The Never Ending Tour: The Absolute Highlights – the Levy’s Gonna Break

By Tony Attwood

One of the great problems with the 12 bar blues – the classic format on which well over half of all blues-orientated songs are based – is that the foundations of both the style and the format are so clear that everyone knows what it is all about.   So how can an artist do anything new or interesting with that old 12 bars?

One technique that has often been used has been to expand the piece, so effectively it is no longer 12 bars long, but is in fact 24 bars long, but that to me always seems a bit like cheating.   No, the real artist who really understands the format sticks to the 12 bars, and of course, we would expect Dylan to do this more often than not.

But then the question still is there.  What is one to do with this standard format which everyone knows so well, be the person musician or not?

The chord sequence is always the same …

If it keep on rainin' the levee gonna break
C                                     G
If it keep on rainin' the levee gonna break
D                                                   G                                                G
Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Sometimes the answer as to what to do with such a song, comes from the lyrics, but the lyrics Bob uses here are really hardly revolutionary, and really hardly enough to keep one’s attention.  If you saw them without actually knowing the music, you would, I’d guess, be unlikely to say to a pal, “hey you’ve really got to listen to the lyrics.”

So, standard format, standard lyrics, and yet, and yet, I find this version of this song a really enjoyable, outstanding performance.

I think the clue to what Bob has found is the bounce of the rhythm, and counteracting bounce in his voice.  Also, he’s dropped the emphasis that the lead guitar had on the recording with the two notes at the end of each line.   Instead, we get a guitar pattern, but then in the non-vocal verses, it is played against that repeated short pattern that we know from the recording.  It’s a variation that makes the whole thing extra interesting, extra fun and ever more enjoyable.

In fact what we have above everything is a bounce that drives the whole performance forward.  And when we get to the instrumental break, we get other musical treats added – there’s a nice effect from the bass at one stage for example, which would be a pain if it kept turning up, but it is just there for one verse so it is a good variant.

But what we are predominantly left with is the bounce – it becomes a song that one that those interested in dance would very much want to get up and dance to.  But even if not it surely must make your body move – at least just a bit.

And the reason that it has worked is that above all else, all the band have grasped what this new version means – just listen to those instrumental verses – this is how it used to be; long 12 bar songs with interesting instrumental breaks played by supremely talented musicians.

Now of course, without such talent, what many bands faced with this type of song will do is retreat into the simplicity of a quiet verse and then come back with the full force of the whole band “fortississimo” for the ending, but Bob has none of this.  He keeps it interesting from a musical point of view all the way through – especially with that long instrumental break lasting several verses about three quarters of the way through the performance, with the instrumentalists playing counter melodies with each other.

It’s not profound, and it’s not something that will get into a Hall of Fame, but as a way of handling the old 12-bar blues, I think it is totally remarkable.  It is in fact counter-intuitive.  99.99% of performers would never do this with the 12 bar format.  It took Bob to find a way through.

As I am trying to suggest, it is not world changing.  But it is such great fun.  This recording is from 2014, and was one of the last outings for the song.

The Absolute Highlights series

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