By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Dylan fans, you are in for a treat this time around. In the first post for 2015 I playfully suggested that 2015 was the best ever year for the NET. By the time I’d assembled the recordings for this post and the next, I had fallen for my own hyperbole. These are superlative performances which, at least in the case of ‘Early Roman Kings,’ transformed the way I responded to the song.
I am threading my way through the Setlist, and we have now reached the second half of the concert. I missed the moment Dylan began to break his concerts into two halves, taking a ten-minute break, but it has allowed the two sections to develop a character of their own, a momentum, an arc. I have seen the two halves described as Act 1 and Act 2 of a ninety-minute Dylan drama. You can see it that way.
Act 2 begins with ‘High Water (For Charlie Patton)’ complete with guitar riffs by Stu Kimball to introduce the set as was done with Act 1. It’s a fairly subdued performance compared to what we have seen (try the rousing 2012 version), with a deliberately restrained and understated vocal. He’s not shouting it out, as he has done, but holding it in, meditating and brooding over it. There’s a sense of menace. The first is from Detroit, and the second from Bamberg. The Detroit recording probably has the edge, but I like the echoey acoustics at the Bamberg venue.
High Water (A)
High Water (B)
After ‘High Water’ there’s quite a lot of variation, with ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ (See 2015 part 2), or ‘Why Try to Change Me Now?,’ written by Cy Coleman and Joseph McCarthy Jnr and released by Sinatra in 1952, a slow ballad and once more lovingly uncovered by Dylan. (Copenhagen, Oct 9th)
Why Try to Change Me Now?
Sometimes you can listen to a Dylan song and not quite get it until a particular performance knocks your sox off. That happened to me with ‘Early Roman Kings.’ I quite liked the song, although I didn’t think it matched ‘Scarlet Town,’ ‘Pay in Blood’ or ‘Long and Wasted Years,’ also off Tempest, but when I heard this performance from Detroit, 2015, it clicked. The scales fell from my eyes. We have to leave ‘best ever’ behind us here and just say this is an impeccable, unmatched performance. This is not stadium rock. It is club music. Picture a blues joint in Chicago maybe mid 1950s. The air’s full of smoke. It’s maybe 2 a.m., things are winding down, and in they come at a canter, those Early Roman Kings, arbiters of your fate:
I can strip you of life Strip you of breath Ship you down To the house of death
Hear the Detroit crowd’s reaction to the mention of that city. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
Early Roman Kings (A)
It’s the third song into the second set across most concerts. Let’s try it one more time from Ljubljana (Slovenia), June 25th.
Early Roman Kings (B)
There are various contenders, however, for the fourth slot. In Locarno we find ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ the swinging version Dylan’s been doing since 2011, still swinging.
Blind Willie McTell
Unexpectedly, In Mainz, Dylan performed ‘Sad Songs and Waltzes’ in that fourth slot, a Willie Nelson song released in 1973, not a Sinatra song and a downright tear-jerker. That melancholy is a slippery slope!
Sad Songs and Waltzes
I want to pause for a moment to consider Dylan’s use of slurring as a vocal style or mannerism. Dylan is not the first slurrer, which has its roots deep in the blues – you can hear it in John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins – and flourished during the Sinatra period. Sinatra’s rat pack buddy Dean Martin made a feature of it, appearing on TV apparently holding a glass of whisky (it was cold tea), slipping off the piano he’s trying to sit on and other inebriated antics. Of course, it was all 100% show biz. Sinatra liked to cultivate a relaxed, informal atmosphere on stage, his hat pushed back on his head, tie askew, his hand in his pocket, as if you’d just run into him in a seedy bar.
You might have already noticed Dylan slurring a little in his 2015 performances, now hear him use it to stunning effect on ‘Long and Wasted Years.’ In an earlier post I suggested that the song comes from the point of view of a barroom drunk accosting a woman whose relationship to him is not clear. It is here, in 2015, that he finally finds the right voice for the guy he’s been trying to channel since 2012; a rather sad, nasty soul full of bitterness and guile, a wheedling backstabber.
This performance is a vocal triumph for Dylan; he captures those drunken cadences perfectly as the music lurches him forward. Listen to the way he says, ‘You don’t have to go, I just came to you because you’re a friend of mine,’ and catch him at his best. But don’t be fooled by the edgy drunken demeanour, Dylan is in complete control of what he’s doing, and he’s working the vocal like the master he is.
This must be one of Dylan’s greatest ever live performances, and a powerful character study. The last two lines come across as a devastating confession.
So much for tears
So much for those long and wasted years
Long and Wasted Years
Audience participation makes that a precious recording. The audience is with him every step of the way, egging him on. (Sorry, lost the date of that one.)
(A personal note. Have you noticed how Bob Dylan lines can take on a life of their own? How they can detach themselves from the context of a song and attach themselves to the context of your life? As I listen to these words ‘I think that when my back was turned / the whole world behind me burned,’ fires are causing panic and destruction in Greece, Algeria and across swathes of Canada. It feels a bit spooky.)
‘Long and Wasted Years’ usually comes later in the second set. There’s too much variation for me to try to follow the order of songs, the Setlist tends to break down, so I’ll highlight a few necessary performances from those last four or five slots without trying to follow any setlist order.
It seems natural to follow with ‘Scarlet Town,’ another masterpiece from Tempest and beautifully atmospheric in performance (Bamberg). Part of its brilliance is that it feels like a much older song, right from the roots of folk songs. The place, Scarlet Town itself, remains an enigma; it contains multitudes:
The evil and the good livin’ side by side
All human forms seem glorified
Staying with Tempest, we find ‘Soon After Midnight’ late in the set. I’ve considered this deadly, unnerving little song in some length in previous posts. It’s easy to be seduced by its sweetness. I can’t imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes singing this one; the American Standards seem innocent compared to the ‘killing floors’ of this song. There’s a chilling casualness in the way death is treated here:
They chirp and they chatter What does it matter? They’re lying there dying in their blood Two-timing Slim Who's ever heard of him? I'll drag his corpse through the mud
We stay in Bamberg for this one. Dylan’s vocal has just the right amount of airiness, light casualness, pulling us in until we become unwitting witnesses to the killer’s confession.
Soon After Midnight
As the year progressed, we got more American Standards. As well as the songs I have already covered, we might find ‘Where Are You?’ and ‘What’ll I do?’ Songs that ask questions of an unfair world where love did not fulfil its promise.
I sometimes regret that Dylan didn’t choose some of Sinatra’s faster, swinging numbers, but his search in the most melancholy corners of the Great American Songbook, inevitably leads him to these mournful ballads. ‘Where Are You?’ proceeds at a sedate pace, while the lyrics remind me that Dylan wrote ‘Where Are You Tonight?’ a very different song but stemming from the same forlorn complaint. It was written by Jimmy McHugh & Harold Adamson for the 1937 film Top Of The Town. (Copenhagen, Oct 8th)
Where Are You?
When you put Dylan’s own ‘Spirit on the Water’ beside these American Standards you see the kinship. That light jazzy beat, the flavour of old-time dance music. I can imagine Sinatra singing this one, but I doubt he would half-talk it the way Dylan does. Those hushed confidential tones. A lovely clean recording and great performance (Bamberg).
Spirit On the Water
At Mainz, Dylan did his blues rocker ‘Till I Fell In Love With You,’ from Time Out of Mind. We’ve heard some swinging versions of this one over the years. The 2007 performance stands out in my mind as one of the finest (NET 2007 Part 1), but this Mainz performance is hard to match.
Till I Fell In Love With You
What makes these 2015 performances so good is not just the incomparable band but the sense we get that Dylan is in complete control, confident and assured, adventurous too – note the extended ending to that last one. He’s revelling in his power, and the result is these joyous vocal deliveries.
Dylan strayed from the Setlist in Mainz to keep some songs alive, it seems. ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man.’
I get the feeling that Dylan has not always found it easy to adapt ‘Hard Rain’ to his changing sound, his move from guitar to keyboards. With its structure going back at least to 1710, a popular Medieval ballad called ‘Lord Randall,’ ‘Hard Rain’ remains determinedly a folk song. You can dumpty-dum it or swing it, but it’s a long song and an awkward kind of beast to sustain. Dylan takes some risks here, vocally, by sometimes hitting the beat hard, almost mechanically, and often that doesn’t work so well, at least for my ear. In this performance however, he pulls it off.
This Mainz ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ is a triumphant performance. When Dylan follows the Setlist, the harmonica usually appears only twice per concert: in ‘She Belongs to Me’ and ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ So it’s all the more welcome here, as sharp and clear as ever. The innovative backing lends the song, musically, the strangeness we find in the lyrics. Dylan’s piano has that circus like flavour he’s so good at. It’s not deliberately spooky but it’s unnerving.
Ballad of a Thin Man
I’ve run out of space with a few songs and the encores to follow. We’ll catch up with that soon.
In the meantime