Never Ending Tour 2014 Part 3: The survivors


By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

You might recall how, in 2013, Dylan abandoned his setlist for two concerts in Rome in which he caught up with his old favourites, and gave a number of them wonderful farewell performances. Something similar happens in 2014 at a series of concerts on the Scandinavian leg of the tour. That Setlist, which was becoming set in concrete, was thrown out except the two encores, ‘Watchtower’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’

Luckily we have one decent recording, from Gothenburg, June 15th, so we’ll stick to that one and work through this alternate setlist

The concert kicks off with an upbeat old familiar, ‘Watching the River Flow,’ a song he won’t play again on the NET, although it will reappear in 2021 for the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. This at Gothenburg is its final NET performance.

Watching the River Flow

Number two on the Gothenburg setlist is the even more familiar ‘Don’t Think Twice,’ one of the earliest songs still surviving on the NET. This bitter-sweet little ballad is an eternal favourite.

Don’t Think Twice

Dylan would continue playing ‘Don’t Think Twice’ through to 2019, but not so ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.’ This is another farewell performance. I’m sorry to see it go. It’s a cry of desperation. I nicknamed it ‘Junky’s Lament’ and it is as heavy as any song Dylan has written with the exception of ‘Visions of Johanna.’ Look at these lines:

Now if you see Saint Annie
Please tell her thanks a lot
I cannot move
My fingers are all in a knot
I don’t have the strength
To get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor
Won’t even say what it is I’ve got

So here it is one last time.

Tom Thumb’s Blues

Next up, number 4 at Gothenburg is ‘To Ramona,’ another oldie from Dylan’s early acoustic period. This one’s on its way out. We get a couple of performances in 2015, it won’t be played in 2016, and it gets a final airing in 2017. It remains a lilting waltz, but to my ear it’s becoming a bit tired.

To Ramona

‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ is also on its way out. It will be played a couple of times in 2015 and then be gone. It’s not the greatest song off Modern Times perhaps, but a fine chuggy urban blues. Some critics chided Dylan for writing ‘unoriginal’ blues songs like this. When was the blues ever original? I have to ask. And who can match Dylan in the way he can shift from the personal to the political, from love to catastrophe, from one verse to the next? Casual mastery:

When I'm with you I forget I was ever blue
When I'm with you I forget I was ever blue
Without you there's no meaning in anything I do

Some people on the road carrying everything that they own
Some people on the road carrying everything that they own
Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones

It’s a little too easy, perhaps, to miss the epigrammatic profundity of ‘I look into your eyes and I see nobody other than me.’ Is that all love really is?

This is a relaxed and assured performance.

The Levee’s Gonna Break

Next up, number 6 on the Gothenburg setlist is ‘Shelter from the Storm.’  Some readers might be familiar with the urgent, sharp-edged performances from The Rolling Thunder Tour, 1976. What a contrast to this slow, soft version. He’s abandoned the sprightly tempo that has driven this song and turned it into a gentle, thoughtful ballad. Once more, the experience has been marinated in time and distance. Readers looking for a ‘best ever’ performance should check out NET 2005 part 1 as a contrast to this one which is full of weariness and wisdom.

Regretfully, it’s another song on the way out. There were a few performances in Scandinavia in 2014, a few in 2015 before the song vanishes. How could he bear to lose it?

Shelter from the Storm.

‘Cry A While’ will have an unusual history. It looks like it’s fading out as it gets only one performance in 2015 and disappears…only to reappear with a completely different arrangement in 2018 and flourish until the end of the NET in 2019. I think I can see why Dylan likes the song – it’s about a shadowy underworld of wheeling and dealing and has its own noir humour:

Last night ’cross the alley there was a pounding on the walls
It must have been Don Pasqualli makin’ a two A.M. booty call

(The spelling Don Pasqualli is from the official Dylan website, but I assume it should be Don Pasquale, the hapless hero of a comic opera of the same name written in 1810).

Dylan tries out many arrangements for this song, abandoning the tempo switches of the album version, leaning it more towards rock than jazz. This performance, however, turns the song into a lazy 3 a.m. late 1940’s mood piece, jazzy to the core. Slip into your favourite dive and dig it. A little gem this one.

Cry a While

We return to Dylan’s earliest acoustic period for number 8 on the Gothenburg setlist, ‘Girl from the North Country,’ a song full of tender memories without the usual Dylan backhanders. No problem with an aged voice singing this one. Dylan sounded old and wise when he first recorded the song as a twenty-three year old; now he sounds older and wiser. As with ‘Shelter from the Storm’ Dylan has slowed this one right down to stunning effect.

Girl from the North Country

At number 9 on the setlist, ‘Summer Days’ is a jivey, upbeat song to follow a slow one. It is, however the softest version we have yet heard. Not quite the bone-rattling performances we had in 2005 but it rocks none the less. Get ready for some serious foot-tapping.

Summer Days

I sure am glad to see ‘Desolation Row’ hanging in there at setlist number 10. It’s one of my favourite Dylan songs next to ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Tell Ol Bill.’ There is a lyrical beauty in its melodic structure which creates an elegiac, doomed quality for the visionary lyrics. We watch a parade of circus characters passing through, and it ends with a confession of soul sickness. For you younger readers, imagine how this song blew people away when first performed as a solo acoustic back in 1965. Nobody knew what the hell had struck them.

The song would be played consistently through to 2018.

Desolation Row

‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,’ at number 11, has also been slowed right down, maybe to give the complex lyrics a chance to shine. Personally, I still don’t ‘get’ the song, or understand quite what drives it, but this is certainly the most interesting arrangement we’ve yet heard. Whatever is in there, Dylan is working hard, using all the resources of his ‘new’ voice, to get it across. It too has a strange history. It will get played a few times in 2015 and then vanish from the NET… only to reappear in the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour this year, 2023.

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum

For setlist number 12 we stay in the 21st Century for ‘Lonesome Day Blues.’ Another one of those ‘unoriginal’ twelve bar urban blues, another ‘sad and lonesome day’ for the blues journeyman on his way to the proposition that ‘you can’t make love all by yourself.’ He gets lost in memories, but something else shows through, a different kind of voice. These lines anticipate the despotic ruler who will emerge more fully in ‘Pay in Blood’ twelve years later.

I’m gonna spare the defeated—I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd
I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud

Lonesome Day Blues

I’m just as pleased to see ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ as I was to see ‘Desolation Row’; it’s another kind of desolation, I guess. However, I’m sad to see that it is on its way out. It will only be performed twice more, once in 2015 and once in 2017. Another acoustic song, it was early evidence that Dylan could sustain a long, visionary song. In that respect it laid the foundation for ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna.’

It hasn’t always come across well in Dylan’s keyboard versions, and has suffered from the dumpty-dum effect. We get a little bit of that in this performance, mainly from Dylan’s piano, but in the main the dumpty-dum has been converted successfully into a gentle swing. There’s a strangeness here too – Dylan seems to sing every line in a different voice.

Hard Rain

It’s an old trick of Dylan’s to put ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ near the end of a concert, as an energiser. Here it’s number 14. The song is filled with the verve of early jazz and even in this comparatively laid-back version, it still kicks along, images flashing by if you’re quick enough to catch them. I usually listen to this song with the lyrics in front of me. It helps.

 Thunder on the Mountain

Finally, before ‘Watchtower’ and ‘Blowin’ In The Wind,’ we get ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’ I’m happy to relate that this song is not fading out. It will drop to four performances in 2015 but will come back strongly in 2016 right through to 2019. It’s the original freak-out song, and we’d hate to be without it. And yet, as so often with Dylan, a common enough experience lies behind it. How many of us, after a crazy night out, have not wondered exactly what we will say when we get home? Choose your own nightmare. In this case you have a snarky voice following you about wherever you go, jeering at you, reminding you that you don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Ballad of a Thin Man

Since we’ve heard the encores already, that concludes our run through Gothenburg and our tour of 2014. There’s an air of excitement, and a rising curve. Dylan’s in good voice and good heart. He’s all tonsilled up and ready to take on perhaps the greatest popular vocalist of all time: Frank Sinatra.

We have that to look forward to in 2015.

Until then

Kia Ora


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