NET 2017 Part 2 The Moveable Feast

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

An index to the entire series can be found here.

The Setlist which Dylan had developed in 2014, which saw him essentially playing the same concert night after night, was still in place in 2017, although looser, allowing for the reappearance of songs that we thought we’d lost like ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ and ‘Honest With Me.’ (See NET 2017 Part 1)

We have also seen how Dylan’s songs were, in performance, transformed by the influence of Sinatra and the American Standards, and we came to the understanding that for Dylan a song has no final form, that it will go on changing with the years, reflecting different moods and musical modes, making nonsense of the question, how should it be played? This was especially evident with ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ but also other songs like ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ and ‘Summer Days.’

‘Things Have Changed’ was still number 1 on the Setlist, where it had been for some years, essentially unchanged, but in 2017, it too began to evolve. Here it is from that wonderful first concert of the year in Stockholm (April 1st), heavily driven by bass and drums and an obsessive beat. It hits hard, bringing out the implicit menace in the lyrics:

Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too
Don’t get up gentlemen, I’m only passing through

 Things Have Changed (A)

And here it is at the end of the year in Washington (Nov 14th) and it has developed what is almost a bossa nova rhythm. The song has always bustled along but this rhythmic twist lends a touch of whimsicality to those same dark lyrics.

Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose
Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose

Things Have Changed (B)

Since the abrupt disappearance of ‘She Belongs to Me’ in 2016, number 2 on the Setlist has mostly been ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’ a survivor from The Freewheeling Bob Dylan (1963) along with the final song before the encore, ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ This bitter sweet little song might get us thinking that it’s actually not all right and things might have been different – ‘we never did too much talking anyway’ – and firmly places the singer ‘on the dark side of the road.’ We could speculate endlessly on why Dylan retained this song, although it is after all a seminal song, but I’m just glad it’s still there and delivered with such freshness and feeling fifty-four years later. The Stockholm crowd are delighted.

Don’t Think Twice

But during the year ‘Don’t Think Twice’ had to share the number 2 slot with ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ a song of similar sentiment and vintage, another of the old acoustic songs, this one from 1964. This song warns against projecting onto others what we think they should be. Dylan has never suffered that gladly…and he never was a flower child. Here he is in Washington still delivering the bad news to the woman who’s invited to ‘leave at your own chosen speed.’ He puts it to a bouncy beat and builds up the vocal from a quiet start.

It Ain’t Me Babe

While on the subject of Dylan’s early songs, we get a last ever performance of ‘Hard Rain’ which hasn’t been on the Setlist since 2015. There was only one performance in 2017, in Dover, June 17th, certainly not a best ever, and not a high quality recording either, but a necessary one. This song has been astonishing us ever since it was written (another from The Freewheelin Bob Dylan) and here it is to astonish us one last time.

 Hard Rain

Although by this stage we could pretty much count the number of songs surviving from Dylan’s huge 1960’s output on one hand, three of those are from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965: ‘Ballad of a Thin Man,’ ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Highway 61 Revisited.’ Interestingly, in 2017, there are no songs from ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966) often considered Dylan’s greatest album. At least none I can find. (‘Visions of Johanna’ will make a single appearance in 2018)

‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is placed early in the Setlist, number 3 or 4. After the softer ‘Don’t Think Twice’ or ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ ‘Revisited’ will kick a concert into higher gear, deliver an arse-kicker taking us deep into Dylan’s rock roots as well as contemporary violence and rampant consumerism:

Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
"I got forty red, white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things?"
Louie the King said, "Let me think for a minute, son"

And he said, "Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take it on down to Highway 61"

You know Highway 61? It takes you on down to Desolation Row, and we’ll get there in a moment. In the meantime let’s enjoy this recording from Stockholm at the beginning of the year.

Highway 61 Revisited (A)

And here it is from Washington at the end of the year. It may be the recording, but it seems to me to have a bit more thump, a bit heavier in the drums and bass.

Highway 61 Revisited (B)

‘Desolation Row’ is the finale for the circus songs on Highway 61 Revisited, and the album’s piece de resistance. A song full of strangeness and grandeur, with a touch of lyrical beauty in the melody line which makes for a great performance piece. I still go back to 2003 for my ‘best ever’ performance (see NET 2003 part 1), but this song has remained consistently strong through the years. From those first insistent riffs, it weaves its spell, and builds as it goes. This is one song that has hardly changed at all over the years. Let’s try this one from New York City (Nov 24th), second to last concert of the year.

Desolation Row (A)

And here it is from Washington ten days earlier. I’m quite partial to the thumpier acoustics of the Washington concert, with Dylan’s voice especially husky and suggestive.

Desolation Row (B)

‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ was only played three times in 2016, but came back stronger than ever in 2017 and would remain strong until 2019. It would come at the end of the concert, often as a second encore after ‘Blowing In The Wind.’ Here it is at Bournemouth (May 5th), subdued but sinister. Welcome again to the Dylan circus.

Ballad of a Thin Man

There are not many songs surviving from the 1970’s either, only ‘Tangled up in Blue’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ from Blood on theTracks. Nothing from the other four albums from the decade. ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ was only played once in 2017, in Dover (June 17th), but would come back strongly in 2018. I’m glad we didn’t lose it. There is a strong feeling in the song that it is the fickle gods that rule our fates, which are actually seldom simple, especially where love is concerned. It’s not the best recording but the song shines through.

Simple Twist Of Fate

Time now to tune into more American Standards. ‘Stormy Weather,’ and ‘Once Upon A Time,’ written by Broadway writer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams, were the only songs from Triplicate Dylan sang in 2017. ‘Once Upon A Time’ was from the 1962 musical, All American. First recorded by Tony Bennet in 1962. Sinatra recorded it in 1965.

Here’s Dylan doing it in NYC. Welcome the crooner!

Once Upon A Time

As I commented in the last post, Dylan tended to stick to the same set of songs from his American Standards, just as he was doing with his own songs. The arrangements for these songs, however, he hardly changed at all. One of my favourites is the dreamy ‘Full Moon And Empty Arms’ from Shadows In The Night (2015). It is the love sick song par excellence. We’re back in Stockholm for this one; a sumptuous performance.

Full Moon And Empty Arms

I’m going to finish this post with a total rarity. In October 2017 Dylan’s collaborator from the 1980s, Tom Petty, died. It’s worth remembering that Dylan played with Petty and the Heartbreakers from 1985 to 1987. You can hear some of the fruits of that collaboration in the very first NET article, 1987. (The Never-Ending Tour: 1987 – Farewell to all that)

On October 21, at Broomfield, Dylan sang Petty’s ‘Learning to Fly.’

This performance was caught on a cellphone, and the quality of the recording is way below what I would normally use. In this case, however, we should count ourselves lucky to have any record of it at all. The utter professionalism of the band, which plays this as if they had been playing it for years, shines here, and a moving performance shows through the poor recording.

Learning to Fly

While recording devices were getting more sophisticated, it was not getting any easier to obtain good recordings from a Dylan concert. This was not just because of Dylan’s well-known antipathy towards bootleggers, but rising security concerns. Terrorism was, and still is, always a worry. Smuggling recording gear into concerts became much harder.

I take off my hat to these brave, anonymous tapers for their persistence. Without them, there would have been no record of the NET, with the huge cultural loss that would have entailed. I do appreciate the moral murkiness of recording an artist against their wishes, which may be why an ethic exists among collectors to share material and not buy and sell it.

Sometimes larger cultural considerations come into play. Franz Kafka gave strict instructions to his friend and editor, Max Brod, that after his death all his writing, including his two unfinished novels The Trial and The Castle be burned. Brod did not honour his promise to the writer, and our literary culture is all the richer for it. I’m not sure how you sort that one out, I’m just glad we have Kafka’s novels – and these NET recordings.

I’ll be back soon with a final post on 2017.

Until then

Kia Ora


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