stage performance with Dylan on acoustic guitar, one of the oldest of the songs on his setlists and a bittersweet number that never loses its appeal. Note the slow, bluesy ending.

Don’t Think Twice

One of the impressions we begin to get from listening to these Asian performances is that they are softer and more reflective than the rousing performances at the end of the year in London. I get that feeling from this Shanghai performance of ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ and you might like to compare it to the more manic version from London I used to kick off the first post for 2011. Some of that more muted feeling may arise from very different recordings.

Tangled Up in Blue

Also from Shanghai we find this version of ‘Honest With Me’ in which the balance of the recording is weighed toward the vocal. It’s a fine, energetic performance with Dylan on organ.

Honest With Me (A)

It’s entirely understandable, however, if readers prefer this sharper London performance (3rd concert, the last of the year). This may be because of the Crystal Cat’s superior recording, every instrument sounds sharp and clear, or because Dylan here is playing the guitar, and effectively too. Joe Neanor, who wrote the liner notes for the bootlegged album of the concert, comments:

‘As the volume was cranked up it was harder to hear all the vocals but the sentiment expressed in the refrain was reflected in the intense delivery of the song. Having seen Bob do a kind of rain dance when performing this number last month I preferred tonight’s less manic version. I had a good look at his finger movement up and down the fret board and the contribution he was making to the band’s sound. He was playing strong guitar, not just going through the motions with a few chords.’

Honest With Me (B)

We have no such problem hearing the lyrics in the Shanghai performance.

Lastly from Shanghai, we get this reflective performance of ‘Desolation Row.’ The song builds up, as Dylan has been doing for some years now, but this is more restrained than many we have heard. This is one song for which Dylan’s curious circus organ sound is entirely appropriate, despite the echo of the old dumpty-dum; the song is full of circus characters and their antics. Pity there’s no harp break.

Desolation Row (A)

Good as that is, I think this one from Taipei is better. Again, it might be the recording, the Taipei recordings are particularly good, better than those from mainland China, and you can feel Dylan’s undiminished appetite for the song:

Desolation Row (B)

The Ho Chi Minh City concert (March 10) is notable for this rather cool and insouciant performance of ‘My Wife’s Home Town,’ a song that was never intended to be taken too seriously, a bluesy, big-band era sounding number only ever played eleven times. This is the third to last performance, and the last time we’ll be hearing it. Enjoy while you can. It’s fun. I regret seeing it go.

My Wife’s Home Town

‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,’ the updated version that, when first performed in 2009 heralded changes that were coming up in the next three years, was a popular concert opener all through the Asian tour and the subsequent ‘down under’ Australia and New Zealand leg of the tour, only to be dropped abruptly after the Costa Mesa (CA) performance (July 15th), never to be performed again. So this one from Hong Kong (March 13th) is another one we’re saying goodbye to.

I rather regret that. It’s not Dylan’s greatest song, and I never particularly liked the tub-thumping original from Slow Train Coming (1979) but this alternative version, with its affirmative bounce, conveys that feeling we can get when we are on top of ourselves, our old bad habits, bad influences and addictions, those moments perhaps too rare in which we feel we can make positive changes, take control of our destinies, in short ‘jump on the monkey’s back.’ Mix in a little crazy humour and you have an interesting concoction.

Gonna Change My Way of Thinking

‘Simple Twist of Fate’ is a song Dylan is still performing and performed steadily throughout 2011. We have some beautiful versions from Milan and Manchester we may revisit later, but here it is from Hong Kong. It’s a fine, emotional vocal, my only reservation being the simple guitar riff that carries it seems to be pretty intrusive and repetitive and maybe not necessary.

Simple Twist of Fate.

Listening to that reminds me of the line from ‘It’s Not Dark Yet,’ ‘Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.’ Even a perfect encounter with love can leave us with a kind of longing, a loneliness that cannot be assuaged.

Our final song from Hong Kong is ‘Spirit on the Water,’ and in this case I have no problem preferring it to the London version. Again it’s easier on the ears, but more than that, the harp solo at the end is more sensitive and jazzy than the harsh toots we get in London. This song needs to be disarmingly jaunty and casual sounding to give those wonderful, elusive, lovesick lyrics:

I’m pale as a ghost
Holding a blossom on a stem
Have you ever seen a ghost? No
But you have heard of them.

Those lines remind me of this line from ‘False Prophet’:

‘I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest.’

Spirit on the Water (A)

And, for comparison, here is the London version (third night):

Spirit on the Water (B)

The last four songs I have for you all come from that superlative Taipei concert, the first of the year. We find a magic mix of fine performances with nice clear recordings to rival the Crystal Cat recordings at the end of year. Those who enjoy ‘Jolene’ might like to compare this Taipei version to the London (first night) performance I covered in the last post. This Taipei performance rocks, and it’s a little easier on the ears than the sharp-edged Crystal Cat recording.

‘Jolene’ would last another year of occasional performances before fading out. I find it a compulsive foot-tapper and great dance song. It’s the swing that does it.


Since 2009 we have been enjoying outstanding performances of the stripped back, driving version of ‘Cold Irons Bound,’ complete with slashing harp break. I highlighted both the 2009 and 2010 performances as being particularly compelling, and I can add this one from Taipei to make it three in a row. Shorn of the ghostly, swampy accompaniment we find on the Lanois arranged album versions, the song emerges as a stark, ferocious rocker, full of suppressed energy. It expresses a profound alienation from love and the world, but, like all the great tracks from Time Out of Mind, an intense spiritual state, a claustrophobic feeling that it is your soul that is in chains, ‘twenty miles out of town, cold irons bound.’

There’s an ambiguity in that refrain. We could be ‘cold irons bound’ in the sense that we are hurtling towards incarceration, not bound for glory but bound for prison, or it could mean that the ‘cold irons’ have already bound us – we are already incarcerated. The power of this refrain lies in that ambiguity.

Cold Irons Bound

I find it regrettable that 2011 was the last year in which that song would be performed, and the Taipei performance is probably the best of that crop. Another song we have to say goodbye to.

‘Sugar Baby’ from Love and Theft is another song on its way out. It will get a few performances in 2012 before disappearing after a mere 130 performances, and again this Taipei performance is probably the best of the 2011 crop, complete with rare, contemplative harp interludes. This may be best ever. It’s a slow song, and threatens to drag, but it’s more gentle and vulnerable than the refrain ‘sugar baby better get on down the line/ you ain’t got no brains no how’ would suggest. It’s not really an attack song at all, but one saturated in regret and despair.

Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick
Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick
Any minute of the day the bubble could burst
Try to make things better for someone,
sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse

Sugar Baby

I’m going to finish with this triumphant performance of Dylan’s famous anthem, ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ Rapturously received. Now there’s an attack song par excellence, but somehow by this time, some 45 years on, it doesn’t sound quite so full of spite and jeer. More like sadness and regret at the delusions of grandeur into which we can fall, delusions that soon shatter when your sense of superiority and entitlement are gone, you have nothing else – and you’re hanging out for a fix:

You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

Dylan likes to pull this winner out of the hat late in a concert, as the second or third to last. At Taipei it comes as number 15 in the setlist, right before a final ‘Blowing in the Wind.’

Like a Rolling Stone

I haven’t quite finished with Taipei, or indeed 2011, and will be back soon with more.

In the meantime

Kia Ora

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