Never Ending Tour 2011 part 2: The Sultan of Swing

An index to all the previous articles from this series can be found here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

‘Dylan moved around the stage all night, the ‘retreats’ behind the keyboards now had a part to play in an overall context of ever-changing focal points and goodness gracious great balls of fire, he was animated there too. A tremendous amount was going on to keep the audience’s interest high, and all the while Dylan kept eye contact with them as he orchestrated the on-stage drama like an energetic circus master.’ (One More Night, Andrew Muir, page 363)

In the last post we noted how a rejuvenated Dylan, now seventy, hit the stage with a number of innovations including a renewed sense of a concert as a performance, a new snazzy outfit, and a stage backdrop featuring a version of the Eye Of Horus that became known as the Eye of Dylan.

‘Bob was slim, wiry and fighting fit,’ Andrew Muir comments (One More Night, page 363). This was not the first time Dylan had appeared younger and fitter. Back in 2003, Muir, commenting on the Shepard’s Bush concert, said ‘Suddenly, a miraculously younger and fitter looking Dylan was delivering a show of vigour and fire.’ (p308)

Thinking of this, and the fact that right now, as I write, an eighty-one year old Dylan is still wowing the crowds, I’m put in mind of these lyrics from ‘I Believe in You’ (1979, last performed in 2009)

Don’t let me drift too far
Keep me where you are
Where I will always be renewed

I don’t know if there is some secret elixir of life that Dylan keeps toking, but it sure is clear in 2011 that Dylan is again delivering shows ‘of vigour and fire.’

You may recall how, in 2005, Dylan finished off the year with a triumphant five-night gig at the Brixton Academy in London, almost putting the rest of the year’s performances in the shade. In 2011 he does the same thing with a three night gig at Hammersmith in London, 19th – 21st November. There are other great concerts in 2011, including Tel Aviv and Manchester, but I find, in trying to choose the best performances for these posts, that it’s hard to get away from the Hammersmith concerts. I’ll be drawing heavily, but not exclusively, on those concerts for the next two posts.

In the last post I commented that in 2011, Dylan transformed the musical style I called the ‘dumpty-dum’ into swing. The dumpty-dum was rigid and stilted, was distinctly primitive, driven by some repetitive organ riffs, and most probably was one of the major reasons why NET fans, like Muir, deserted Dylan’s concerts from 2005 – 2010.

Swing, on the other hand, loosens everything up. There is a fascinating Wikipedia discussion of swing.

Swing music is a style of jazz that developed in the United States during the late 1920s and early 1930s. It became nationally popular from the mid-1930s. The name derived from its emphasis on the off-beat, or nominally weaker beat.’

Swing reached its peak in the big band era, 1935 – 46, and was marvellous dance music made famous by Benny Goodman and others. Interestingly it had a cross-over effect on country music, for example, Jimmy Rogers, and equally interesting, was revived in the mid-1950s by Frank Sinatra and picked up by pop singer Bobby Darin. We can only speculate that by 2011, Frank Sinatra, whose songs Dylan would start to sing in 2015, was already influencing Dylan.

For example, how might Sinatra have sung ‘Blind Willie McTell’? Well, maybe a little like this, from Oberhausen, Oct 23rd.

Blind Willie McTell

This song started its stage life in 1997 as a slow, heavy rocker. Look at it now! It’s become a catchy swing number with those wonderful two false endings and jazzy harp work? Does it work, those dark lyrics with this bouncy music? That’s over to you. I can’t resist it.

As early as 2009 Dylan was trying out a swinging version of ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ Again the question arises, does this happy sounding arrangement work with these sombre, reflective lyrics that question war and racism, the song you could say pretty much launched ‘protest music’ in 1963? (Munich, 26th Oct) Is this how Sinatra might have sung ‘Blowing in the Wind’?

Blowing in the Wind

The same question arises for ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ whose spooky lyrics have the devil kidnapping a young woman at a dance. Swing is naturally upbeat, even when slowed down, but I guess we can imagine the devil sweeping around the dance floor to this one, the hapless girl (willing victim?) in his arms, ‘his face like a mask.’ (Hammersmith, 3rd concert)

Man in the Long Black Coat (A)

I think that’s the best recording (Crystal Cat strikes again) but lovers of Mark Knopfler’s inimitable guitar style might enjoy this one from Hamburg 31st Oct. Knopfler joined Dylan on the European leg of the tour, appearing with Dylan onstage for three or four songs each night.

Man in the Long Black Coat (B)

(If you like watching these 2011 shows you can find a great performance of this song from Glasgow on YouTube. Beware, however, the video of the Hammersmith performance has poor sound quality.)

While these are swinging adaptions of older material, some of the songs from Together Through Life (2009) were written to swing. They feel as if they might have sprung from the big band era, so hardly need any adaption. Here’s Jolene from the first Hammersmith show.


And here’s ‘My Wife’s Home Town’ from Kowloon, Hong Kong, 12th April, the second to last performance ever of this song. The last was the night after, also in Kowloon. Enjoy it while you can; it’s a bit of malicious fun.

My Wife’s Home Town

And here’s ‘If You Ever Go to Houston,’ the last performance ever, also from that second Kowloon concert, 13th April. Again, enjoy it while you can. It may sound kind of throw-away, but it’s full of violence and grief, not a happy song at all.

If you ever go to Austin
Fort Worth or San Antone
Find the bar rooms I got lost in
And send my memories home
Put my tears in a bottle
Screw the top on tight
If you ever go to Houston
You better walk right

If you ever go to Houston

So far so good. I can’t, however, feel quite so sure about the swinging version of the wonderful ‘Mississippi,’ arguably the stand-out track from Love and Theft. This one from the first Hammersmith concert is a fine performance, and Dylan is in great form, but maybe this arrangement just doesn’t suit the conception I have of the song. Too bad for me. Perhaps the manic edge to the vocal saves it. If I was okay with the swing in ‘Blind Willie’ and ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ why not for ‘Mississippi?’ I don’t have a good answer to that.


Perhaps, as with ‘Jolene,’ the songs best suited to swing are those which always had a swing to them, even the early ones. Like ‘To Ramona.’ Waltzes are a sedate form of swing. This is a centre-stage performance with Bob on guitar. There is an underlying pathos in this song well suited to Dylan’s crusty voice. 4th November, Stockholm.

To Ramona

‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is another early song that leans towards swing, a countrified form. This enticement to love is, like ‘To Ramona,’ another of those songs that has not changed much over the years, either the lyrics or the arrangements. This is another centre-stage performance with Bob on guitar. It’s good to sit back and relax with one of the happiest songs in his oeuvre – ‘You don’t have to worry anymore.’ This one’s from Bournemouth, Oct 14th.

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight

It’s a bit more of an innovation however to give that great anti-war drama ‘John Brown’ a bit of country swing by adding the mandolin. It has a Celtic lilt in the melody line that has its own swing. I can’t choose between the many moving versions of this song we’ve heard over the years, but this one from 25th Oct, Mannheim, stands out because of the guitar work of Mark Knopfler, which lifts it into something special. It’s wonderfully barked out by Dylan, and the unexpected harp blast at end, rare for this song, polishes it off nicely. Beautiful, minimal arrangement. No matter how often I hear this song, I’m always caught up in the unfolding drama of the story. This song casts a powerful spell.

John Brown

If that was a happy melding of rock, Celtic folk and swing, I can’t quite say the same for that other great protest song, ‘Hard Rain’ (Hammersmith, 1st night). Dylan was able to swirl this song along in the Rolling Thunder years, but while there is plenty of sass and verve here, there’s not enough to compensate for the musical rigidity of it, despite a fully committed vocal from Dylan, at least not for me. It didn’t make it from the dumpty-dum into swing. Maybe it’s the way he handles the last verse, lifting his voice up with each line, or the obsessive little circus riff of the organ that puts me off. In this case I have to agree with Muir’s comment on the Glasgow performance of the song, ‘The nadir (of the night) was for me “Hard Rain”, where the three-note-fairground-organ-cum-nursery-jingle just sounded inane.’ (p 365)

The imagery of the song of course remains timeless and eternal and resonates through to our present day.

Hard Rain

When it comes to ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ we move from swing to swagger. We need no further evidence to prove that Dylan was enjoying himself in these 2011 performances. His use of a voice echo might be a bit gimmicky, but it works just fine for this song, especially for the line ‘Oh my God am I here all alone.’ Just me and my echo. It restores some of the trippy spookiness to the song. And how about that harp break, going from the tensely gentle to the triumphant? No complaints there! Add in some discreet guitar from Knopfler and you have a memorable performance. (Hammersmith, 1st concert)

Ballad of a Thin Man

That swings all right, but it’s also rock, and that gets me reflecting on the influence of swing on rock music. Some of the best rock songs do swing. Maybe it’s an unrecognised musical genre, that meld of rock and swing.

You can pick it up in this last song for the post, the familiar ‘Watching the River Flow.’ How does this sound to you? Country-rock-swing? Another centre stage performance with Dylan on guitar. A great way to go out. (13th Oct, Cardiff)

Watching the River Flow

I’ll be back soon with more from 2011.


Kia Ora!


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