- NET 2015 Part 1 Singing to you, not at you
- NET 2015 Part 2
- NET 2015 Part 3: It doesn’t get any better than this
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Some found it incongruous that Bob Dylan should be singing Frank Sinatra songs. It was the young Bob Dylan whose songs put an end to an era of popular music that flourished in the 1950s, the era of the American Standards and the music that had grown out of the Big Band jazz/swing music of the 1940s. Dylan’s lyrics in particular seemed to out-class the often mushy but certainly sentimental ‘moon in June’ type love songs, Sinatra’s natural habitat. When Dylan released Shadows in the Night in February 2015, I recall seeing a cartoon showing Sinatra in heaven singing ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ to a group of puzzled saints.
However, we can see, I think, that Dylan’s discovery of the American Standards was natural and even inevitable. Since Love and Theft in 2001, Dylan had been exploring and drawing from music rooted in the 1930s and 40s. In the 90s Dylan put out two albums of traditional material, all from the folk tradition. American Standards was the final territory to be opened up to Dylan’s voice, and Dylan’s voice opened up to meet it. A remarkable fusion.
It’s exciting to see how, growing from that fusion, Sinatra influenced the way in which Dylan interpreted his own songs, at least some of them. Perhaps the clearest and finest example of that influence can be found in this performance of ‘Shelter From the Storm’ (Locarno, July 15th). If someone tells you Dylan can’t sing, play them this one. A fine baritone, he sings it the way Sinatra might have. Readers who know of the super slow version of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ from 1978, or are aware of the slow ‘Tombstone Blues’ on Shadow Kingdom may not be surprised to hear this.
The slow treatment seems to add layers of years to the song. I mean, that memory is no longer fresh; it is now immersed in the same sepia nostalgia as ‘Autumn Leaves.’ A Dylan song in disguise as an American Standard. Almost as if he were singing somebody else’s song, which becomes grand and majestic. A remarkable performance with two aching harp breaks. A treat!
Shelter from the Storm
And here is ‘Autumn Leaves,’ composed by Joseph Kosma in 1945, which has seen over a thousand commercial recordings including Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, John Coltrane, and of course, in 1957, Frank Sinatra. I wonder how many of them Dylan listened to. (Oslo, Oct 1st).
The rustle of those autumn leaves characterizes the performances from 2015. The hopes of youth have faded but we can drown our sorrows in sublime song. Even in some of those mushy lyrics Dylan can uncover a vein of universality.
‘Visions of Johanna’ is the crepuscular song par-excellence. It really is grand and majestic. Dylan floats through it all quite fine, maybe a little too fine, a little too airy for the freaky subject matter. We can breeze through incomparable lyrics like ‘the ghost of ‘lectricity / howls in the bones of her face’ as if it were a jaunt in the park. I guess it just doesn’t sound bleak enough for my ear, a bit too jaunty, but I wouldn’t let that spoil your response. (Lörrach, July 16th)
Visions of Johanna
‘Desolation Row,’ that other standout song from the mid 1960s, doesn’t suffer from jauntiness so much as the overuse of a little piano riff between lines and repeated in the instrumental breaks. Dylan handles the vocal with the same airy confidence that marks the other performances from this year.
These last two performances sound a little detached to me. They seem to lack emotional impact. We get the feeling that Dylan is more engaged with his current material, the American Standards and songs from Tempest than his ancient stuff from the 1960s.
I’d like now to return to ‘Duquesne Whistle’ which I covered in Part 2. That recording was from Manchester, but since writing that I have discovered this one from Ljubljana, June 25th which to my mind has the edge on the Manchester performance. I also think that my comments in Part 2 were quite inadequate. There’s a lot going on in this song.
‘Duquesne Whistle’ is a bright, chirpy number, a bustling train song, the train which might be bringing the singer home, or Christ back for his second coming at the end of the world. At the same time, it evokes a tornado, capable of uprooting oak trees, and also at the same time is about the whirlwind of a love affair. Christ is the wind is love – Is it a warning or a celebration? Or both. Or a mad, devil-may-care dance at the end of the world? Or a frenetic jazz piece from the madcap 1930’s courtesy of Jelly Roll Morton? All of the above. Dylan keeps all those balls in the air in a joyful lyrical juggle.
For my ear, this performance towers over those from previous years. The band is jumping. They are right into the roots of jazz. Dylan sounds suitably manic, throwing his voice around like the master he is. Staccato jabs at the piano. Again, what is impressive here is the sense we get of Dylan being in complete command of his material. He gets right on top of the song and stays that way.
No one contributed more songs to the Great American Songbook than Irving Berlin. ‘What’ll I do?’ is seen as an autobiographical song, with the composer pining for his love who has been sent to Europe by her rich, disapproving father. There’s an odd parallel with Dylan. The family of Dylan’s first known love, Suzie Rotolo, sent her to Europe to get her away from, and take her mind off, the rascally young Bob Dylan. From that we get ‘Boots of Spanish Leather.’ Sinatra’s version was released in 1962.
Here you find the honeyed voiced crooner at his best; there’s hardly a bark or a growl to be heard. (Copenhagen Oct 8th)
What’ll I do?
‘Stay With Me’ was the first American Standard Dylan presented near the end of 2014. It remained one of his favourites. It was written by Carolyn Leigh and Jerome Moross, and was originally recorded by Sinatra in December 1963. (Detroit)
Stay With Me
Now we arrive at the encores. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ has been largely replaced by ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ but occasionally he played both, with sometimes an American Standard thrown in.
The musical blizzard that was once ‘All Along the Watchtower’ has long since given way to quieter, more throbbing performances. It’s a reminder that war is never far away.
This performance from Mainz leaves Jimi Hendrix behind as the guitar work of old is replaced by the piano. It rocks, as it has always done, but it also swings a little. Dylan’s vocal is heavy with implication. A great performance. The hour, is indeed getting late.
All Along the Watchtower
That leaves us with ‘Blowing In the Wind,’ a blast of nostalgia ending a setlist made up of mostly modern material, a reminder of where Dylan came from, the young Dylan, a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Of course, it rapidly became an anthem, but there has always been a touch of the forlorn to the song; those questions it asks can never be answered. There’s a yearning in it for a world far from this world of war and racism. The Detroit audience rapturously welcomes the old Dylan back into its collective heart. There’s a bit of lilt to it, a touch of a waltz, and again Dylan’s right on top of the lyric. All I miss are a few blasts from the harp at the end…
Blowing in the wind.
So that’s 2015. Is it really the best ever year for the NET? I’ll have to leave you to decide that; I’ve had a lot of fun testing that idea out. For my money it must come close. There’s a sense of easy mastery and a fluidity in the vocal contrasting to the staccato iterance of the piano. The band are sweet perfection, totally at home in their medium.
Dylan described Sinatra (the Voice) as a mountain he had to climb each time he approached an American Standard. He had trepidations: ‘I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time, but was never brave enough to approach 30-piece complicated arrangements and refine them down for a five-piece band.”
Well…he succeeded in climbing that mountain, taking advantage of his aged voice to wring perhaps more melancholy out of these Standards than Frank himself, who was young and vital when he sang most of these songs. A bit too pleased with his virtuosity, perhaps.
Mastering these songs had a profound effect on the way Dylan approached his own work, evolving a complex verbal collage of singing baritone, soaring into the notes, crooning, half whispering, talking, confiding in us, with a bit of barking and growling thrown in for good measure. Bringing these threads together is a stylistic triumph.
That completes 2015. Next up 2016 in which something remarkable took place: Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature.