NET 2019 part 2 We can either play or we can pose

There is an index to this whole series of articles through this link.  And you might also be interested in The Never Ending Tour Extended: of which the most recent article is “The evolution of Don’t think twice it’s alright”


By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

“Take pictures or don’t take pictures. We can either play or we can pose. Okay?” Dylan to the audience, Vienna April 16th 2019

After having sampled some of the best 2019 has to offer in part 1, let’s have a closer look at the Setlist for this year. In most respects it’s pretty much the same as the 2018 Setlist, which has its origins back in 2014. There is, however, one significant change. ‘Things Have Changed,’ which has been the opening song since 2014 begins, in 2019, to give way to ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing,’ a somewhat prescient choice given that this will be the NET’s final year.

While always a peppy number, and a good way for Dylan to announce that he had changed and was not the Dylan of old, by 2019 the song seems to have lost some of its charge and has grown a bit tired. Here it is at the end of the year, New York, Dec 3rd. The arrangement is the same as 2018, with the revamped chord structure. He messes the order of the verses up a bit, and repeats some lines, but it’s a strong vocal performance.

Things Have Changed

We’ll cross to Palo Alto, Oct 14th to catch ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing.’ I’m always amazed at how, with this song in particular, the guitars can sound like a big band, 1940’s style. I could swear I hear horns blasting away. Donnie Herron’s violin helps give the song that retro feel. My friend, and patient proofreader, Janscie Sharplin,  comes from a Buddhist background and finds an encounter with the Void to permeate this song, which takes its sentiment beyond Nihilism. I concur, but can also detect a sexual innuendo as well:

Well, my ship is in the harbor
And the sails are spread
Listen to me, pretty baby
Lay your hand upon my head

Beyond Here Lies Nothing

‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ consistently follows as number 2 on the Setlist. This is a blast of nostalgia, and an oddly reassuring song for those pining for the Bob of old. The arrangement, jazzy with a twist of bossa nova, will not be so reassuring, however, for those hoping for a reappearance of the 1964 Dylan – it really ain’t him, babe. Nevertheless, it’s a fine performance and excellent recording from Palo Alto.

It Ain’t Me Babe (A)

As with part 1, I like to contrast the Palo Alto performances with those from other concerts, in this case Santa Barbara (Oct 12th) which tend to be rougher and more energetic. I began this practice because I often couldn’t choose between them. What I like about this Santa Barbara recording is the sharpness of the piano, that very jazzy piano.

It Ain’t Me Babe (B)

We skip ‘Highway 61 Rev’ (covered in part 1) to land at ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ at number 4 on the Setlist, and the first song to feature the harmonica, much to the joy of the audience.

A performance hushed and intimate, given added pathos by the violin. Some of the lyrics have changed a bit – ‘She said put your hand in mine/ ain’t no need to hesitate’ – but the fickle gods still rule our brief meetings. There’s always one that gets away.

The last verse has been reworked to put a new light on the situation:

People tell me it’s a sin
That it’s wrong and its wicked
To delve too far within
I let her get under my skin
Under my skin too late
I had another date
A date that couldn’t wait
Blame it on a simple twist of fate

There’s always a might have been, or could have been – memories to haunt us.

Here’s how it sounded at Palo Alto:

Simple Twist of Fate (A)

We can pick up another excellent performance at Irvine (Oct 11th). This one brings the violin forward. A wonderful audience response.

Simple Twist of Fate (B)

We then skip to number 7 on the Setlist, which was invariably ‘Honest with Me.’ a survivor from Love and Theft. I suspect Dylan still performs the song at this point to offer something a bit faster and with more beat than ‘Simple Twist of Fate.’ It is a hectic, oppressive song. It begins, ‘I’m stranded in the city that never sleeps,’ which makes me wonder what city he’s referring to, a real city or maybe the City of Dis, from Dante’s Inferno, encompassing the sixth through to the ninth circle of hell. It feels a bit that way, with its scattered impressions and desperate jokes. Here, Dylan makes it sound a bit like a 1950’s rocker, with a sharp-edged, feverish guitar riff, fast-rapped lyrics followed by dissonant jazzy chords. An unsettling, edgy song.

Let’s start with Palo Alto again.

Honest With Me (A)

And we’ll go back to Irvine for a follow up:

Honest With Me (B)

There are of course some Setlist variations. The next one up, ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’ was not performed at Irvine, but we can begin at Palo Alto as usual. I’ve always maintained that this is one of Dylan’s major songs with a powerful affective centre. It doesn’t suffer from the kind of scattershot lyrics in some songs from the Love and Theft / Modern Times period, instead focusing on the sense of loss and despair that dogs modern life. We could be back in the realms of Dis, ‘walking through the middle of nowhere,’ and ‘walking that lonesome valley,’ which recalls the ‘vale of tears’ of Christian symbolism, and the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4).

When you think that you've lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more

A friend once quoted me these lyrics after he had lost his family to divorce and his job to layoffs. That was the last time I saw him, as he shortly after lost his life in a tragic accident. The lines of course recall the famous, ‘When you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose,’ but to my mind are more resonant – how do you know when you’ve got nothing more to lose?

It’s a profound song and mood piece. Here it is at Palo Alto. If this isn’t a best ever it must come pretty close. Beautifully orchestrated. This is my go-to performance at the moment. The violin suits it perfectly.

Trying to Get to Heaven (A)

We can return to New York (Dec 3rd) for the follow up. Another outstanding recording. Another best ever! This recording foregrounds Dylan’s voice which is full of mischief and innuendo. Dylan at this late best, friends.

Trying to Get to Heaven (B)

Next stop is the ominous ‘Pay in Blood’ at number 10 or 11 on the Setlist. I must admit I can’t get past the overwhelming arrangement of this song in 2016 (NET 2016 part 1), which has stubbornly remained at the top of my best evers. For me, this softer arrangement, despite its edginess, doesn’t have the same vehemence and sheer spleen of the 2016 version. Maybe I’m just stuck at 2016, for these 2019 versions certainly don’t lack punch; the wall of sound approach has given way to a more unsettling, minimal, jazzy feel. The feeling remains that we couldn’t trust this boastful blowhard of a narrator. A crybully. Not somebody you’d want to mess with.

I got something in my pocket that’ll make your eyeballs spin
I got dogs to tear you limb from limb

Instead of starting at Palo Alto, I think we have a better starting spot for this one from Chicago (Oct 30th)

Pay In Blood (A)

But for sheer vocal virtuosity, you can’t do better than this one from New York. A wonderful character creation in all his petty grandiosity, his triumphant chest-beating. It’s performances like this that confirm Dylan to be the great Voice of our time.

Pay In Blood (B)

At this point, at slot eleven on the Setlist, we encounter an anomaly. ‘Lenny Bruce.’ This song, from ‘Shot of Love’ has been only a very occasional visitor to the NET, and before the dozen or so performances in 2019, had not been seen since 2008. I always felt it was one of the weaker songs of that album, but it is Dylan’s loving tribute to the famous comedian and social commentator who, in the song, becomes one of Dylan’s holy outlaws. Bruce’s sharp, acerbic humour must have appealed to Dylan; it was the humour of protest, stripping pretensions bare:

Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads
He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds

In that phrase, ‘folks in high places’ we get a flash of the old, ‘protest’ Dylan, who shined his own light in their beds – remember ‘Eternal Circle.’ Bruce and Dylan both have a nose for moral corruption.

Again, we can’t do better than start at Palo Alto for this sensitive rendition.

Lenny Bruce (A)

That performance is well matched by this one from Irvine.

Lenny Bruce (B)

We’ll finish with ‘Girl from the North Country’ at number 13/14. Dylan and this early song have travelled a hard road together for some sixty years. It is one of the very few survivors from Dylan’s first, acoustic period, and what a stunning arrangement for it we find in 2019. Slow, meditative, lingering, sumptuously backed by a bowed double bass and violin. It is no longer the song of a young man, fresh from the experience but an old man looking back with tenderness and regret. This is one of Dylan’s greatest love songs, untainted by bitterness, and this is a loving treatment indeed, direct from the shadows of the past. First up, Palo Alto.

Girl from the North Country (A)

A performance once more matched in New York. Here, the ending is the final instrumental, sounding like a medieval madrigal. Magic enough!  I won’t even complain about the missing harp break.

Girl from the North Country (B)

I’m happy to have brought you this stunning set of recordings, all the more stunning given the difficult recording circumstances. I think you may agree with me, seeing the musical imagination that has gone into these arrangements, that in the years from 2015 to 2019 some of these songs reached a certain performance perfection not found earlier. Dylan exudes confidence and the band….well! the band will be my focus in the next article, coming up soon.

Until then

Kia Ora



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