By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In 2018 the Setlist ruled just as it had since 2014, and kicking off concerts with ‘Things Have Changed’ was pretty much set in concrete by this stage. It is the perfect way to introduce audiences to a Dylan who had evolved in new directions (‘I’m not what I was, things aren’t what they were’ he would later sing), and to songs that had similarly undergone change and transformation.
The song itself, however, had not changed much over the years, at least compared to some other songs, and remained that busy, bustling ice-breaker. In 2018, however, there is a new, shuffly rhythm I find hard to describe (a teaspoon of bossa nova, perhaps, with a pinch of jazz and sustained chords behind the last lines of each verse giving them a touch of rock grandeur). The song was feeling the heat from the transformational energy which had been driving Dylan’s live performances since 2012, when he took to his beloved baby grand, and which had been given a turbo charge in 2015 by his encounter with the American Standards and Frank Sinatra.
I don’t think there’s one special performance of the song (they’re all equally special), so I’ll go with this one from Tulsa
Things Have Changed (A)
and this bursting with energy performance from Waterbury
Things Have Changed (B)
With the audience now suitably charged up, Dylan would switch, for number 2 on the Setlist and a quieter sound, to ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ from 1964.
I don’t want to read too much into the pairing of these songs at the beginning of the concerts. Are we to read ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ as a continuation of the assertion that ‘things have changed’? It still isn’t him, dontcha know? There’s a paradox here in that ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ is quintessential Dylan, vintage Dylan – it really is him, babe, so things can’t have changed that much. Both songs challenge the image we might have of Dylan, but there’s great nostalgia value in that earlier song.
There’s a catchy little jazzy riff, some subtle chord work, and another shuffling beat behind this 2018 version, almost a continuation of the bossa nova feel of ‘Things Have Changed.’ Dylan once more excels with a half-spoken half-sung delivery. My favourite is this Waterbury recording,
It Ain’t Me, Babe (A)
although I do like this brasher, Thackerville recording:
It Ain’t Me, Babe (B)
Spot three on the Setlist is mostly reserved for the hard rocker, ‘Highway 61 Revisited.’ I’ve written a lot about this song in past posts, how it feels like a reaction to empty materialism and the ‘anything goes’ culture. Is it the next World War you want? Sure, it can be easily done. It’s a protest song in all but name. My favourite is this one from Waterbury. It glides smoothly along. Get ready to groove.
Highway 61 (A)
But I also like that harder-edged sound from Macon.
Highway 61 (B)
We pass over the next three on the Setlist – ‘Simple Twist of Fate,’ ‘Cry A While’ and ‘Paint My Masterpiece’ as we met them in the previous two posts, which brings us to number 7 on the Setlist, ‘Honest With Me,’ another full-on rocker. What strikes me listening to these two excellent renditions is how far Dylan has pushed them towards a jazz sound, the early jazz of the 1930s, especially during the instrumental breaks. The wide-ranging lyrics are also jazzy with their improvised feel, desperate and frenetic as that might be, with a sense of menace lurking in there somewhere.
The first recording is from early in the year at Brno, the Czech Republic (April 15th) with the song sounding very much as it has done in previous years.
Honest with Me (A)
This second recording from Macon in Oct shows how the song has grown and changed over the year. It’s now a 1950’s rocker with echoes of Hank Marvin and the Shadows. It’s stripped down and ready to rock. It’s worth mentioning too the ‘fooling around’ before the song begins which is a bit more than just fooling around, and you can hear similar intros to other songs; they seem like random sounds that sort of coalesce into the melody.
Honest with Me (B)
We now jump over ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’ at number 8 on the Setlist (See NET 2018 part 1) to arrive at the mysterious and evocative ‘Scarlet Town’ at number 9. With this song we have an embarrassment of riches, with many fine performances, and it’s difficult to choose between them.
In previous posts I have tried to crack the enigma of this song, not particularly successfully, but have now lost the desire to do so, preferring instead to sit back and let the images wash over me, to let the song cast its magic spell without trying to dissect it or break it down; the song floats along within its own world, carrying you with it. Do ‘Uncle Tom’ and ‘Uncle Bill’ really refer to Obama and Clinton? It makes no difference to me. These figures don’t have to represent people in the world, they are just characters in the pageant that is Scarlet Town. There are mystical hints ‘all human forms seem glorified’ as well as the familiar emotional wasteland ‘put your heart on a platter and see who will bite’ as well as a touch of the sordid. In this verse God’s grace and the sordid go hand in hand.
Set ‘em up Joe, play Walking The Floor Play it for my flat chested junky whore I’m staying up late and I’m making amends While the smile of heaven descends
My advice is to enjoy first and ask questions afterwards. We might never be able to fully account for the spooky yet uplifting effect of the song; some poetry lies just beyond the reach of the intellect which is why it exerts such power.
I’m restricting myself to two performances, this first from the ever-reliable Waterbury concert. Feel that jazzy clip of the rhythm in behind the voice.
Scarlet Town (A)
And this one from NYC (Nov 30th) with its powerful, slightly echoey vocal.
Scarlet Town (B)
We skip number 10, ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (see NET 2018 part 2) to arrive at ‘Pay In Blood,’ at number 11, another enigmatic song from Tempest. I think of it as the song of the self-made crook, a character full of self-righteousness and violence. My go-to performance has been the 2016 version (See NET 2016 part 1) which takes its audience by storm, frightening and overwhelming. The 2018 versions are musically more subtle, driven by an edgy progressive riff, but the character remains the same, a Trumpian mix of victim and perpetrator.
Let’s start once more at Waterbury.
Pay in Blood (A)
This Thackerville performance is equally convincing and a shade sharper.
Pay in Blood (B)
We are now just over half-way through the concert. We have to skip three places (‘Rolling Stone’ ‘Early Roman Kings’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ covered in previous posts) to arrive at number 15 on the Setlist, ‘Love Sick,’ a haunted and haunting song, the first song, and first walking song, off Time Out of Mind. My ‘best ever’ for this song remains the 2014 performance with its heavy tread and blistering harp solo (See NET 2014 part 1), but these 2018 performances have grown on me.
Dylan increases the tempo of the song a little, and comes up with a whimsical piano riff to carry it, but it has lost none of its spookiness (just a little of its heaviness) or lostness. The change of lyrics to (I think):
You fill me to my heart, then you rip it all apart You went through my pockets as I lay sleeping
returns me, albeit briefly, to the sordid story told in ‘Fourth Time Around’ (1966)
She screamed till her face got so red Then she fell on the floor And I covered her up and then Thought I’d go look through her drawer
In ‘Love Sick’ the master thief gets robbed – sluggers and muggers!
The new lyrics make it more explicit what kind of love he’s talking about, a love a lot less mysterious than the original words. We’re back with Honey who stole his money. All of which makes the ending, a broken yet heartfelt confession – ‘I’d do anything to, just be with you’ – all the more craven and pitiable. In past posts I’ve taken a more spiritual view of the song, the feeling of being deserted by, and haunted by his God, the ending an agonising cry at being separated from God. I haven’t lost that feeling entirely, but the new lyrics bring it all back home – it’s another hard luck story you gonna hear.
I’ll keep with tradition and start with Waterbury, which has become my reference concert.
Love Sick (A)
And, further sticking to tradition, match that with this one from Macon, another brilliant vocal.
Love Sick (B)
I’m going to leave it there for now, having eight more songs to cover, and will catch you with the next post, the final for 2018.
In the meantime, keep dancing…
Mike Johnson is fiction writer and poet little known outside of his country New Zealand/Aotearoa. His eleventh novel, Driftdead, a dark fantasy, has been critically well received.
‘Driftdead is as canny a book about the uncanny as you would want to read. Past and future stream; our catastrophic present is registered with hallucinatory clarity; haunting characters from a small Aotearoan town speak the rhapsodies of their passing from a dreamland where beauty and horror orbit each other in the eye of an incorrigibly domestic storm. It is disturbing and salutary in equal measure; philosophically astute; a slow burn which generates terrific suspense. Mike Johnson has written a classic.’ Martin Edmond
If you want a signed copy sent to you, email Mike at: email@example.com
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