By Tony Attwood, with recordings presented by Mike Johnson in the Never Ending Tour Series.
In this series we look at the way Bob has transformed certain songs over time in his live performances, in particular looking for the progression in his feelings about, and his understanding of, what the song offers, what the song says, and where it can be taken next.
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
- Blind Willie McTell. 1997-2006
- It Ain’t me Babe from 1994-1998.
- Things have changed 2000-2007
- Love sick from the very start to 2000
This song was written in 1967 but the first live performance was not until April 1992. It then continued to be performed from time to to time until 2005 by which time it had been given an outing 256 times.
The earliest recording we have from the tour comes from 1996, when it was the opening song, sounding very, very different from the recorded version. It’s got a bounce, but also a pleading, almost whining edge, and of course a vibrant harmonica part too.
The next recording I’m highlighting is from 2000, and I think it is particularly interesting if we compare it with some of the later versions below. We have the band doing their things, but of the chaos that was to come later we have no hint. However the song is taken a faster speed and there is a much stronger performance from Bob with the vocals, and given the lack of chord changes within the song that really does help.
The next recording is utterly different in that any sense of the quietness and dignity of the drifter which we had in the original recording has now got lost completely. Before the speed and beat represented (to me at least) the desire of the court simply to process the down and out drifter as fast as possible and move on to more interesting things. Now we get the emphasis instead on a sense of court room chaos.
But musically there is also a slight sense that there is not much that can be done with this song except belt it out, again because there are no chord changes. Indeed from the off I just get a sense of all the instrumentalists falling over each other, none quite sure where to go, or even (at the start) quite where to come in.
In the last example here the speed is still there but at last there is a feeling that more (in sense of every instrument going at the song at full blast) is simply ending up in noise.
This version shows us that there can be a lot of going back and thinking once again about each song. Although even with all that Bob himself has not been able to change the single line of vocals which is what the song has all the way through.
The chaos of the courtroom is still there however, and of course the whole point of the song is the eternity of the chaos, and this 2005 version does explore that more fully.
But above all the prolonged instrumental solo in the latter part of the performance is, in my mind, a massive improvement on what has gone before. The repeated musical phrases do make the point that there is no escape, and they make this in a much better way (for me at least) than the chaos of every musician belting out his part, which is what we had before. By taking out the competition of the instruments while Bob is singing and replacing it with a single repeated phrase, we get a much greater sense of the space of the courtroom, and perhaps the pointlessness of the whole affair.
But since we are here perhaps I may be permitted also note just how far this incredibly simple one-chord song with one line of melody repeated over and over has traveled.
And since I have added the Thea Guilmore version, which is one of my favourite cover versions of any Dylan song, we might as well round this up by going all the way back to Bob’s original….