The Never Ending Tour Extended: Watching the River Flow

The Never Ending Tour Extended: Comparing recordings of Dylan performing his own compositions across the years.

This series uses by recordings selected by Mike Johnson in his inestimable masterpiece The Never Ending Tour, and looks at how those performances change as time goes by.   The selection of songs from the series, and the commentary, is by Tony Attwood.

Watching the River Flow was first performed on stage on 21 November 1978 and continued into last year (2023) making it up to 677 performances.  There may be more to come!

Our first recording on the Never Ending Tour series from Mike was for the concert in 1991 within the article “Feet Walking by themselves”.   The opening tells us exactly what we are going to get, and Bob gives us a low-key harmonica intro before telling us that he don’t have much to say…

1991 Feet walking by themselves

It’s a good ol’ rocker but with a fair bit of whining in Bob’s voice in that first verse, as if saying to the adoring fans in the audience, I don’t want your adoration, I want your pity.  I’m the one who’s got to go through all this whether I like it or not.

As such the song comes across a fair old rocker, but the words lose their significance.

We jump on next to 1996.

Busy being born. With Al Kooper in Liverpool 

 And what a change we have – indeed what a change there is from the performances of this in 1995, which I’ve not included here as they don’t really give us much more that what we heard in 1991.   Somebody – maybe Bob maybe one of the band – has said, “hey rather than do this as we always do, let’s give this some umph, but keep it really under control.”

This sounds more reflective to me – as if that opening about not having much to say is being taken more seriously, and then explored.   The quality of this recording leaves us struggling a little but we can still feel just how much Bob has pulled back into a more genuinely reflective mood which is of course what the title implies.   The instrumental break that begins around the two-minute marker really is something to behold not least because it goes on for a minute and a half and fits perfectly into the newfound vigour of the song.

Let’s jump on another five years….

2000: The Prague Revelation – down in the flood 

OK we are benefitting from a better quality of recording, but even without that we would know that now we have the sort of beat that makes us want jog from side to side.   We are back to the earlier style of the song as a slowish rocker, and Bob really is back to putting expression into the lyrcs in a way that makes sense – he is passing the time and watching the river, but he’s ok with that.

There is also some more fun around the 4 minute 30 second marker in that the band really are trying a different approach to the instrumental break that leads up to the conclusion.  A nice idea too.

2004: Rocking on

A disappointment to me after all that has gone before, in that Bob seems by now to be looking to make his voice reflect the laziness of the river.  But I think it is important to include one or two examples like this in the series, just to show how much experimentation is going on here.

The band being constantly on tour don’t have the time to settle down to multiple rehearsals of each song, rejecting versions that don’t quite work and aiming for the highest standard all the time.

For Bob that is not what touring is about – the tour is an experiment, a way of playing with his massive back catalogue and seeing what emerges.   Of course, he makes judgements along the way, but with this sort of approach, we can’t expect wonderful new versions each and every time.

And there’s nothing wrong with this version – it’s just that there is nothing particularly new emerging.  But that’s how it goes sometimes.

Other articles in this series…

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