NET 2015 Part 1 Singing to you, not at you

The Never Ending Tour: the full index from 1987 onwards

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

“Frank sang to you, not at you, like so many pop singers today. Even singers of standards. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody. I’ve always wanted to sing to somebody. I would have gotten that subliminally from Frank many years ago. Hank Williams did that, too. He sang to you.” Bob Dylan

Commentators agree that 2015 was an outstanding year for the NET. I would go a step further and suggest that it was, just possibly, the best ever year for the NET. That’s a big claim, and I might not be able to prove it to your satisfaction, but you’re in for a fun ride watching me try over these next few posts.

It’s all about Dylan’s voice – and an impeccable band. It’s not just that Dylan can hit the high notes, but the consummate ease with which he does so. His voice soars as if on wings of its own. We’ve got to go back to the 1970s to hear anything like it. Maybe that peak year 1981.

Frank Sinatra was a good influence on Dylan. The way Sinatra can glide from line to line (he makes it sound so easy!) and the way he can swing is a perfect antidote for Dylan’s tendency to fall into musical rigidity, into what I have called the dumpty-dum. But there are similarities too in their vocal styles, they are both baritones, which suggest a broad compatibility. Consider this comment on Sinatra’s style:

“His phrasing is final, absolute, definitive. So logically and inevitably do the phrases follow each other that, after hearing him sing a song, that song never sounds quite right sung by anyone else. He phrases more as if he is speaking to someone: the intervals, word stresses, note values and rhythms are changed to fit more with the cadences of colloquial speech. Add the breath control, the slurs, chopped notes, grace notes and held notes that have been his trademarks … and you have the basic ingredients that give that natural, effortless credibility to every word he sings.”

Now couldn’t those comments equally apply to Bob Dylan? Pitch and phrasing mark Dylan out as one of the great singers of our time. The way he can hold back on a vocal line, or anticipate it, and how he can capture ‘the cadences of colloquial speech.’

This sounds even more like Dylan:

‘He knew where to lean on a word, where to back off and ghost, where to bend the vocal around the word, and where to reach deep inside himself to embrace a phrase with an emotion he had felt somewhere in his life, whether touching, sad or exuberant.’

All this grows out of jazz. Sinatra learned how to sing by listening to band leader Tommy Dorsey play the trombone. He imitated Dorsey’s breathing and phrasing. Jazz musicians felt that Sinatra’s voice was his instrument, and you can find sax solos that pick up on his phrasing, although Sinatra himself said that his instrument was not his voice but the microphone.

‘What made crooning possible was the microphone. In his 1984 book “Sinatra”, John Rockwell wrote: “Crooners didn’t have to belt out their voices in order to reach the rafters. A microphone allowed them to float the sound easily on the breath, articulating consonants clearly and naturally… Nelson Riddle, one of Sinatra’s great arrangers, said once that the early Sinatra, from the Columbia days, sounded like a violin but the later one, which emerged at Capitol, sounded like a viola.’

Where Nelson Riddle heard strings, Quincy Jones heard reeds: “Like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, who he loved, Sinatra grew up singing with big bands and learning how to sound like a horn, so he knew exactly where the beat was at all times.”

When Dylan released his first American Standards compilation, Shadows in the Night in February 2015, it was immediately seen as an album of Frank Sinatra covers, but many artists had sung these songs, which was why they were called standards. Sinatra, however, loomed behind them all. Dylan explains it like this: “You know, when you start doing these songs, Frank’s got to be on your mind. Because he is the mountain. That’s the mountain you have to climb even if you only get part of the way there. And it’s hard to find a song he did not do. He’d be the guy you got to check with.”

In other words, Dylan had met his match.

It’s time we broke off this discussion to hear a couple of performances. ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ written by Harold Alrlen and Johnny Mercer for the 1947 Broadway musical St Louis Woman, is a good place to start. You can find excellent performances not just by Sinatra but Nora Jones and Ray Charles on You Tube.  Dylan, who of course doesn’t have a big orchestra behind him, delivers a no-frills, no jazzy adornments, no musical interludes, performance; it is the song laid bare, which is what Dylan did with his own songs from 2008 – 2011. An uncover. (Basel, Nov 14th)

“I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter of fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day”.

Come Rain or Come Shine

Let’s try something a little faster. ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ is a sad, dreamy song written by Ted Mossman and Buddy Kaye based on a theme from Rachmaninoff’s piano Concerto No. 2. Dylan’s voice is like a wind sighing through the reeds of a marsh. This breathy melancholy not even Sinatra can match with his confident young voice in 1945. It takes a Dylan in his mid-seventies, well steeped in the varieties of lost love, to uncover the heartbreak, to sing to us from the weariness of his years. (London, 22nd Oct, the second of a five night gig).

Full Moon and Empty Arms

The songs Dylan chose from ‘The Great American Songbook’ were all of a similar  melancholy cast:

‘Their lyrical tone is usually remorseful and lovelorn – ‘The Night We Called It a Day,’ ‘What’ll I Do,’ ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ – and even when it isn’t, it ends up sounding that way because of Dylan’s delivery. His version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ takes a song about a burgeoning romance and ferrets out the misery buried in the lyrics. “Fly to her side and make her your own / Or all through your life you may dream all alone,” he sings, but there’s a rueful quality to his voice that undercuts the carpe diem sentiment and a song cautioning the listener not to miss their chances suddenly becomes a song about missed chances.’  (The Guardian)

Dylan didn’t perform ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ but we do have ‘The Night We Called It a Day,’ written by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair in 1941. In Dylan’s voice there is all the experience and wisdom of a well-aged single malt whisky. What does a tear-jerker sound like when all the tears have long been shed?

The Night We Called It a Day

Singing like this, reaching for notes, holding notes, swooping and gliding like Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, was to have a deep impact on the way in which Dylan approached his old songs. He started to sing them as if they were American Standards, almost as if they were someone else’s songs. A good example is this performance of ‘To Ramona’ (Tübingen, Germany, June 21st). Dylan counterbalances the inherent rigidity of the waltz, which can get very dumpty-dum, with a light, airy delivery which has us swooping from line to line of a song no longer filled with heavy-handed accusations (‘I can see that your head has been twisted and fed/with meaningless foam from the mouth’) but rather a gentle regret. There’s a touch of Mexican spice in the melody line to pull it away from the dumpty-dum and into a gentle swing. Get out from under your sombreros and dance!

To Ramona

A most beguiling performance.

The Sinatra effect is not so evident in all the songs, but it is there and underlies Dylan’s vocal fluidity and breathy confidence.

The cheery ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ may be a fitting candidate for being considered an American Standard. It wouldn’t have been that much out of place on a Sinatra album from the mid 1950s, although Sinatra would never have countrified it the way Dylan does. One of the least melancholic of Dylan’s songs, it’s a welcome ray of light in this twilit field. (Locarno, July 15th)

 I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight

If it’s a melancholy mood you’re looking for, you can’t go past ‘Forgetful Heart.’ This song fits so well with the Sinatra uncovers, it’s tempting to see it as a precursor to Dylan’s crooning. I’m not so sure, Dylan has played around with crooning many times, especially in the early 1970s, but there’s no doubt this is one of his finest mood pieces in terms of performance. I still claim that the song peaked in 2011, but I’m happy to add this one from Bamberg (June 23rd) as a contender. An exquisite vocal. And heart-rending harmonica.

Forgetful Heart (A)

That was so good we’d better hear another one, just to make sure. This one’s from Cordoba (July 9th) with beautifully understated harmonica.

Forgetful Heart (B)

I’m running out of space here, but I’ll be continuing this line of approach in the next post, seeing how Dylan handles Sinatra, testing whether or not 2015 is really the best NET year ever.

Let’s finish then with ‘Melancholy Mood’ written by Walter Schumann and Vick Knight in 1939. It is likely that Dylan would have heard Bing Crosby’s version from 1939. Also in 1939 the song was covered by Harry James and his Orchestra featuring a new young singer called Frank Sinatra. Dylan clearly likes the song as it will become a performance favourite. It’s a gentle song, pensive and sorrowful. Another impeccable vocal performance. (Manchester, Oct 28th)

Melancholy Mood

Kia Ora

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