The Never Ending Tour Extended: Spirit on the Water


I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

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

This series uses 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, are by Tony Attwood.


“Spirit on the Water” from Modern Times was played 547 times by Dylan and the band between 2006 and 2018, when it was finally put to bed.  In this piece I’m going to look at five snapshots: Dylan’s live performances from 2006 (when it all started) through to 2016, just three years before the Never Ending Tour actually ended.

2006 part 2:  Enter Modern Times

Bob and the band are actually performing this in a different key from on the album – one tone lower in fact.  I guess this was not because his voice was not happy reaching the high notes but rather to accommodate some of the small changes he has made in the melody.

And somehow, although this is indeed still a gentle song, some of that gentle reflectiveness of the album recording has gone, as Bob does his thing of emphasising some of the words in a half-spoken. half-sung way.

For me it is a performance that is ok, but has that element in it that I do find in some of the early stage versions of songs where Bob hasn’t yet found some new variations in the music and is playing around with the vocals a bit.  It is as if the stage shows are themselves rehearsals for what comes next, which is an interesting approach, although it can be a bit frustrating if it happens too often on one night.   But then, that’s Bob.

2008 part 1: Industry Standards and Dallas Delights

And if that was what happened, then now, two years on, there is that fraction of an extra bounce in the music that makes all the difference.  Bob’s singing is now responding to this and we are on our way.   For as a result the feel is more gentle, more sympathetic, more caring.  The band is still doing its thing, but somehow in a slightly more restrained way with some extra caresses from the guitar that are only there if you really are listening for them.

In short we still have the bounce, but it is not quite as dominant as before, meaning we can focus on Bob’s singing, although I suspect anyone who didn’t know the lyrics would have a lot of problems understanding them.

However, for me Bob loses the way in the middle 8 and can’t sustain the new approach lyrically throughout, and yet the performance is totally rescued by the gorgeous instrumental break at 3 minutes 45 seconds.   It doesn’t totally work, as is always the way with improvisations, but even so, it deserves more than the smattering of applause it gets.

And the second instrumental after the six minute marker really is fun – and that’s without knowing what it was that turned the audience on at that point.


2010 part 3: Jumping on the monkey’s back

Now the bounce is friskier – or if you prefer bouncier, and somehow Bob’s part sung part declaimed approach fits with this perfectly.   And what’s interesting is there is still a joy in Bob’s voice and no sign of repetition taking its effect.   The melody still gets some changes, but most of the developments are in the instrumentation, but only there if you listen carefully.   Overall, there is now a real feeling of this as an old friend that is to be caressed and nurtured, rather than just wheeled out, because everyone expects it.

Indeed this is a perfect example of where Bob’s declaimed style (as opposed to a conventional singing of the song) works completely.

There is also an interesting instrumental break around 3 minutes 40 seconds, which sounds to me rather different from all that has gone before with the bass reaching its highest possible notes against the staccato organ part.   And do listen to what the organ does when Bob’s voice comes back in as we move into the fifth minute of the song.

All in all this is where a song benefits from so many performances.  It has evolved to such a degree that the second break with the ultra-simple harmonica part, which ends the performance, really, really works.

2013 – part 3  A Date with The Faerie Queene?

As this version starts, once again I feel this is going to be another bit of fun, and an enjoyable listen.   By now the song has become very much an old favourite within which small variations can always be found without the essence of the song being removed in any way.

And there really is a sense that Bob is enjoying it too – as if he is caressing a favoured pet.  The lyrics are often unintelligible but then by now who cares?   And I get the real feeling that the band love it too.   There is a perfect gentleness in the instrumental sections which seems to make it all complete.

2016 part 1  Riding the Wave

This is one of the last recordings we have from the tour of this song, and Bob’s voice is more dominant here.  There’s not too much new here but rather a feeling that although by now the band has played the song so often, it is still an enjoyable experience for them.

Although maybe there is also a feeling that it has been performed enough.   The variations in the instrumentation sound a little more forced, as if they are looking for changes rather than just finding them.

So, a good moment to say farewell to a piece that Bob was clearly extremely fond of.  It’s maybe been performed a little too often, and that heavier than normal beat at the end doesn’t quite seem right to me… but then Bob’s the boss.  And it is throughout a really great song.

Other articles in this series…

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