NET 2018 part 2 The return of the Master Harpist

This episode of the Never Ending Tour series continues from NET 2018 part 1 which is available here.   An index to the series can be found here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

‘When Bob’s playing the harmonica, I know the meaning of life, and Love.’


If you have been following this NET series, or my Bob Dylan master harpist series, you will already be aware that I share the sentiment expressed in the quote above. I am one of those you can hear on concert recordings cheering deliriously when Dylan produces his little Hohner Marine Band harmonica. It enables him to bypass his trickster words and cut straight to the emotion driving the song, intensifying that emotion, giving it a searing edge or whimsical elaboration. Dylan doesn’t cry on stage but his harmonica can.

It was therefore with considerable regret that I tracked the decline of the harp from 2012 until its disappearance in 2017. There is no room for it in the American Standards, which are mostly rooted in the big band sound of the 1930s and 40s, the Sinatra sound that came to heavily influence Dylan’s arrangements of his own songs in the post 2012 period. Also, we have to note Dylan’s increasing use of his baby grand piano at the cost of centre stage performances suited to harmonica breaks. In this late period Dylan never plays both the harmonica and the keyboard at the same time, or switches rapidly between them, as he did from 2003 – 2011.

I was happy, then, to see a revival of the instrument in 2018, even if tightly restricted to four or five songs scattered across the setlist. They are all ballads rather than rock songs. We don’t get a return of the mid to fast tempo, blistering blues solos we’ve been treated to over the years (For a good example of that see ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ NET 2007 part 1 – The light is never dying). What we do get are exquisite meditations on the theme of love.

In a typical 2018 concert, the harp would make its first appearance at number 4 on the setlist in ‘A Simple Twist of Fate.’ The subtlety of this song, with its rueful acknowledgment of the poignantly fleeting nature of love, is perfect for the harp.

Let’s pick it up at Waterbury, and you Dylan harp fans can luxuriate in some beautifully sad, whimsical and clever playing. The Master Harpist at his lingering best. Changes to the lyrics show another kind of mastery, sounding spontaneous yet too perfectly fitting, perhaps, to be ad-libbed. I can’t pick up the description of the hotel but the words go something like this:

They stopped into a … hotel
With the neon burning bright
She said put your hand in mine
There’s no need to hesitate
It was all about that simple twist of fate

Simple Twist of Fate (A)

It can’t get any better than that, can it? Maybe it can. Try this Thackerville performance (Oct 13th). There’s a touch of the ecstatic in vocal and harp playing here. It’s louder and a bit harder-edged than Waterbury, and perhaps a stronger performance. They’re both too good to resist.

Simple Twist of Fate (B)

We could say that ‘Don’t Think Twice’ anticipates the themes of ‘Simple Twist of Fate.’ Love’s brevity, and how the possibilities of what might have been come back to haunt us. With ‘Don’t Think Twice,’ however, I suspect a hidden agenda, that he’s turning the knife in the wound.

I’m not saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind

He keeps repeating ‘don’t think twice’ while at the same time reminding her of all those things that will set her mind brooding. A cunning backstab.

But it is, despite that, still a love song. Regret rules. Here it is at Waterbury, song 14 on the setlist. (Nov 20th)

Don’t Think Twice (A)

Dylan often played the song with brisk tempo, making it upbeat, but here he plays it dead slow, and what a treat it is with that heart-rending harp. Fans of Dylan’s piano playing are treated to a virtuoso ending, some of the best piano playing I’ve heard Dylan do, subtle and quietly jazzy. And the vocal! The once annoying upsinging used to stunning effect. I can imagine Sinatra doing it that way.

Once again I wonder if the Thackerville performance upstages the Waterbury one, if that’s possible. The difference is, I think, that you can feel the frisson between audience and performer at Thackerville, and you sense Dylan singing right into those receptive and appreciative ears.

Don’t Think Twice (B)

This slow version, with harp, evolved early in the year. The song started out with a fairly brisk tempo and no harp. Once again, we catch Dylan innovating, working with his songs, trying out different approaches. Here’s how it sounded at Lisbon, March 22nd

Don’t Think Twice (C)

I’ve always felt that ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ is not (quite) the masterpiece he wanted to paint. Performances have been quite uneven and sometimes a bit clunky. These 2018 performances are, however, the best I’ve heard. The song feels revitalized and transformed. Maybe it’s the super-slow opening verses sung in rich tones. Or maybe it’s the changes to the lyric. He’s got rid of ‘the pretty little girl from Greece’ and replaced it with lines of greater power and cogency. I can’t pick them all up, but here are some of them:

Going to hurry back to my hotel room
Gonna wash my clothes
Step out on the green (?)
But I’ll lock the doors
Turn my back on the world for a while
…. ?
While I paint my masterpiece

And there are further changes later in the song. Any sharp-eared reader who can pick up these lyrics, please put them in the comments section. Now we sense the masterpiece he’s trying to paint.

The best and clearest of these performances may be this one from Macon (Oct 27th), number 6 on the setlist. In this harp break you can hear touches of the ‘high wild mercury sound’ that Dylan spoke of in the 1960’s. The harp shimmers on those high notes. Stabs of melancholy:

When I Paint My Masterpiece (A)

Or the best might be this one from Tulsa (Oct 12th), another perfect performance:

When I Paint My Masterpiece (B)

Adding the harp to ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ is a recent development, but fits the song like a glove, and, in its rawness, further distinguishes it from Adele’s famous smoother, orchestral version, which I note has 187 million hits on You Tube. The harp is the instrument of the cowboy, the hobo, the blues journeyman, the folk singer. It doesn’t belong in an orchestra – Sinatra never used it. What it brings to this song is a sharper-edged loneliness, and with it, I would suggest, a greater emotional range than Adele’s tearful venison. That’s just me. I’m one of the old ‘nobody sings Dylan like Dylan’ brigade.

Let’s start with this powerful performance at Waterbury, which immediately jumps onto my ‘best ever’ list. Hear the crowd responding as Dylan makes that harp shriek and shimmer. Master performer Bob has got them eating out of his hand, and no wonder. It’s a heart-piercing performance. As are his vocals, the way he drops his voice confidentially into talking mode before lifting again into song.

To Make You Feel My Love (A)

Then I found this performance at Macon, a serious rival in terms of ‘best ever’ to Waterbury.

To Make You Feel My Love (B)

We should really leave it there, but then we’d be missing out on this one from Thackerville with its unsurpassed vocal and final, triumphant harp solo.

To Make You Feel My Love (C)

That was certainly a triple treat.

Often the final song of the night will be ‘Blowin in the Wind.’ A sole leftover from the acoustic, ‘protest’ Bob, the first stage of his career and the one that made his name, and if there is one song that did that, it would be ‘Blowin.’

While it became famous as a protest anthem, it’s a rather sad song, even fatalistic. The answers, my friend, to all the important questions of the world are blowin in this fearsome wind, shaking them like a leaf on a tree. The white dove will never get to sleep in the sand, cannon balls will forever fly and there will be endless deaths before we know that too many people have died. In a war-driven world, this 1963 song has a special poignancy – too many people are dying right now.

Yet, for Dylan fans, it is a nostalgic song, harking back to those early protest days. The slow rocking beat and violin add to that nostalgic appeal. And of course a few final frail blasts on the harp. Yes, that’s Bob Dylan. It has to be.

Let’s go to Waterbury again. An outstanding concert.

Blowin in the Wind (A)

‘Blowin’ was not always the final song of the night. That privilege often went to ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’ Seems like an odd choice, until we realize that it evokes that mid-sixties period, perhaps Dylan’s most famous, otherwise represented only by ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ or, sometimes, ‘Like A Rolling Stone.’ Spooky as the song is, it’s another nostalgia piece. As with ‘Blowin,’ Dylan didn’t always play the harp on ‘Thin Man.’ In some of the concert notes, Dylan is credited with the harp on this last song but doesn’t actually play it. Eventually I found this clip from the Fuji Rock Festival (Yuzawa July 29th). It’s a good video, although the sound quality is not quite up to my usual standards.

That’s it for Dylan on the harp in 2018 – I only wish he’d played more. Still, I think you’d agree that these are a precious set of recordings showing Dylan at his best in that quieter, ballad mode. Soon I’ll be back with more sounds from 2018.

Until then

Kia Ora.

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