By Mike Johnson
An index to the entire series can be found here.
In 2017 Dylan was still drawing heavily from Tempest (2012), with five songs regularly played. Before turning to those, however, let’s catch up with a few other regulars. ‘Love Sick’ and ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ are, in this year, the only songs from the groundbreaking Time out of Mind (1997).
From 2013 to 2016 Dylan performed a lot of his songs from centre stage, only sometimes accompanied by the harmonica. In 2017 Dylan only played American Standards centre stage, for all the rest he moved to the piano, and abandoned the harmonica. I can’t find a single use of the harmonica in 2017 although I might have missed something. Adding the piano to these songs changed the sound of them. ‘Love Sick’ is a good example. In this recording from New York City (Nov 24th) Dylan has added a new ‘walking’ piano riff that weaves through the song.
Love Sick (A)
But I prefer the simpler sound from earlier in the year, at Bournemouth (May 4th.) performed without the piano. It could be that the Bournemouth recording is better than NYC, but whatever the reason, this one is the more compelling performance. It might be that the song suits this starkness.
Love Sick (B)
‘To Make You Feel My Love’ from the same album was played twenty times in 2017, and one of the finest ever performances of the song must be this one from Saskatoon, July 14th. The vocal is in the foreground and Dylan gives it his all, using part talking part singing technique. There is lot of pathos and sadness in this song, the feeling that his attempt to make her feel his love is a doomed one, although who could resist such a melancholy appeal?
To Make You Feel My Love
The swinging version of ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ triumphantly introduced in 2012, was played only once in 2017, although to my ear the edge has worn off this arrangement somewhat. Dylan must have thought so too, for this sole performance at Dover (June 17th) was to be the song’s last. The song had been fading from the setlists since 2013, with only a handful of performances since then, and none in 2016. It’s a pity about the absence of the harp break which has given this arrangement such pizzaz; it just doesn’t sound the same without it.
Despite the missing verse, this song has always been a highlight of Dylan’s concerts since 1997. A powerful song evoking American history with its ‘power and greed and corruptible seed,’ the song is generally considered one of Dylan’s greatest, and with good reason. It’s a dark vision of America, and, as such, it’s as much a protest song as ‘With God On Our Side.’
‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’’ is the sole survivor from Together Through Life. The sexual innuendo of the last verse, with its appeal to love, gives this celebration of emptiness a certain tenderness. I find it interesting how the line ‘lay your hand upon my head’ suggests a blessing or benediction.
My ship is in the harbor And the sails are spread Listen to me pretty baby Lay your hand upon my head Beyond here lies nothin' Nothin' done and nothin' said
This performance is from Esch-sur-Alzette, April 22nd.
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
The powerful and enigmatic ‘Pay In Blood’ featured strongly again in 2017. By the end of the year, however, it had begun to change. I don’t know how to describe what is happening here; perhaps an extra chord has been inserted. Dylan hits some different notes with his voice. Here it is from that first wonderful concert in Stockholm, pretty much unchanged from what we have heard before,
Pay In Blood (A)
and here it is at the end of the year in Washington, with the changes I mentioned.
Pay In Blood (B)
For my ear, the Stockholm performance is still the best, although the Washington version is interesting.
Another song from Tempest, ‘Early Roman Kings,’ has become a favourite of Dylan’s. I’m starting to relate this song to a line from ‘Scarlet Town,’ also of course from Tempest: ‘The evil and the good living side by side.’ Those early Roman kings seem to encompass both evil and good, although I wouldn’t want to mess with them. (Washington)
Early Roman Kings
Deep and mysterious, ‘Scarlet Town’ remains for me my favourite song from Tempest. Here a fairy tale world is mixed with the harsher aspects of the real world. The ‘flat-chested junkie whore’ has to mingle with ‘Sweet William’ and ‘Mistress Mary.’ The prospect of salvation is suggested and denied: ‘I touched the garment but the hem was torn.’
It seems that these Tempest songs contain the world’s contradictions, holding them in one melodic movement.
Here’s how it sounded in Stockholm
Scarlet Town (A)
Later in the year, however, at Buffalo, Dylan ups the tempo a little and changes the vocal line, lifting up his voice for the lines
The music starts and the people sway Everybody says, are you going my way?
and for other lines also at the same point in the verses. This change alters the mood of the song, not just giving it an uplift, but a touch of high passion not evident in the more subdued versions.
Scarlet Town (B)
‘Long And Wasted Years,’ with its lurching rhythm and self-justifying persona is one of Dylan’s finest dramatic creations. The persona gives himself away at every turn, revealing himself to be a drunken, bitter, cunning, small-minded, grudge-holding character. Only at the end of the song does real grief show through.
We cried on a cold and frosty morn’ We cried because our souls were torn So much for tears So much for those long and wasted years.
A devastating conclusion to the song.
Dylan hasn’t changed this song much, except for a few lyrical variations. For example these are the lyrics for the sixth verse that I have grown used to, and which he sings in the ‘best ever’ 2015 performance (See NET 2015 part 3):
My enemy crashed into the dust Stopped dead in his tracks and he lost his lust He was run down hard and he broke apart He died in shame, he had an iron heart
I like the way that plays out, but Dylan seemed to have problems with this verse. In 2015 he also sang:
My enemy crashed into the dust he lost his lust a strong wind swept him up no more should he drink from that golden cup
Back in 2014 he sang:
My enemy crashed into the dust Woah, he lost his lust He stopped dead in his tracks and got pinned down Run down hard and he sank to the ground
In 2017, however, he reverts to the version on his official website, which up to this point I don’t think he had yet sung:
My enemy crashed into the earth I don’t know what he was worth But he lost it all, everything and more What a blithering fool he took me for
In previous posts I have put forward the idea that for Dylan a song has no final form, that it is a moveable feast, an adaptable template which changes over the years, ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ being a prime example. But perhaps in some cases, maybe this one, it is the ‘drive for perfection’ (alternative ‘Love Sick’ lyrics from Fragments) that is driving lyrical changes. That ‘restless hungry feeling’ that drives the creator to seek, but never find, that perfection. All lyrics are up for grabs because no lyrics can ever be perfect; there’s always some other, maybe better way of saying it.
I’m not sure this Stockholm performance is quite as ‘perfect’ as the 2015 recording, but it’s getting there.
Long and Wasted Years
Because of its deceptive gentleness and brevity, it’s a bit too easy to overlook ‘Soon After Midnight.’ The song is like a knife that slips between the ribs before you even notice it, a murder ballad dressed as a love song, or maybe it is the killing that is the real love. I don’t know of any lyrical variations for this song. It’s perfection just the way it is.
Here it is in NYC.
Soon After Midnight (A)
And here it is in Washington. I like the bass resonances of this recording. It’s probably the acoustics of the venue, but it gives the song a deeper, darker feel. In turn, Dylan uses those acoustics to use a softer, huskier voice.
Soon After Midnight (B)
We’ll stay in Washington for a final song for this post, and for 2017, the American Standard ‘Melancholy Mood,’ a favourite of Dylan’s regularly performed in 2017. We might say that melancholy rules in most of the songs, and the performances we’ve heard in these three posts. ‘Soon After Midnight’ would be classic example.
As I see it, the theme for 2017 is that of constant innovation, songs changing and evolving.
Next stop, 2018.
Catch you then
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