NET 2016 Part 2: Embodying American Music

There is an index to the 120+ earlier articles in this series, here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

Dylan: “All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains & lovers who are really geese & swans that turn into angels—they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come & take away their toilet paper—they’re going to die.”

As he’d been doing over the past four years, Dylan kicked off every concert with ‘Things Have Changed.’ That much at least hadn’t changed. It was an effective way of reminding his audience that this was not the Dylan of old they were seeing. In 2015, by introducing American Classics into his concerts, Dylan transcended the boxes people had tended to put him in: folk singer, rock singer, folk-rock singer, spokesman for his generation and so on. Going beyond that, he had come to embody American music itself, to contain within himself the history and expression of that music from its deepest roots in the 1920s.

It’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that much of the specific imagery of ‘Things Have Changed’ is not at all personal, but relates to the film for which it was written, Wonder Boys, and that despite the refrain, ‘I used to care but things have changed,’ Dylan’s performances of the song were zesty and passionate. He still cares very much about his music.

‘The effortless feel of the playful-yet-ominous, hard-grooving, utterly dazzling ‘Things Have Changed’ was an early indication of the renewed friskiness of Dylan’s 21st-century work,’ Brian Hiatt wrote in Rolling Stone magazine. ( “The 25 Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 21st Century”)

The following recording (Tokyo, April 25th) shows Dylan and his band at their playful, hard-grooving, dazzling best. Note the Sinatra-like ease with which he zooms through the vocal lines.

Things Have Changed

‘Duquesne Whistle’ keeps its place early in the setlist, usually around the fourth or fifth song, keeps up the ‘playful-but-ominous’ mood; there are forces at work that can uproot everything. That ol’ Duquesne whistle is the sound of the slow train, still comin’ around the bend. This one, also from Japan (Sendai, April 9th) bustles along in its rather quaint, old fashioned way from those lovely opening chords to the jump beat which propels it. Another outstanding performance.

Duquesne Whistle

While in Sendai, let’s hear ‘What’ll I Do?’ Written by Irving Berlin in 1923, performed by Sinatra in 1947 and Judy Garland in 1963. Dylan first performed it in 2015 (See NET 2015 part 4). It’s a weary, lovelorn song, a perfect fit for that melancholy mood that underlies Dylan’s later concerts; the soft-voiced crooner at work.

What’ll I Do?

Unlike the timing of the live performances of his own songs, Dylan would sometimes perform one of the American Standards from an up and coming album as a teaser. In 2017 Dylan would release his final tranche of these songs on Triplicate; one of those songs ‘I Could Have Told You’ got its first airing in Durham (Nov 4th) 2016. Written by Carl Sigman and Jimmy Van Heusen and released by Sinatra in 1954.

A masterful performance by Dylan. Breath-taking, is the expression. I can only stress what I have highlighted before – the consummate ease with which Dylan negotiates these songs, how he can sustain high notes while pouring feeling into them. An edge of I-told-you-so triumph in this one.

I Could Have Told You

For me, one of the primary interests of Dylan’s handling of these American Standards has been the influence of them, and of the Voice (Sinatra), on Dylan’s performances of his own songs. Not that he sings them like Sinatra, he has his own Voice, but Sinatra’s breezy ease and confidence somehow infuses itself into Dylan when he performs Dylan. He’s right on top of the song.

Take this performance of ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ for example. You get the feeling Dylan can do anything with his voice: roughen it or smooth it, lift it or drop it, hold notes or let them go, play with the timing, swoop up to or down upon the notes. You also get the feeling (at least I do) that this is only one vocal pathway through the song, that timing and emphasis could all be quite different.

The triple harmonica breaks are more than welcome, as by this stage Dylan rarely uses the instrument; I miss the whimsicality of Dylan’s harp playing, and the way it can sharpen the emotional edge of the song, as it does here.

There is a little too much audience noise on this recording for my taste, but the performance is too good to miss. (Oct 14th, Indio: known as the Desert Trip concert)

Simple Twist of Fate

Despite the audience noise, we’ll stay in Indio for ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’ Dylan puts a bit of a bark into this one, which is perfectly fitting for the rough, confrontational nature of the song, and still likes to break into falsetto on the word ‘you’ lending the performance that hysterical edge that has become a trade mark of his later performances of his own songs, although its use is by now on the wane. By contrast, the instrumental breaks are curiously gentle.

Ballad of a Thin Man.

The fact that, despite the dropping of so many old songs from the Setlist, Dylan did four songs from the 1965 Album Highway 61 Revisited at the Indio concert demonstrates the longevity of those songs, and Dylan’s commitment to them. Here’s the song ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ this one from Durham (Nov 4th), a better recording than Indio and, I think, a better performance too, a thrumming, powerful rendition of the song.

There’s a lot of evil stuff alluded to in this song (what really happened to ‘the fifth daughter on the twelfth night’?) which reverses the Biblical story of how God ‘stayed Abraham’s hand’ from sacrificing his child to show Abraham resisting and God egging him on in the masterful piece of dialogue that starts the song :

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe say, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No, " Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
Next time you see me comin', you better run"
Abe said, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61"

But none of that evil stuff matters when you can just shoot it down Highway 61. Dark and satirical, this is certainly one of Dylan’s great rockers, and this is certainly one of the great performances of it. (Add it to your ‘best ever’ list?)

Highway 61 Revisited

We’ll stay in Durham to catch ‘Desolation Row,’ the final triumphant track on the album, a song which has thrived in performance right through the NET. My favourite remains the piano-driven version from 2003 (See NET 2003 Part 1), but I have no quarrel with this one. I’m sure others must have noticed circus imagery underlying the whole album from ‘the jugglers and the clowns’ in the first track, ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ to the cavorting ‘sword swallower’ of ‘Thin Man’ to the profusion of bizarre figures that tumble from this ambitious masterpiece. This song’s old black magic hasn’t faded.

Desolation Row

At this stage Dylan’s great signature song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was fading from view. The last year in which it was commonly played was 2012, was played once in 2013, dropped altogether in 2014 and 2015, and played only once in 2016, at Indio. It would revive somewhat in 2019. I think I can understand why. The song has been performed over 2000 times, and while we have heard some spirited performances, I have also felt it becoming a bit rote. As if the song had lost its charge for Dylan. I believe the same thing happened to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ which suffered three or four years of ragged performances before being dropped for good in 2010.

Anyway, here it is, the only 2016 performance, crowd noise and all.

Like a Rolling Stone

In 2016 ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ underwent something of a revival. Like ‘Mr Tambourine Man,’ another song from  Bringing It All Back Home, ‘Baby Blue’ showed signs of fatigue before being dropped in 2012, apparently for good. Now, four years later, it pops up again – fully revived and refreshed? I think so. It doesn’t have the searing passion of the performances from mid 1990s but it’s got something else, a rueful acceptance, perhaps. And it rocks. (Durham)

It’s All Over Now Baby Blue

Some of the songs from Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft might be showing some fatigue also. ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ wasn’t played at all in 2015 but revives in 2016. A short-lived revival however as the song will only be played once in 2017 and disappears after that. Sometimes the predictable three chord structure of the blues can make it a bit mind numbing. For me, it’s the lyrics that keep this song afloat. It may seem to lumber a little, but the picture that emerges of ‘this slow and lonesome day’ is compelling. That slowish, deliberate tempo is just right for the song. (Durham)

Lonesome Day Blues

One song that Dylan has not allowed to fall away is ‘Love Sick.’ Although I believe 2011 was its peak performance year (See NET 2011 Part 1), we’ve had no lack of haunting, powerful performances over the years. You can’t really mess with the tempo and melody of this song, and except for some lyrical changes it sounds pretty much the way it did when Dylan first brought it to the stage in 1997. It became a fixture in the Setlist. (Durham)

Love Sick

I’m going to finish with two American Standards, ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Melancholy Mood.’ Although Dylan now had two albums worth of these songs, he mostly drew from a very narrow range of them for live performance, maybe half a dozen songs. We have the two I’ve mentioned, ‘What’ll I do?,’ ‘Why Try to Change Me Now,’ ‘I’m a Fool to Love You,’ The Night We Called It A Day’ and that’s about it. We have to conclude that these were Dylan’s favourites. I would love to have heard ‘On a Little Street in Singapore’ off Fallen Angels live.

So let’s hear ‘Melancholy Mood,’ the title of which seems to sum up the mood of the songs Dylan has chosen from American Standards. It’s a slow paced tear-jerker with sensitive lyrics. This one’s from Paducah (Kentucky, Oct 30th).

Melancholy Mood

We’ll stay in Paducah for ‘Autumn Leaves.’ Dylan most often places this one at the end of a concert, before ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ another slow paced tear jerker with an autumnal flavour. A beautiful, soulful version.

Autumn Leaves

That’s it for now. I’ll be back soon to finish off 2016 and to say something about Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Until then

Kia Ora

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *