Never Ending Tour 2019 part 1 The liberated republic

An index of all the articles in the Never Ending Tour series can be found here.

NET 2019 part 1 The liberated republic

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

“Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality. Some different republic, some liberated republic.” Bob Dylan

Nobody could have guessed, least of all Bob Dylan, that 2019 would turn out to be the last year of the NET, that on March 11th 2020 the World Health Organisation would declare Covid 19 a pandemic, that performance venues would close and the world would change forever. Dylan would be off the road for nearly two years and when he did come back, in November 2022, the tour would be clearly labeled the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour, making the NET history.

So there is no sense that the 2019 tour were farewell concerts; as far as everybody was concerned it was business as usual for the NET, and the seventy-eight year old maestro continued the roll he’d been on since 2015, innovating and experimenting, reveling in the new power and authority of his miraculously rejuvenated voice, making the final five years of the NET the most arresting and compelling of all. For us of course, looking back from hindsight, there is a special poignancy to these recordings as they are mostly final performances.

Some of the 2019 performances qualify as ‘best evers,’ definitive versions of great power. I’ll start with a few of these to see if I can convince you.

‘Early Roman Kings’ did, to my mind, come into focus in terms of performance in 2015 as a powerful Chicago Blues style creation, dark and heavy and full of portent. Just listen to the way Dylan uses his voice in this performance from Santa Barbara, Oct 12th. You don’t have to puzzle over the lyrics to figure out that these early Roman kings are not to be messed with, that they are an implacable and sinister force. (I wish I knew what was taking place on stage about a quarter of the way through. The audience cheers and claps. Something is happening here but we don’t know what it is.)

Early Roman Kings (A)

What a blast! That has to be a best-ever, surely. Well, maybe. But here’s another one, this one from New York, Dec 3rd. The vocal articulation may not be quite as clear as in Santa Barbara but otherwise it’s equal in terms of its sheer power. Two best evers, running side by side down the tracks, right into the arms of those early Roman kings. Enjoy the ride.

Early Roman Kings (B)

Let’s do the same thing with ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ and switch from Santa Barbara to New York. It’s the backing, the rhythm section, that pushes this version from a rocker into a progressive rock/jazz thriller. Dylan hasn’t been idle behind that baby grand for the past seven years since quitting the organ; he’s been developing his keyboard style. He sure hammers those ivories Jerry Lee Lewis style in this scathing meteor of a song, a denunciation of all things false and phony.

Highway 61 Revisited (A)

Before you say ‘best ever,’ best listen to the New York performance. The piano is not quite so evident, but the way the guitars pick up the jazzy riff is a pleasure to listen to, and the recording is a little clearer than Santa Barbara. Take your pick!

Highway 61 Revisited (B)

Now for a change of pace. If I’m cherry-picking from 2019, in search of the elusive best evers, the next song up has to be ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ from Palo Alto, Oct 14th. It’s such an astonishing performance I should probably have kicked off with it, but the early Roman kings had me in thrall and then I got whirled off down Highway 61 before I could catch my breath.

What is interesting about the new lyrics is that they expose the tension between the privacy and isolation needed for the creative act, and the surreal craziness of the life of a touring super-star. In this version, he sings

I’ll lock the doors
turn my back on the world for a while
I’ll stay right there
Till I paint my masterpiece.

However, at the end of the song we come down with a bump into the bizarre reality of such a life. The lyrics here are subtly changed from the official version (I’ve put in three dots where I can’t pick up the words):

I left Rome and pulled into Brussels
On a plane ride so bumpy that that it made me ill
Clergymen in uniform and young girls pullin’ muscles
Everyone was there to meet me …
Newspaperman eating candy
Had to be held back by big police
Someday, everything is gonna be beautiful
When I paint my masterpiece

In the penultimate verse, the attractions and deceptions of that touring life might bury the private self, the one who needs to get away, in too much of a good thing.

Travelling around the world full of crimson and clover

… looks like my cup is running over

(‘Crimson and Clover’ is the name of a pop song written in 1968 by Tommy James and the Shondells. I think here the phrase is being used to suggest luxury. ‘My cup running over’ references Psalms 23:5-6, and means having a surfeit of God’s grace.)

In 2018 Dylan introduced a new arrangement for ‘Masterpiece’ with the first third of the song done dead slow, before it picks up into a gentle, steady beat. I raved about that performance, and might even have made best ever noises (See NET 2018 part 2), but when I wrote that I hadn’t yet heard this one, same arrangement brought to perfection.

Sinatra can throw his voice all over the place and make it sound easy. Dylan can too – he’s learned his lessons well from the Voice. There’s an enchantment in this quiet, almost understated performance that’s beyond my words to describe. There’s an intimacy here, a singing to, rather than at, a voice taking you into its confidence, the piano filling in with some subtle accompaniment and a rare, plaintive harp solo, the icing on the cake. There’s a bit of audience talk picked up by the mic at the beginning, but it all settles down as Dylan’s heartfelt confession takes over. The audience gets sucked in and becomes beautifully responsive.

If this isn’t a best ever I don’t know what is.

When I Paint My Masterpiece

We have noticed that in this final period of the NET, Dylan has picked up on songs that we thought he’d dropped, representing them in a new guise. ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh’ is one such song. So is ‘Can’t Wait,’ which we last heard in 2012 and which suddenly reappears for twenty-two performances in 2019. My best ever remains the smokin’ profession of unsatisfied desire we heard in 2010, sung with the energy of a coiled spring, like a tiger pacing in its cage (See NET 2010 part 1), and this version from New York (Dec 3rd) recalls the 2010 performance, matching it for suppressed energy. The sudden, dramatic slowing down of the short bridge passage (‘I’m doomed to love you…’), with its histrionic display shows the lessons Dylan has learned from Sinatra

Can’t Wait (A)

But that’s not the end of the story. The New York performance is hardly better than this one from Palo Alto. I couldn’t choose between them.

Can’t Wait (B)

But that’s still not the end of the story. In this version (sorry, lost the date of this one) Dylan has kicked the pace up into the shuffling jazz beat and turned the song into a dance piece. It grooves and it swings and it’s totally unlike previous versions. There is a buzzy atmosphere here and both Dylan and the audience are having a lot of fun. The histrionic bridge is so extravagantly done in the Sinatra style it makes us want to laugh. He’s sending it up and, at the same time, capturing a kind of throw-away desperation. This version becomes the one I want to play. If your feet don’t start moving with this one you have lead in your shoes.

 Can’t Wait (C)

In 2018 we discovered what seemed to be the definitive version of ‘To Make You Feel My Love,’ that forlorn ballad that could have been written as an American Standard, the harmonica accompaniment being the icing on the cake. In 2019 Dylan returns to the song with the same arrangement only more forlorn and heart-rending, if that’s possible. It feels like the saddest love song ever written, while remaining a testament to love, and how love will survive the worst despair possible on that ‘highway of regret.’ It’s enough to tear your heart out. Here’s a rough-edged performance from Santa Barbara.

To Make You Feel My Love (A)

And here’s another from New York (Dec 3rd), minus the upsinging we heard at Santa Barbara. This one comes out as my all-time favourite. An excellent recording and a compelling performance, with just the right amount of slur in Dylan’s voice.

To Make You Feel My Love (B)

You might remember the stunning performance of ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry’ with which I kicked off my first article for 2018. It was my stand-out track for that year, the finest slow and swinging blues you’ll ever hear. Readers might like to flip back to that performance before trying this one from Palo Alto. What hits me with this performance is the tasty guitar work by Charlie Sexton – and of course Dylan’s dreamy performance.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh (A)

That performance is matched by this one from New York (Dec 3rd). Since Dylan’s voice is foregrounded a little better with the New York performance, this one may have the edge. Oh, how his voice soars! More fancy guitar work from Charlie.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh (B)

(The song was brought back for a couple of performances in 2021.)

For a song to finish this post, I went looking for old reliable, ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ only to belatedly discover that it was last performed in 2018, in my own hometown, Christchurch New Zealand, on August 28th. It has not so far been revived for the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. Somehow I missed its passing, maybe because I didn’t ever think that this, arguably Dylan’s greatest performance song, would ever slip out of sight. ‘Tangled’ was more than a song; it was an institution, passing through many forms and styles.

So we won’t be hearing it when we return for the next post, and more superlative performances from 2019.

Until then, enjoy your new year, and…

Kia Ora













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