By Mike Johnson
An index to the series can be found here.
In 2018 Dylan continued to radically re-configure his songs, altering lyrics and experimenting with different tempos and moods. The result was a series of stunning performances that must rank among his greatest.
The year was marked by a rapid phasing out of American Standards. He sang a few in early concerts in the first, European leg of the tour but soon dropped them altogether. As we have seen, these songs had had an enormous impact on the way he approached his own songs but by 2018 he was ready to leave them behind; they had made their mark. We also see a revival of the harmonica, up to four or five songs per concert, after dropping the instrument almost completely in 2017. We’ll look at those in the next post. We also find the sudden reappearance of some old favourites we thought had long gone, completely renovated, as we did in 2017.
Take, for example, ‘It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry’, a song that disappeared after being played once in 2004 and once in 2005. We thought it had faded out for good. Then in 2018 and 2019 it comes surging back, and it has never sounded better. Here’s a truly majestic performance, an absolute treat for any lover of the blues, transforming the gentlest song on Highway 61 Revisited into this grandest of slow blues. (Phoenix, Oct 4th) This is a classic blues epic, my friends.
It takes a lot to laugh
Now that’s perfection, full of grandeur and stateliness. Dylan’s voice is full of power and authority, timing perfect, the band impeccable. The perfect performance of a perfect song, Christopher Ricks might have said.
And, while we’re on the subject of grandeur, we find ‘Cry a While’ has been transformed from the jazzy versions of old into this crashing wall of sound:
Cry a While (A)
What once sounded as sharply humourous now sounds anguished and threatening. Readers might recall that on the album (Love and Theft) and in early performances, the tempo switched between fast, with a running bass, and slow & bluesy. Now it works as a heavy and obsessive slow march. It sounds like a totally different song as it digs into the emotion driving the song.
For those who like to see Dylan in action, here’s a You Tube video of that performance.
That’s from NYC, Nov 29th, but it’s by no means a one-off or a fluke. The song crops up frequently on the Setlist in 2018, every time a blast. Here it is from Roanoke (US) with an interesting slow, ‘scattered’ entry into the song.
Cry a While (B)
And…because you can’t get too much of a good thing, here it is from Macon, France, Oct 22nd, once again full of solemn power. There’s a note of triumph in this voice, and a touch of cruelty too. Incredible performances.
Cry a While (C)
For a while it looked as if we were losing ‘Gotta Serve Somebody. That and ‘Every Grain of Sand’ are the only survivors from Dylan’s gospel period (1979 – 81). ‘Serve Somebody’, after being played four times in 2009 and then only once in 2011, looked like it was fading, then comes roaring back in 2018 – 19. It is still, in 2023, a staple on the Setlist.
Unsurprisingly, it has a completely new set of lyrics. I’m not the only one to suspect that the song becomes a vehicle for improvised, on the spot changes. It seems that just about every time he plays the song, the lyrics change; the song is well suited for it – it really doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you can’t help but serve somebody. Some of these changes, however would last through to 2019.
You may be in Las Vegas Having lots of fun Hidin’ in the bushes Holding a smokin’ gun
Here it is from Waterbury, the last song of the night before two encores. It’s driven by a quick-fire shuffle beat and Dylan’s voice soars when he comes up to the punchline – ‘it may be the devil or it may be the lord.’
Serve Somebody (A)
In Melbourne (Aug 23th) Dylan finds a different rhythm from that shuffle beat. The bass line that runs this version is maddeningly familiar to me, and pulls the song into rock ‘n roll, but I just can’t place it. It takes us back to the late fifties or early sixties. If any reader can place it, please drop a note in the comments! Another spot-on vocal.
Serve Somebody (B)
There is one old favourite, however, which has been fading away and is played for the last time in 2018. ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ having been played over 2000 times and was once invariably played as a final song, ending concerts with an apocalyptic blast, seems like an unlikely song to lose. Once it was de-throned as a final song by Blowin’ in the wind’ or ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man,’ it had no place in the Setlist to go. It was played a handful of times in 2015, dropped from sight in 2016 and 2017, reappearing for some final performances in 2018.
During the organ grinder years (2006 – 2011) Dylan quietened the song considerably, with minimal backing during the verses. Here, in its final performance in NYC (Nov 29th), it appears at number 5 on the Setlist, and Dylan half talks the song over a rasta beat. The effect is quite strange when we’re used to it being given the rock, Hendrix style, treatment, and it’s over to you to decide how well this shuffle beat works. Intriging. I’m sorry to see it go.
‘Thunder On The Mountain’ is another song I thought we might be losing, as it was played a few times in 2014, disappeared for two years until it was revived in 2017, and played consistently over 2018 -19. It’s a fast, chuggy song packed with verses. Again the bass line is familiar, and fifties sounding, but again I can’t place it. It’s given a jazzy twist, which makes it interestingly dissonant. Dylan doesn’t belt it out, as he has done, but skips lightly through the verses, aided by that bouncy bass line. Once more we’re close to a shuffle beat. (Waterbury, Nov 20th)
Thunder on the mountain (A)
This recording, from Macon, with the same arrangement, is a little sharper and clearer than the Waterbury recording, with Dylan’s voice more to the forefront.
Thunder on the mountain (B)
You’d think that ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ is, because of its iconic status, another song Dylan would never drop, but, prior to 2018 it was fading. After having had over 2000 performances, this old warhorse was played only once in 2013, drops out until it gets another one-off performance in 2016, only to skip 2017 and jump back into the Setlist in 2018, remaining strong through 2019. I was not surprised when it faded out, as I sensed Dylan was having trouble infusing it with life. Maybe, like ‘Watchtower,’ he thought of it as a song he had to sing.
However, with some nifty chord work on the piano, a dramatic slowing down half way through each verse, a replacing of the La Bamba backing with yet another one of those familiar sounding rock ‘n roll riffs, and a fully expressive vocal, I haven’t enjoyed a performance as I did with this one, again from Waterbury, for a long time. I found my feet starting to shuffle.
We have to bid farewell to ‘Visions of Johanna.’ Arguably Dylan’s greatest song, it was last played extensively in 2013, once in 2014, a few times in 2015, then reappears in 2018 for a final, one-off performance in Sydney (August 19th). Regular readers of this series will know that I have never felt that the post 1966 versions, especially the NET versions, have ever been able to capture the epic grandeur of those early performances, with their swirling, murky energy and late-late night druggy mood.
Frustratingly enough, there are signs in this last Sydney performance that Dylan, if he’d persisted, might have been able to deliver the song with all its dark magic as he’d once done. Getting rid of the light, bouncy little beat he’d been using would be a good start – and that almost happens here, but in the end it gives way to the dumpty-dum. There are some nifty piano riffs here, and a passionate vocal. The crowd are pleased with it, that’s for sure.
The moody, scene-setting first verse is often put forward as an example of the more literary Dylan, Dylan the poet, worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin' to be so quiet? We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it Lights flicker from the opposite loft In this room the heat pipes just cough The country music station plays soft But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off Just Louise and her lover so entwined And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind
Visions of Johanna
In 2017, we saw ‘Tryin To Get To Heaven’ make a comeback after having been dropped in 2012 (See NET 2017 part 1), and it 2018 -19 it continues its run, clocking up multiple performances. The arrangement, with the light, edgy beat is the same as 2017, as is the vocal mastery. Dylan voice floats lightly through the song, man, he makes it sound so easy, as he trips us through a series of disturbing notions.
When I was in Missouri They would not let me be I had to leave there in a hurry I only saw what they let me see You broke a heart that loved you Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore I’ve been walking that lonesome valley Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
Here’s how it sounded at the very first concert of the year, Lisbon, March 22nd:
Tryin’ to get to heaven (A)
And here’s how it sounded in Macon in Oct. The recording here is little crisper. Wonderful performances, both of them
Tryin’ to get to heaven (B)
I’m going to finish with one of the few American Standards he did play in 2018. ‘Moon River’ is not entirely new to the NET, Dylan played it once before in 1990. It got its second and final playing on Nov 6th, in the Johnny Mercer theatre in Savanna, Johnny Mercer’s home town. Mercer wrote the lyrics and the music was written by the famous Henry Mancine (1961). Playing well-known songs by singers in their hometowns is a pattern Dylan sustains in the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour – he recently did Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’ in Cohen’s hometown, Montreal. This famous song has been covered hundreds of times. Sinatra sang it in 1964.
It’s a pity the recording isn’t better. I find it pretty harsh and scratchy, but we’re glad we’ve got it. It’s obviously a fine performance.
I’ll be back soon to look at the return of the Master Harpist.