Please note a full index to this series, of which this is episode 114, is available here.
Mike Johnson (Kiwi Poet)
I ain't dead yet My bell still rings (Early Roman Kings)
2012 is one of those pivot years for the NET in which big changes are heralded. I am reminded of 1992, when Dylan added a fifth musician, steel guitarist, to his basic line of four. A decade later, in the most dramatic change of all, Dylan largely abandoned the guitar to take to the keyboards. A decade after that, 2012, Dylan abandoned his little electronic keyboard to get in behind a real piano, a grand piano no less, and so laid the foundation for the sound we hear now, if we tune into the Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour.
We need to appreciate that when Dylan started playing ‘piano’ in 2002, and ‘organ’ in 2006, he was playing a little electronic keyboard. You could flip a switch and make it sound like a piano and flip another switch and make it sound like an organ. An actual piano, however, especially a grand, is a different beastie altogether; its resonant tones and more mellow sound were to shape Dylan’s sound as it emerged over 2012 and 2013. Dylan used his electronic piano from 2002 to 2005 strictly as a rhythm instrument, mostly vamping chords, adding urgency to the band’s sound. With the grand however, he was prepared to go further, using the instrument as a lead, often picking at single and double notes as he had done when playing lead guitar during those years from 1992 to 2002.
A distinctive, ‘primitive’ style emerged with echoes of Dr John and Thelonious Monk.
At the moment I don’t have access to the Hop Farm Festival concert, (Kent, June 30th) when Dylan first presented the grand, and the ivory revolution began, so we’ll skip to Barolo, Italy (16th July), to hear what those first audiences heard. As was his wont with these early concerts, Dylan kicked off with an organ number, in this case ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,’ before moving to the grand for the second number and the rest of the concert. In Barlo that second song was the softer ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,’ a song that had gone through many changes. It’s an upbeat take on the song. Note the piano break starting around 3.30 mins.
We find him doing the same thing at Chester(Sept 4th), kicking off the concert on the organ with ‘Watching the River Flow,’ to switch to the grand for a moving rendition of ‘Love Minus Zero No Limit.’ Again you can hear him shaping the arrangement around the softer sound of the grand.
Love Minus Zero
Another notable aspect of that performance is that it is the second to last time we’ll hear that mysterious little love song (last play Oct 30th). In an earlier post, can’t remember which, I made a reference to the great purge of his setlists in 2011. That was not quite accurate. Dylan began dropping significant songs in 2010 – ‘Mr Tambourine Man,’ for example, never to be heard again, and ‘Masters of War,’ gone but for a lone performance in 2016; these slipped into NET history without me noticing – but his purge of the setlists cranked up in earnest in 2012 and 2013, losing fifteen songs in each year, a total of thirty songs over the two years.
Songs last played in 2012 are:
‘My Back Pages’ (Montreux, July 8), ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ (Lyon, July 18), ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ (Carhaix, July 23), ‘Saving Grace’ (Johnstown, August 29), ‘This Dream Of You’ (Winnipeg, October 5), ‘Nettie Moore’ (Edmonton, October 9), ‘Hattie Carroll’ (Sacramento, October 20), ‘Hollis Brown’ (Sacramento, October 20), ‘Love Minus Zero’ (Broomfield, October 30), ‘John Brown’ (Broomfield, October 30), ‘Joey’ (Toronto, November 14), ‘Sugar Baby’ (Toronto, November 14), ‘Mississippi’ (Philadelphia, November 19), ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ (Brooklyn, November 21), ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ (Brooklyn, November 21).
This is more than just pushing a few songs aside to make way for new material, but a significant narrowing and refocusing of the setlists. And a step in the direction of solidifying the setlist into songs he’d play pretty much every night with little variation. The setlists in his current Rough and Rowdy Ways tour are almost identical, just a few wild cards thrown in here and there. The days of turning up to a Dylan concert not knowing what to expect are well and truly over, and that movement began in 2012.
I lament the passing of a number of these songs, ‘Love Minus Zero,’ both ‘Hollis Brown’ and ‘John Brown’, staples from his earliest writing of topical protest songs. Sad to see the trenchant ‘Wheel’s on Fire’ and the magnificent ‘Mississippi’ disappear. In 2002 Dylan shifted from guitar to piano, which changed the sound of the band, but everything else stayed in place and there was no great purge of songs or upheaval in the setlists as in 2012/2013
I’m not going to cover all of these vanishing songs, but let’s at least pay homage to a few of them. Here’s the last performance of the happy-go-lucky sounding ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,’ the opening number at Toronto (Dylan on organ here).
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Staying in Toronto, let’s hear the last ‘Sugar Baby.’ This slow, contemplative song was never an easy one to perform. I’ve argued that it is not an attack song, despite the line ‘you ain’t got no brains no how,’ and that the song is more melancholic than accusatory. I love this performance and find I’m regretting its passing; with its quiet tone, it seems to suit the piano perfectly.
‘Joey’ has never been a favourite Dylan song of mine. I find it portentous and bombastic, and the glorification of a hoodlum (but that’s just me). I have however given Dylan due credit for giving the song his all in a mere handful of performances, and it is a sustained piece of storytelling from an album, Desire, full of stories.
We return to Toronto to hear its final performance.
I’m not sure if Dylan ever really got on top of his masterpiece, ‘Mississippi’ in performance. I don’t think he ever improved on his passionate 2001 performances (See NET, 2001 part 6), and I seem to prefer the acoustic version on Tell Tale Signs. Here it is, the final performance, (Grand Prairie, 1st Nov), a swinging rendition, and a good opportunity for Dylan to tickle those ivories.
Let’s go to Broomfield (29th October) and catch the final performance of ‘Saving Grace,’ a song from Dylan’s gospel period from the album Saved. I just wish the recording was not so tinny.
I’ve got a soft spot for this song, and its gentle surrendered sentiment. I’m certainly not religious in the sense that Dylan was during those gospel years, but as someone who has recently escaped death by a whisker, I can certainly relate to these lines:
I've escaped death so many times, I know I'm only living By the saving grace that's over me By this time, I'd a-thought that I would be sleeping In a pine box for all eternity My faith keeps me alive, but I’ll still be weeping For the saving grace that's over me
Finally, in terms of these last performances, I can’t overlook the Edmonton performance of ‘John Brown’ (9th Oct). Not only is it the last performance, but I would suggest a ‘best ever’ performance as well. Dylan has rarely played the harp on this song, but does so here to great effect. When I want to enjoy this song, this is my go-to performance. Donnie Herron’s banjo gives it both a country, and somewhat eerie sound, as if the song is coming across to us over the centuries with its timeless message of senseless war and death. This wonderful performance makes the loss of this song more acute.
(Before moving on, it’s worth noting that this winnowing of Dylan’s setlists will have a knock-on effect on these posts. Up till now I have written between four and six articles per NET year, but that will drop to three or even two as the setlists become more honed to fewer songs.)
2012 was not just remarkable for Dylan’s shift to the grand piano, and the loss of fifteen songs, but in September Dylan released a new album, Tempest. Tempest could not be more different from the previous Together Through Life. That album had a rough-and-ready, improvised, throw-away feel; Tempest is a precision machine, much more like the album which would come eight years later, Rough and Rowdy Ways.
Critics lavished praise on the album, some seeing it as even better than Love and Theft and Modern Times. “Tempest is Dylan’s best musical album of this century, a vibrant maximising of strict rules and the savaged-leather state of that voice” (Mojo Magazine) and “Tempest’s epic scale and grandeur makes his few previous albums look like short stories leading up to a great novel.” (Tiny Mix Tapes)
Dylan did not immediately overwhelm his setlists with this new material. Indeed, some of the concerts in September and October didn’t include any of the new material, or maybe one song. Duquesne Whistle,’ co-written with Robert Hunter, which would become a regular, was not performed until 2013. ‘Early Roman Kings,’ which would also become a favourite, was only played a handful of times.
For my ear, these first performances of the new songs would be surpassed in quality by performances in later years, but to kick things off, here is ‘Early Roman Kings’ from Toronto, the only song from Tempest played at that concert, and the second time the song was performed.
Early Roman Kings
I’m not going to attempt a full exploration of the song. Our editor Tony Attwood has a pretty good crack at it here. It seems to deal with a state of lawlessness in which powerful groups can lord it over others for better or worse. ‘Sluggers and muggers,’ ‘peddlers and meddlers.’ What they give can just as arbitrarily be taken away.
This song contains a number of directions and misdirections and may perhaps be more playful than the heavy blues riff that carries it suggests.
I’m going to finish this post with the sole performance of ‘Scarlet Town’ in 2012 (Winnipeg 5th Oct) and my favourite song from the album. It has a deep history in folk music. Again, Tony Atwood gives a good account of it here and Hobo Magazine goes into it pretty thoroughly here:
I can’t add a lot to these accounts except that it makes me think of Lenard Cohen, I can imagine him singing it, and that it evokes both the comfort and terror of our childhood. Scarlet Town is a mythical contradictory place, a place you need to escape yet ‘wished to God’ you’d never left.
The last verse, the first two lines of which are beautifully aphoristic, and which reminds of maybe Catullus, seems to end with a vision of racial harmony, all the colours of humanity, ‘beautiful in their time,’ are ‘right there for ya’ in this mythical place of love and war, death and sacrifice:
If love is a sin then beauty is a crime All things are beautiful in their time The black and the white, the yellow and the brown It’s all right there for ya in Scarlet Town
It’s a beautiful performance and a lovely way to meet this profound song.
That’s all for now. See you soon with more songs from that formative year – 2012.