An index to all 111 previous episodes in this definitive series on the Never Ending Tour can be found here.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Some songs seem to have their peak years in terms of their live performances. Those are years in which all the elements of the performance come together to produce ‘best ever’ performances before fading into business-as-usual presentations or fading from the setlists altogether.
‘Forgetful Heart,’ that elegiac, haunting Dylan/Hunter song from Together Through Life (2009) is a case in point. First played in 2009, the song would last through to 2015 and yet, it seems to me, it was never played better or more expressively than in 2011. Played acoustically, with Tony Garnier on double bass and Donnie Herron on the viola (sometimes the violin), the song was, from the start, a stand-out performance piece, creating a brooding, sad and self-reflecting mood, and yet the 2011 performances seem to have magic it’s hard to find before or afterwards.
While planning this post, I culled the recordings down to ten marvellous renditions. Since putting all ten into one post would be excessive, and probably overkill, I whittled them down to five that I considered to be necessary performances. I trust you, my dear reader, will forgive me this indulgence, but there are nuances in vocal delivery and harp playing I believe justify the repetition and can only hope my editor agrees with me.
I’m not going to follow these chronologically, although that’s a tempting approach, as I feel that, even within this narrow field of superlative performances, there is one that stands out as being the best of the best. I will however begin with that excellent first concert of the year, Taipei (April 3rd).
Forgetful Heart (A)
There is softness in the recording, a gentle feel to it, and Dylan’s vocal stays sensitive to the lyrics without breaking into falsetto too noticeably. There is also, albeit not too obviously, an echo to Dylan’s voice which gives the song an other-worldly quality. The song comes across as a gentler ‘Lovesick,’ a soliloquy of loneliness. (Herron is on the violin here.)
If we are looking for vocal excellence, we can’t go past the Tel Aviv performance (June 20th). The vocal is more upfront than Taipei, and a touch more emphatic, while Herron’s move to the viola creates a darker, more sombre sound. It’s hard to tell to what extent some of these differences are due to the accident of an audience recording, or a deliberate re-balancing of the song by Dylan, and we’ll come back to that issue shortly when considering the Crystal Cat recording from London at the end of the year. Depending on my mood, I can equally enjoy both the Taipei version and the Tel Aviv version.
Forgetful Heart (B)
The recording at the Odense (June 27th) is certainly sharper, and more hard-edged than the previous two performances. The song comes out of the shadows and is right in our faces. I don’t know if that is better than the softer, Taipei performance, but it does, in effect, shift the mood from a tender melancholy to pungent self-accusation.
Forgetful Heart (C)
The superiority of the Crystal Cat recordings can be instantly recognised in this London performance. Dylan performed the song twice in London, in the second concert (Nov 20th) and in the third (Nov 21st). I’ve chosen the version from the second concert. I have to say, however, that despite the evident excellence of the recording, and the performance, I find myself harking back to the softer Taipei and Tel Aviv performances. Is this because of the recording or has Dylan adopted a harsher tone in his soliloquy? Or am I getting soft?
These are only quibbles in the face of an emotionally compelling performance in which we find both the old circus barker and the emerging crooner at work to stunning effect. Wonderful the way Herron complements Dylan’s voice and harp with those dark, sustained viola notes.
Forgetful Heart (D)
The opening sombre strings set the mood, which is sustained right to the end, but this song is not just about the backing and the vocals but the harp. Those lonely, piercing gull-like cries Dylan wrenches from that little instrument stand in counterpoint to the low rumble of the viola and double bass, and give the song a bluesy, anguished edge. Nowhere is that more evident than in the following performance.
I haven’t been able to track the date of this performance, it has proved elusive, but to my ear it is the finest of them all, and that’s largely due to the extended second harp break which runs into a second chorus. The harp delivers a series of emotional jabs which push the song to another level. It’s an astonishing performance, the jewel in the crown. Best ever? I have to say so.
Forgetful Heart (E)
Later, when Dylan started singing Frank Sinatra songs, some commentators traced the origin of his crooning to ‘Forgetful Heart.’ I think that’s an oversimplification. Dylan had been trying out his silky voiced Bing Crosbyish vibrato for some time, and the style can be traced back to his collaborations with Johnny Cash back in the late 1960s.
For the remainder of this post, I have tried to select songs which are in harmony with the mood of ‘Forgetful Heart,’ songs which have a similar elegiac bent and in which sadness rules. I believe that’s the case with ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.’ Oddly, this song will be dropped after 2012 for a four-year break, emerging again in 2016 when it would complement Dylan’s Sinatra performances.
While the song urges forgetfulness, striking another match, it is a love song (somewhere I described it as love’s last song) and is haunted by sadness and the anguish of saying goodbye.
Since the mid-1990s Dylan has had trouble finding the right arrangement to carry the complex emotions of this song, and I’m not sure that the medium-paced versions of 2011 do the trick. However, I have two offerings, one from Tel Aviv and one from London (1st concert). Putting these two together also furthers my enquiry into the virtues or otherwise of the Crystal Cat recordings, and brings something of my unease with the latter, despite their brilliance, into focus.
First, Tel Aviv:
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue (A)
That’s a convincing and emotionally satisfying performance. Once more the circus barker gives way to the emergent balladeer and the harp sharpens the feelings that drive the song.
Now London (1st concert):
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue (B)
I can understand why some might prefer that centre stage performance, with Dylan on guitar, but I find it less engaging than the Tel Aviv performance. I find the sound a little too brash for the song, but this is a purely personal reaction. Perhaps I like Tel Aviv because I prefer Dylan’s harp playing to his electric guitar, and I am just imagining that that performance is more subtle than London. Over to you, dear reader.
Another song soaked in sadness is ‘Working Man’s Blues # 2.’ Of course this song is more political than the two songs we’ve considered so far, and it’s a longer, more ambitious song, but no less sombre
In the dark I hear the night birds call I can hear a lover's breath I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall Sleep is like a temporary death
In this case the heart does not forget:
Where the place I love best is a sweet memory It's a new path that we trod
Memories, however, bring their own tribulations, and personal melancholy mixes with the sense of political struggle. This slow-paced song has a certain grandeur, is carried well in this performance which my fact sheet tell me was performed at Rotterdam on Oct 10th, but is not listed by the official website as being played on that date. Whenever, it has the feel of a Crystal Cat recording to me. It is ably sung, but there’s just a hint too much of dumpty-dum in the organ notes to be fully satisfying.
Workingman’s Blues # 2
‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ is a plea to be not forgotten by someone else’s forgetful heart when they go travelling, and has long been recognised as a masterful piece of dialogue – it’s all too easy to forget the love you leave behind once you’re on the road. Since Dylan is usually the one moving on, this song is something of a reversal; he’s the one left behind this time.
This Odense performance features Herron on violin and Dylan on guitar. To me it lacks the heart-rending pathos of the original studio recording way back in 1964, and I could have done with a bit less barking and more crooning, but it’s a fine, committed performance in its own right.
Boots of Spanish Leather
We’ll stay in Odense to catch ‘Every Grain of Sand,’ another elegiac song in which the ‘dying voice within me,’ reaches out for the verities of faith and spiritual love. For my ear, this song reached its performance peak in 2009, with a brilliant centre-stage duet between voice and harp (See NET 2009 part 2), a performance full of bleak insistence. However, this Odense performance is powerfully presented and sung with precision and passion and there is some trenchant harp work. You do have to deal with a pretty dominant organ riff and the tendency is still strong in Dylan to become too barkingly emphatic on some of the lyrics.
Every Grain of Sand
As I’ve commented before, ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ might be the saddest of all Dylan’s love songs, with the pathos running high. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful, more so sung in Dylan’s cracked, broken-hearted voice. This gorgeous rendition is from the 1st London performance. Crystal Cat strikes again with the clarity of the recording, every instrument can be clearly heard. It’s got that vamping organ again, but in this case, it works better than in ‘Every Grain of Sand,’ a bit more complex and sensitive to the mood of the song.
To Make You Feel My Love
I’m going to finish with this Milan (22nd June) performance of ‘Visions of Johanna,’ the greatest 3 a.m. song ever written, filled with yearning, sadness and pathos. Here, memory has been taken over by all-consuming ‘visions’ of ‘Johanna,’ a lost love or the end of the world, depending on how much you read into the name. Many times in these posts I’ve commented that this song has never achieved the burned-out grandeur of the Perth performance of 1966, or the spooky grandeur of the Manchester performance of the same year, but I’d rather have it this way, a little too bouncy for me, than not at all.
Visions of Johanna
I’ve done four posts on 2011 now, and it still feels as if I have barely scratched the surface. I’ll be back shortly, therefore, with another post to hopefully wrap the year up.