“There’s a certain part of you that becomes addicted to a live audience. I wouldn’t keep doing it if I was tired of it. I do about 125 shows a year. It may sound like a lot to people who don’t work that much, but it isn’t. BB King is working 350 nights a year.”
– Bob Dylan (Edna Gundersen Interview – May 1995)
DN: One of the little ways in which Bob Dylan has secretly been preparing for the streaming age is in his massive collection of bootlegs of live performances. As I said way back in my first essay, he’s a mercurial performer who never seems interested in delivering the experience of the studio version; his music is pure self-expression in how it seems to exist for him and him alone, and if you don’t enjoy it, well, go find a version you do like. I said somewhere that going through his music is like being an editor having to prune through his various scribblings, and nowhere is that effect stronger than in his live bootlegs. His studio recordings seem to force discipline on him – he searches for the right way to record a song and then releases the most good version. By comparison, his live performances seem to be a chance for him to play with a song and try different things, and sometimes it can be garbage but sometimes it can be transcendent; I never really clicked with “Not Dark Yet” until I heard a version he did in 2019 that was both musically a lot of fun and imbued with a sense of humour to leaven the darkness.
silverwheel, you mentioned you wanted an opening tirade?
S: I’m going to spend this entire article blathering about the Spring 2005 square dance shows and no one will be spared, NO ONE! Oh, I’m sorry, something must have come over me. Yes, Live Bob is an entity entirely distinct from the studio one, and this has been confounding his audiences for the majority of his career. Heck, even before he Went Electric™ he showed a rather, shall we say, freewheelin’ sensibility toward the keys and tempos of his acoustic material in live settings. The 1964 Halloween show released as The Bootleg Series vol. 6 offered ample evidence of this, as well as showcasing an unusually happy Bob, almost giddy in his endlessly entertaining stage banter on this night (“I’m wearing my Bob Dylan mask”), quite a shock for someone who usually has at least some degree of reticence in his audience interaction.
DN: It would actually be worth building off your first sentence there in how part of Dylan’s live process is him getting an idea that grips him and running the course with it until he gets bored or has found every variation. Most famous, of course, is the Rolling Thunder Revue – by far and away my favourite of his live performances; an approach in which he screams his truth to high heaven, pounds steadily at his guitar, and moves with absolute steadiness. It’s perhaps best shown by that concert’s version of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” – I’ve never heard him play it so carefully and steadily in any other version. I also get a kick out of a hillbilly twang preoccupation that seemed to take hold of him in 1993, right around the release of World Gone Wrong – this performance of “Jack-A-Roe” on The Late Show shows what I mean, where he has a full country band backing him up and carrying him into a Louisiana nightmare. Perhaps you’d like to talk further about the square dance shows?
S: First it will behoove us to define just how much Bob tinkers with his songs in live settings – even though Bob has a well-deserved reputation for constantly rearranging his songs live (especially throughout the “Never Ending Tour”), he still does it more than one would expect, and much more thoroughly. For the most part, Bob doesn’t nurture the original arrangements at all; he’ll completely rethink the chord structures, tempos, keys, everything, and frequently it results in the song taking on an entirely different tone and meaning than was present on the album version. His lyrics are much more settled, but still not nailed down: Tangled Up In Blue has seen a few different unique verses come and go over the years, and while his lyrics have poetic structures that suggest musical ones, it’s not uncommon for him to choose a musical form that forces different timings and enjambments onto the lyrics. Certain songs remain exceptions – Stuck Inside, Et Al has been in mostly the same form since its inception, although with an inherently playful sensibility that lends itself to many different feels depending on the lineup. His willingness to musically recast everything in this fashion makes him unique among contemporary touring artists, and why his shows are traded and coveted in the same fashion as bands like the Grateful Dead or Phish. This is also why he moves much faster artistically than one might expect – when I saw him in the spring of 2005, I was under the mistaken impression that being well-versed with his most recent studio material would provide adequate preparation for the show, and boy was I wrong about that. Instead, he was in the middle of a season-long experimentation with having a full-time violinist (in addition to the live debut of multi-instrumental wizard Donnie Herron, who’s been a staple of Bob’s band ever since, and plays a great violin himself – this is the only NET stretch where you may hear violin duets), a seemingly subtle decision that forced massive changes onto his sound that he explored all throughout the spring of 2005 that you so aptly described as “it sounds like he’s trying to get the audience to square dance to it.” Indeed, even for a country-leaning artist as himself, this was something much further down that road; this was Bob’s NET sound fully tilted toward Western Swing, with big, gentle, swing-your-partner musical phrases inappropriately in songs like Just Like A Woman and Like A Rolling Stone, and somewhat to my surprise, I can’t get enough of this stuff. (check out this link for the opening show in Seattle, which among other things has a red-hot Stuck Inside And So Forth, and *my* personal favorite live rendition of I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) This is one of the few tours that I genuinely want to listen to every show; I hold this stuff in the same kind of reverence that a Phish fan might look upon the cowfunk tour of ‘97, or a Deadhead upon the exceptional spring 1977 run. It’s worth noting that I seem to be alone in Bobdom in how enthusiastic I am about this stretch – plenty of people have said good things about this tour, but with only 20-odd shows done by this lineup, it’s a mere blip in the greater scheme. Elana left the band because of prior commitments, Bob transitioned back into his usual kind of lineup, with violin only a partial instrument.
It’s funny you mention that Louisiana Nightmare rendition of Jack-A-Roe, because those Supper Club shows I think are somewhat overrated (every serious Bob fan will develop an intense fondness for something otherwise overlooked, and will also have a Greil Marcus “what is this shit?” moment with something generally revered). It’s not that they’re bad, not at all, just that I think people have tended to overpraise them, no doubt at least partially because they were an unexpectedly good end to a somewhat dull year. ‘93 NET got very guitar jammy all the time, and none of it was ever good enough to be so prominent in the sound. But the acoustic format of the Supper Club shows actually made good use of those tendencies – the nonstop aggressive banjo playing during this Jack-A-Roe is what really drives the song into that humid nightmare territory.
DN: Picking up on your “what is this shit” comment, it’s also worth talking about Dylan’s failures – or, to riff on a phrase attributed to Thomas Edison, one of the ninety-nine ways his music didn’t work. I found myself preoccupied by this take on “The Times They Are A-Changin’” because the end result doesn’t work for me at all but the idea at the core is interesting. I think he’s trying for hyperactivity in which Dylan is babbling out the truth faster than even he can handle it, as opposed to the ‘official’ version in which he is defiantly and effortlessly declaring it, and the reason it doesn’t work is because he sounds like he’s mashing together five different melodies that don’t go together too well.
S:Before I even looked up the details I could date it precisely to the ‘74 tour with The Band (officially captured on Before The Flood), because of Bob’s tempo and vocal approach (a direct precursor to his Rolling Thunder voice, but not quite there yet, it’s a little croonier and less apocalyptic than his Rolling Thunder singing). It’s funny that this song comes across as so uncertain given how passionate and certain he could be in the acoustic performances in these shows (the Hard Rain’s A Gonna etc. on this compilation is incredible). It’s a nice insight into how Bob tries to figure things out in the moment (you’ll never have to worry about a Bob Dylan show being overrehearsed) and to how quickly he’ll move on if he didn’t like the results (I’m not certain of the setlists, but I feel pretty certain that he must not have played this song much on that tour given how weak it is compared to the rest of the compilation).
DN: The Never Ending Tour took a break for lockdown in 2021 (though Dylan would point out that the Never Ending Tour actually ended in ‘91), and when it returned, it was as if he found his persona again. He’s more in control of his performance, apparently becoming more interested in a unified experience. His voice has been the subject of mockery as it has succumbed to a lifetime of heavy smoking, but since he’s returned it’s taken on the quality of a heavily distorted guitar; one does not normally think of a human voice as having a chugging quality. Even better, he’s absolutely overjoyed to be singing these songs for us! There’s an electricity that sparks from the obvious pleasure he’s taking in these performances. I’m gonna indulge in the same psychoanalysing every Dylanologist ends up doing and theorise that either having performing taken away from him for a while made him appreciate it a little more, or that this is a perfect example of the necessity of a rest period for the creative process.
(Also, when I first heard his latest version of “Every Grain Of Sand”, I was convinced he was deliberately weaving the melody of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” into it. I’m less certain about that now, but the belief itself is fun.)
S: We are currently living in one of the rarest of Bob moments, one where he is a) showcasing an album that received almost universal critical acclaim, and is also b) trying to clarify and amplify the arrangements found on said album. The R&RW material shines so well live – even though it’s more or less the same vibe as the album, all of the songs are so much fuller and enveloping in their live performances (and I liked them on the album quite well, just not as much as I do the live offerings). The most striking thing about post-lockdown “NET” is just how expressive and downright theatrical Bob is at every show: “False Prophet” swaggers and sneers with startling intensity, the floating material like “I Contain Multitudes” hovers divinely, and the sweet material like “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is disarmingly affecting. Perhaps the standout new song from the tour is “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a warm number that bubbles like moody liquid and has managed to sound at least somewhat different every night of the tour. It’s a structured song, but again not firmly nailed down – there is ample room for Bob and his musicians to play around night to night with their parts and their phrasings, and in good Live Bob fashion we hear much playing around across the tour. I actually think that Bob’s (most recent) live renaissance started in fall 2019, and I was very worried that the vibe would be lost during the break – thank god it didn’t. Some extra level kicked in during fall ‘19, something much more tender and focused than previously. Bob’s live vocals had improved considerably once the Sinatra stuff made it into the rotation back around 2013, and kicked him firmly out of the mumblefest that often occurred during the hard bluesy phase in the late 00’s. But then came fall ‘19 and a newfound expressiveness. It’s hard to quantify exactly what it is that makes this so much more than usual; I can only think to borrow a phrase from Robert Fripp, that during the really divine parts of King Crimson it was as if a “good fairy” followed and guided them. Bob is most definitely hanging out with the Good Fairy quite a bit right now.
In conclusion, Bob Dylan is a man of contrasts. The End.