By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
By the time the 2017 NET kicked off on April 1st it was clear that the seventy-six year old Dylan was still on a roll, particularly when it came to performing American Standards. His third and final collection of these songs was released as a triple album on March 31st – Triplicate, a massive thirty song collection.
Under the influence of the Voice (Sinatra), Dylan hit a new high in 2015 when the first album of these songs appeared, Shadows In The Night, and kept up that standard for the following years; 2015 was not an isolated peak year, but a new plateau. He’d made a breakthrough, particularly with his vocals, and the years that followed 2015 consolidated that breakthrough.
It wasn’t just these new songs, however, that Dylan was integrating into his Setlist, but his own older songs with new arrangements, many of which were transformed by the influence of the American Standards, not just by Dylan’s vocals, but the conception of the songs themselves.
It was in 2017 that another chapter was written in the extraordinary evolution of perhaps the greatest of all NET songs, ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ The last major change in this song was in 2014 when Dylan presented a cut-back version with completely new lyrics for the final two verses. It was then he began starting the song centre stage and moving to the piano after the harp break. That pattern served him well for three years. In 2017 he starts on the piano, drops out the harp, but more significantly, alters the tempo of the song, swinging it like a Sinatra take of an American Standard, keeping the 2014 lyrics. If ‘Tangled’ is a new American Standard anyway, Dylan began to change it so that it sounded more like an old American Standard.
Here’s how it sounded on the first night of the tour, Stockholm April 1st, pretty much the same as previous years except, and I might be imagining this, a certain lilt or swing, natural to the song’s melodic line but beginning to assert itself.
Tangled Up in Blue (A)
By the time we get to the end of the year, Nov 14th (Washington) the song has transformed itself into this:
Tangled Up in Blue (B)
Dylan sounds a little tentative at the beginning but soon warms to his task, finally delivering a compelling new song, half talk, half swing. I was reluctant at first, but pretty soon it got to me, the insouciant swing and the almost tongue-in-cheek vocal delivery (he is poking fun at the whole experience, I’m sure of it). I had to grin and my feet were soon waving about seeking some old-time dance floor (the kind where they put sawdust on the floor). A remarkable transformation.
Something perhaps more remarkable happened at that first, Stockholm concert however. Dylan performed a song he’d dropped from his setlists in 2005 – ‘Standing in the Doorway’ from Time Out Of Mind. Twelve years after being dropped it returns for a one-off performance at Stockholm. Why? The answer appears to be that this concert was attended by the committee that had granted Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature the year before, that Dylan knew they were in the audience so sang what he might have thought was one of his more literary songs. I don’t know, it all seems a bit strange to me. ‘Standing in the Doorway’ is a fine melancholy mood piece, wonderfully in keeping with the American Standards Dylan favours, but it is no more ‘literary’ than many of his songs. He could have done ‘Hard Rain’ if he’d wanted to evoke the young poet who transformed American music.
Anyway, it’s a gorgeous, subdued performance. This would have to go into your top twenty best Dylan live performances. A ‘best ever’ lying in wait for you; there’s a magic in it that’s hard to define; I think it’s that rich, breathy voice.
Standing in the Doorway
‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ is another song that apparently was petering out, disappearing in 2012, except for a one-off performance in 2014, until 2017 during which it’s played twenty-eight times. This song underwent a renaissance that would carry it through to 2019, still going strong when the Never Ending Tour ended. It appears that Dylan rediscovered the song and was able to re-invent it with his new American Standards voice. It has a last verse beautifully in harmony with the, late-night mood of those American Standards, and with ‘Standing in the Doorway.’
Gonna sleep down in the parlor And relive my dreams I’ll close my eyes and I wonder If everything is as hollow as it seems When you think that you’ve lost everything You find out you can always lose a little more I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door
With this song, he does something similar to what he did to ‘Tangled,’ giving it a loping, swinging beat. The song and dance man at work: a hint of the vaudeville. Delivered with wry humour. It’s not the old song at all, it doesn’t have the kind of intensity you find in early performances, but it’s got something else. A beguiling, Devil-may-care attitude. More evidence, if we need it, of the transformative effect the American Standards had on Dylan’s own work. (24th Nov, NYC)
Trying to Get to Heaven
These were not the only songs to get a serious makeover in 2017. It was a highly innovative year. Take for example ‘Summer Days’ which began as a hard-hitting, jazz piece, with a full-band sound, got stripped down to more of a thrumming-rock, bass-driven piece, now to re-appear as a country and western dance song. Grab your pardners and circle to the left! How is it that Dylan’s lyrics can sound just right in all these different styles? I think the answer to that lies in the open-ended nature of the lyrics themselves, and Dylan’s vocal mastery. After all, lyrics like ‘I got a house on the hill, I got hogs lying out in the mud,’ are a perfect fit for this countrified version.
Once again I find myself beguiled into enjoying it. (NYC)
‘Honest with Me’ is another song that underwent a renaissance in 2017, having disappeared after a mere two performances in 2013. It was no flash in a pan either, staying strong through to the end of 2019. In this case, the song’s been turned into a 1950’s rocker with a Hank Marvin of the Shadows style guitar intro. It’s been reverted to that era. The hard-edged lyrics sit a little oddly in this arrangement. Maybe the lyrics are a bit more desperate than the old rock ‘n roll era it now evokes. No, I don’t think Cliff Richard could have sung it. Little Richard maybe – listen to that piano. Arguably this performance is more musically varied, and stays more interesting, than the original. (NYC) The way Dylan’s voice cuts across the key grabs our attention. The arrangement has grown more complex, and that’s all to the good for this highly repetitive song.
Honest with Me
We have a similar story with ‘Thunder on the Mountain,’ last played in 2014 but it’s back in 2017 with a stripped down, rock ‘n roll, punky feeling to it. Quite frenetic with that sharp drum beat and the way Dylan rattles through the lyrics. Hank Marvin never played like this. This is not the first time Dylan has stripped his songs back to their rock ‘n roll roots. He did the same from 2008 to 2010, proving just how durable his songs are, how tough they are surviving all kinds of treatments. You can thrash the hell out of them and they’re still good. (NYC)
Thunder on the Mountain
I have a problem with ‘High Water,’ another song which has undergone intense development ever since it appeared on the setlists. The official Dylan website tells us that Dylan did not perform the song in 2017, yet here it is, number 7 in the Stockholm setlist. I can’t find it performed anywhere else in 2017, however (although I could have missed it), and make a tentative suggestion that it was played only once in that year. In 2016, we got a blistering rock version of the song, one that’s still sitting in my best ever slot at the moment (See NET, 2016 part 1). Here, in 2017, we find the banjo restored, giving it that country feel again, but the hard-driving rhythm remains, and Dylan is in top vocal form. It’s clean and crisp (the bootleggers Crystal Cat strike again) and pleasingly minimal.
I’ll finish this post with a couple of American Standards, but again, Dylan did not pack out his setlist with these songs, or the new songs from Triplicate. At some concerts, Denver for example (June 17th), he didn’t play any; at Stockholm however, he played four of them. I might have missed something here, but I can only find two song from Triplicate performed in 2017 – ‘Once Upon A Time’ and ‘Stormy Weather.’ The latter was written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Ted Koehler in 1933, sung by Sinatra in 1959, and is one of the most famous American Standards ‘uncovered’ by Dylan.
The recordings of this song are not marvelous, but this one from Bournemouth (May 4th) is passable. Dylan handles the vocals with ease.
It’s mostly all old favourites, like ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ or ‘All Or Nothing At All.’ Here’s ‘All Or Nothing At All’ number eighteen of a twenty-one song set at Stockholm.
All Or Nothing At All
As evidenced here in this post, Dylan’s ability to transform his own songs needs to be acknowledged as a major feature of his art and intrinsic to it. There is no final form, no definitive version; a song can be glimpsed through a number of musical lenses. The songs change and adapt themselves to a Dylan growing older along with them. With each new lens we see the song in a different light. New possibilities present themselves; familiar lyrics in unfamiliar guises.
That’s it for now. I’ll be back soon with more from that innovative year, 2017.