- 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
- NET 2015: Part 4 The best year ever?
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Mike Johnson is fiction writer and poet little known outside of his country New Zealand/Aotearoa. He has a new publication; his 27th book, and 12th book of poetry – Sketches. It is illustrated by artist Leila Lees.
‘Sketches, a skein of fleeting moments arrested on the page, manages with its glancing, darting reflections and philosophical perceptions, to find just the right formulation to deliver a descriptive vitalism that is open, alert, tentative, ambulatory, elegant, palpable.’ David Eggleton, Poet Laureate, 2019 – 2022
If 2015 was, as I have suggested, the best year ever for the NET as Dylan rose gracefully to meet the challenge of the Voice (Sinatra), then what of the following year? Does hitting a peak mean that everything that follows must be post peak? To some extent, yes, but Dylan had been on a rising curve since 2012, after shifting to the baby grand piano, and he was not about to have an off year. In many ways, 2016 was a continuation of 2015, and some of the performances were equal to that year.
Take, for example, this turbulent and magnificent performance of ‘Pay in Blood.’ In Part 3, 2015, I raved about the superlative ‘Long and Wasted Years,’ somewhat intemperately claiming that this vocal triumph must be one of Dylan’s greatest-ever live performances. I stand by that, but I have another one for you: ‘Pay in Blood.’ Like ‘Long and Wasted Years,’ this captures a voice, in this case the triumphant voice of the conquering hero who has suffered long and hard, the would-be dictator, a man of violence.
You bit your lover in the bed, Come here I`ll break your lousy head Our nation must be saved and freed You been accused of murder, how do you plead?
It’s pretty clear from the context, and the threatening riffs that could overwhelm you, that this is not someone you should trust to save and free the nation. (‘Bit your lover’ becomes ‘get your lover’ on some lyric sites. I think ‘bit’ is much stronger.)
It’s the way the music comes charging at you, full-on, that brings out the dark strains of this song, particularly in this performance. The music comes thundering in as the character makes his first wheedling assertions:
Well I'm grinding my life out, steady and sure Nothing more wretched than what I must endure I'm drenched in the light that shines from the sun I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done
Note the sudden shift to violence in the fourth line; the righteousness of it. It gives me a shudder.
I don’t think you’ll find a more virulent performance of this persona than this one. (I’m pretty sure it comes from one of the Tokyo concerts from the first, spring leg of the tour, but need to confirm that).
Pay in Blood (A)
We can’t leave it there, however. In Durham (Nov 4th), Dylan took quite a different approach to the song, more ethereal and strange, not charging at you full speed but with a shadowy voice, floating, the song’s riffs re-arranged in a way that gives me the feeling that these are the confessions of a falling angel heard from a distance. This changes the song, turning it from threatening to mysterious: a spooky performance.
Pay in Blood (B)
Those two recordings alone show that the 2016 Dylan was capable of what he delivered in 2015. Although they are, for my ear, the outstanding performances of the year, there were others up to the same standard.
Take this stunning version of ‘High Water.’ Over the years, my editor Tony Attwood and I have found many ‘best ever’ versions of the song (See for example here). Is it possible that this 2016 performance is the very best of the best evers? Does this one leave the versions that have come before in the dust?
Quite possibly. My own favourite has, until this moment, been the 2006, darkly driven performance but this one, from Indio, Desert Trip, (Oct 14th), sets up an irresistible groove, strips it of its country/banjo trappings and turns it into solid, ass-kicking blues based rock. Oh man! The song has never sounded better. As soon as I played it, I had to play it again.
High Water (A)
But again, we can’t leave it there. In Durham once more, we find the song with a new arrangement, new chords and a different melodic line which transforms the monotonal verse structure. As with ‘Pay in Blood’ it’s like listening to a different song. It carries something of that ethereal beauty with it as well.
High Water (B)
What is evident at this point is that Dylan is sustaining the 2015 peak, and is innovative in coming up with alternative arrangements. Behind all this is the driving force of Dylan’s encounter with the Voice. In May 2016 he released his second album of American Standards Fallen Angels. Most of these songs never made it onto the setlists, or did so only occasionally, but one of Dylan’s favourites is ‘All Or Nothing At All’ which he introduced in 2015. When you think about it, the song is a kind of ultimatum, but Dylan swings it with such breezy sweetness we might not notice the implication. He’s not trying to sing it like Sinatra; he makes the song his own. It’s an old truth – no use trying to do things by halves, either you got faith or you got unbelief. (Paducah Oct 30th).
All or Nothing at All
In 2014 Dylan laid down the songs, and in which order he would play them, into a Setlist. So in that year, with some exceptions, Dylan essentially plays the same concert over and over. In 2015 that Setlist was loosened, and altered to make room for the American Standards, although the outline of it was still there.
In 2016 the Setlist is still very much in operation. A key song, and fixture in the first half of the concert was ‘She Belongs to Me.’ It comes at number 2 in the Setlist after ‘Things Have Changed.’ In 2016, however, in July, he suddenly drops the song for good, replacing it with ‘Don’t Think Twice.’
Much as I love ‘Don’t Think Twice,’ I lament the loss of ‘She Belongs to Me,’ which had an extraordinary evolution through the NET, finishing up as this pounding epic with its searing harp breaks – a standout performance at every concert. I still prefer the 2014 performance because I’m a sucker for the two-chorus harp break and that recording is particularly clear, but here it is, suddenly the last time we’ll hear it. (Berkley, June 9th).
She Belongs to Me
The loss of that song has another consequence. Dylan’s harp playing is by now largely confined to some ritual blasts on only two songs, ‘She Belongs to Me’ and ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ Now ‘Tangled’ is the last surviving song for the harp. In some concerts he doesn’t play the instrument at all. The slow eclipse of the harp is almost complete.
So how does ‘Don’t Think Twice’ sound? It doesn’t have the insistent grandeur of ‘She Belongs To Me,’ but has its own quieter charm. These performances fully honour the original, acoustic song. A rich musical mix and heartfelt lyrics. (Puducah). There’s just a touch of ragtime in that tempo.
Don’t Think Twice
By this time, with Fallen Angels out, Dylan was performing up to seven American Standards per concert, pushing more Dylan songs into the background. One of the songs off that album is ‘Old Black Magic,’ written by Harald Arlen and Johnny Mercer, released in 1942 and made popular by Glen Miller and his Orchestra. Mercer apparently wrote the lyrics for the actress Judy Garland. Comedian Allan Sherman did a parody called ‘That old back scratcher.’
In the previous post I lamented that Dylan did not choose some more upbeat American Standards, largely preferring the slow tear-jerkers, and now I get my wish. ‘Old Black Magic’ is a peppy number about falling in love, and it’s only Dylan’s crepuscular voice that gives this blood-quickener that touch of world-weariness. Can that old black magic still work? (Tokyo, April 14th)
Old Black Magic
I have noted before how well the disarming ‘Spirit on the Water’ fits in with these American Standards. The song could have been released in the 1940s with hardly an eyebrow raised. Even the confession of murder near the end of the song would not have come as such a great surprise to those who had listened to songs like ‘Mack the Knife.’ I’m glad the song is still there. I love the way it captures a wistful, rueful mood. (Osaka, April 12th).
Spirit on the Water
The first leg of the year was an acclaimed tour of Japan, which included a seven concert stint in Tokyo, running from the 18th to the 26th of April, following an earlier three day stint there from April 4th to the 6th. Dylan always does well in Japan, and apparently has a large following there. He’s certainly on top form in Tokyo for ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ still a highlight in any concert. He stands centre stage until the end of the harp break, when he moves to the piano for the last verse. The lyrics are the new version he’s now been singing since 2014. (25th April)
Tangled up in Blue (A)
We can’t quite leave it there. From later in the year, (Desert Trip), we get this recording, with the voice and harp better foregrounded, the performance grittier.
Tangled up in Blue (B)
Besides ‘Spirit On the Water,’ another song I think fits well with the American Standards is ‘To Make You Feel My Love.’ In fact we could say that it has become a 21st Century Standard, having been covered by 450 artists. It is certainly weary and forlorn enough. A love which has gone unrequited for many years can ripen into a feeling like this. This Paducah performance must come close to being a best-ever. It captivated me. The vocal is delivered with exquisite intimacy in that borderland between singing and talking where Dylan excels. Add some understated piano and you have a standout performance.
To Make you Feel my Love
Let’s finish this post with that mysterious and atmospheric song from Tempest, ‘Scarlet Town.’ Here myth, folklore and contemporary life are swirled together on a dark pallet to create this moody masterpiece. I still think the 2014 performance comes out tops (see: https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/26096), But this one from Tokyo (6th April) doesn’t disappoint.
That’s it for now. I’ll be back soon to continue this exploration of the NET, 2016, clearly a worthy successor to the exhilarating 2015, with some top performances.