By Mike Johnson
2011 is a stand-out year in the history of Dylan’s live performances. It is a fitting climax to a five-year movement that began in 2006 when Dylan moved from the piano to the organ, and is marked by some adventurous singing, not just his famous circus bark and growls but sustained notes with vibrato – Dylan the emerging baritone crooner. A singer preparing himself to take on Frank Sinatra.
The year also brings to fruition Dylan’s ongoing relationship with his other instrument, the harmonica. From 2012 on, that little instrument will begin to take a back seat as Dylan focuses his arrangements around his new love, the grand piano, and within a couple of years his harp playing will be mostly confined to a few bluesy blasts on a couple of songs per performance, mostly ‘She Belongs to Me’ and ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’
Perhaps the 2011 performance that best captures Dylan’s loving use of the harp is this remarkable, harp-driven performance of ‘Blind Willie McTell’ from Hong Kong (April 12th). I covered this song in NET 2011 Part 2, the Oberhausen performance, focusing on how he swung the song. That was a great rendition and I thoroughly recommend you to check it out.
To my mind however, this Hong Kong performance must take the prize. It doesn’t swing with quite the same sassiness as Oberhausen but must be included as one of Dylan’s best ever harp performances.
Blind Willie McTell
‘Shooting Star’ is another song featuring the harp. This song had its heyday in 2005, was only performed twice in 2011 and would be last performed in 2013 after a single 2012 performance. It’s a song that powerfully yearns for love and salvation, an intensely emotional experience. This one is from Cardiff, October 13th.
‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ has featured the harp since a remarkable performance in 2007 (See NET 2007 Part 1). It’s another song fading from the setlists. This one from Milan (June 22nd) is the sole 2011 performance, and we’ll see only two more performances in 2015. Pity, as it’s a great rocker. There’s a bit of harp work here, but it feels to me as if Dylan is losing interest in the song, at least in terms of providing scintillating harp breaks.
Till I Fell in Love with You
Sticking with the harp for the moment, we now have a final performance. ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’ had not been performed since 2005, and was only ever performed thirty-nine times. I can’t say what drew Dylan back to this song for this lone and last performance in Cork (June 16th), maybe the way it laments the darkness of a world without spiritual light.
I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine
In 2009 and 2010 we saw how Dylan stripped back some of his faster rock songs to their 1950’s style rock ‘n roll bones. While in 2011 Dylan was starting to build his arrangements back up again, we can still find some wonderful straight rock performances, like this version of the irreverent and mocking ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.’ (London,1st night) You can kick back to this one, do some foot-tapping, maybe even get up and dance. I’ll sound like an old fella and say they don’t make music like this anymore.
This is another song on its way out. It gets a fair hammering in 2012, but disappears after a single 2013 performance.
Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat
Let’s stay with that first London concert for what is perhaps one of Dylan’s most successful topical songs, ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown,’ to be put alongside ‘The Ballad of Emmet Till’ and ‘Oxford Town’ as songs culled from newspaper items.
Maybe it’s the simple blues format that does the trick or that the ‘dust bowl’ feel of it means it could have come out of Woody Guthrie’s song book. It’s a pitiless portrait of poverty and a masterful narrative.
Dylan was to largely abandon topical songs, perhaps because they lose their relevance over time, but this bare-boned narrative achieves the kind of universality that transcends its immediate context. How many Hollis Browns are out there right now being pushed by poverty and desperation into violence? The song turns sixty this year, but it could have been written yesterday. It’s a pity that it’s on its way out, and won’t be performed after 2012. Donnie Herron’s banjo gives this performance a fittingly rural feel.
Thinking for a moment about the development of Dylan’s voice, his greatest instrument, this Milan performance of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ is remarkable in the way it shows Dylan overcoming his circus barker voice with sustained notes and rich vocal tones.
There’s plenty of barking in here too, but the way forward is evident. To me the song reveals the struggle for artistic perfection in a messy, chaotic world. Fragments of memory and history vie with a surreal present. Dylan is on guitar here.
When I Paint my Masterpiece
Let’s pop over to Tel Aviv to hear this superlative performance of ‘Highway 61 Revisited.’ It’s a hard rock song, and is meant to be rough and rowdy and passionately disillusioned, however the more muted recording at Tel Aviv suits the song well. It pumps along in fine style, pulsing and throbbing, with just the right balance between recklessness and control. I don’t know about ‘best ever’ but I can’t think of a more compelling performance. It’s right on target when it comes to the immorality, madness and confusion of the world.
Highway 61 Revisited
Fast forward forty years from the writing of that song and we find another song, ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ that deals with the same immorality, madness and confusion of the world, and some climate disaster thrown in for good measure. When that levee breaks, chaos is let loose upon the world, the ‘levee’ being more than just river banks but a moral breakwater standing between us and mayhem. (Hamburg, 31st October).
Levee’s Gonna Break
We can draw a straight line from ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ through ‘Levee’s Gonna Break’ to ‘Thunder on the Mountain,’ although ‘Thunder’ is broader in scope. All three songs are lit with flashes of humour, a characteristic irreverence and mock posturing, flicking from the personal to the political to the cultural at dizzying speed. That dizzying speed is the point – the bedlam and tumult all goes by so fast you can’t grasp onto anything before it’s gone. (London, 2nd concert)
Thunder on the Mountain
Why stop there? We can continue that line through to ‘High Water’ (Odense 27th June) picking up on the uproar and turmoil as we go. Sounds like the levee’s already broken
high water risin', the shacks are slidin' down folks lose their possessions and folks are leaving town and there’s nothing or nobody to cling onto Water pourin' into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm going to do "Don't reach out for me, " she said "Can't you see I'm drownin' too?"
What a great performance, with that sharp, goading harmonica. Hard to beat.
We can keep drawing that same line right on through to ‘Summer Days.’ These lyrics could have come out of ‘Highway 61 Rev’:
Politician got on his jogging shoes He must be running for office, got no time to lose You been suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity You been rolling your eyes—you been teasing me
As always with Dylan, the sunny side of love is hard to find.
Wedding bells ringin’, the choir is beginning to sing Yes, the wedding bells are ringing and the choir is beginning to sing What looks good in the day, at night is another thing
To my mind nothing betters the 2005 performances of ‘Summer Days’ and by 2011 the song sounds a bit muted, not quite as frenetic, but the band hits a fine jazzy groove in this Tel Aviv performance. The strength on the bass of Tony Garnier, the anchor of the band, stands out.
Summer Days (A)
Fans of the famous Crystal Cat recordings might prefer this one from the second London Concert.
Summer Days (B)
There’s a jauntiness to all five of these songs that belies their desperation. Jaunty desperation? There’s no rest along the way – quick man you gotta run. There’s crazy shit going down all over but you keep on keeping on, and you can always pick yourself up off the floor one more time.
It’s not pushing that line too far to extend it to ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, another fast-paced kaleidoscopic rocker, although here the focus is more on the travails and tribulations of love than the larger pandemonium.
This one is from the 3rd London concert and is notable for its jazzy organ.
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
So what lies beyond the personal and political uproar we’ve encountered in the last six songs? Well…nothing. ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’ might be the final realization. ‘Nothin’ done nothin’ said.’ I still hark back to the 2009 performance when Dylan went into a harp duo with a trumpet, and it sounded pretty wild. Here, in Odense, he’s on the guitar, but the message doesn’t change.
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
I’m going to finish in Odense with a change of pace and a last ever performance. ‘The Man in Me’ is hardly likely to feature in your best twenty Dylan songs list, but it is direct and heartfelt even though it doesn’t have the lyrical fireworks of the previous songs we’ve considered, and this is as good a performance as you’ll find. Like a lot of these NET songs, you don’t miss them till they’re gone.
The Man in Me
This ends my study of this powerhouse of a year, and Dylan’s adventures on the organ.
What to say about Dylan’s organ playing? Many fans hated it, there’s no doubt of that. Silly little dinky riffs ruined many songs, and the organ helped push the arrangements into the dumpty-dum. And yet… there are moments when the organ shimmers with that wild mercury sound or leaps about the keyboard with jazzy precision. Or pushes the rhythm along with solid vamping.
Right now, I gotta run, but I’ll be back soon with the beginning of new adventure in 2012, one that continues to this day – the grand piano man is about to be born.