By Tony Attwood
In this series we look at the way Bob has transformed his songs over time, in particular looking for the progression in his feelings about and understanding of what the song offers and where it can be taken.
So far we’ve looked at
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- Visions of Johanna
- The Hard Rain of 1988, 2003 and 2015
- Tangled up in Blue 1988 to 1993
- Blowing in the Wind. 1991-2001
Now we come to Blind Willie McTell. This was performed between 1997 and 2017, during which time Bob and the band played it 226 times. But as we can hear in the following four recordings made between 1997 and 2006 there was a clear progression in the way Bob and the band explored the song; a searching to see what exactly was there and what it could be made to reveal.
This version from the opening year of the performances of Blind Willie is the Blind Willie we’ll all know. There is the odd percussion pause, and the famous guitar riffs after the title words. There’s only a very soft background guitar solo in the instrumental break before the softer “God is in His heaven” and the devastating awareness that power and greed is all we have, leading to the desperate sadness of the memory of the St James Hotel. Then the slow down at the end – which musically I am not sure about, but as ever Bob is the boss.
By 2000 the song is performed quite a bit more slowly…
This gives a chance for Bob to put a little more expression into each word, and make more out of the fact that “nobody can sing the blues”. That famous five-note interlude which recurs after the first and second line is still there, but softer, as Bob turns the whole song into much more of a lament rather than an attack on power and greed.
By now we really are getting some further improvision in the instrumental verses, which then contrast totally with the much more sparse verse. When he has that whisky in his hand, we know from the music how absolutely alone he is.
The instrumental verses then really are a baroque mix of different instruments all interweaving their own improvisations at the same time before we are told “God is in His heaven”, against the quietest of accompaniments. And so there is even more reflection on that oh, so sad hotel.
2002 still had the song being performed, but the variations from 2000 are modest, but by 2004, the tendency to let rip is pulled right back.
Here the feeling is that Bob knows that we all know the lyrics, but he wants to spell them out to us one more time. So there are new variations in the melody line – they are not enormous but they are there. And that five-note step-by-step accompaniment line is much more restrained. The guitar solo is allowed to shine through too – but then at once we are back to the sparseness. It is as if Blind Willie is there is, but now so very much alone. And the way Bob tells us that no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie, insists that we believe.
As for God being in His heaven, there is now such a despair about this fact that all hope seems to be abandoned. The guitar solo weaves its journey in a completely new way, and in desperate sadness, the masterpiece ends.
And that is as far as it can be taken down. And so by 2006 we’re being taken up again, and here’s a surprise – there’s a bit of a bounce in the old favourite. That, I must say, took me aback, as I had forgotten that happened, but there again, after the 2004 version, where else could Bob go?
But now just listen to those guitar solo verses – they bounce along and there is fun in the steps – I can’t think of another instrumental break like that which comes before “God is in his heaven.” What are we being told? That God is playing with us? That Blind Willie really is having fun? Yes, I think so.
Plus the awareness we’ve all been here before, but now the scenery is new. The playfulness of the guitar solos continues – just listen to the last solo which covers two verses and takes us up to the end – there is such a lightness in the song as we have never had before.
Indeed I think that these examples of Blind Willie on stage show us just how much thought Bob and the band put into the reworkings of the songs. There is no suggestion of “hey lets do it this way” and “let’s try something different”. No, there is none of that. Blind Willie has been taken through a step-by-step progression. Between 1997 and 2006 there was clear exploration of what the song can reveal, where it can be taken and where it can take us.