“Friend of the Devil”

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Bob Dylan’s long and involved connection with the Grateful Dead continued in late 1999, when Dylan did a tour supported by Dead bassist Phil Lesh as the opening act in November and December. Lesh would frequently join Dylan onstage late in the show or during the encore, and they would frequently perform a Dead song as part of Dylan’s sets, like “West L.A. Fadeaway” or “Alabama Getaway”. The Dead song that Dylan most commonly covered was “Friend of the Devil”.

Dylan began covering “Friend of the Devil”, as near as I can tell, in 1995 (he may have done it before that – I stopped looking), and he made it a regular part of his rotation in 1996 (when he played it live 21 times). It continued to be a part of the repertoire for several years after this. I first noticed it a couple of weeks ago, when it started to show up frequently on fan made anthologies of the highlights of his tours. I’m not sure that the song was always a highlight, but given the huge overlap between Dylan and Dead fandoms, it’s not surprising to find it popping up frequently.

In 2000, Grateful Dead Records released a tribute album, Stolen Roses, and it included a live version of “Friend of the Devil” by Dylan. For the life of me I cannot figure out where and when it was recorded – even Bjorner doesn’t seem to have that information. I suppose you could listen to all of the hundreds of Dylan versions to try to figure it out, but I can’t say that it matters that much to me. Part of me wonders if they used a version with Lesh on bass, but the sites I looked at don’t even seem to know that. Could be, I guess. You can hear that version here.

A number of sites do agree that the song is one of the weak points on Stolen Roses, largely because it is clearly taken from a bootleg recording, and not a very good quality one – the audience is really loud. So, it’s a nice gesture to include the song, but if he wasn’t going to record it in the studio I think I probably would have left it off. On the other hand, it may be a fitting tribute to the always semi-disfunctional relationship between Dylan and the Dead, one that only makes sense in theory and almost never in practice.

I couldn’t find a good video of Dylan doing the song at the moment, so here’s Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt doing it. I saw Lovett perform last Monday, and he was great. His drummer was Russ Kunkel, and when he introduced him the immediate thought that went through my head was “he drummed on New Morning!”. Yes, I am that far gone.

Grammy Presenter

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Bob Dylan returned to the Grammy Awards in early 2000, not as a nominee (no new music produced to speak of in the past couple of years), but as a presenter for Album of the Year. Dylan won that award in 1998, and he co-presented with Lauryn Hill (who won in 1999). Presumably the previous winner is brought back to give away the statue the next year, but perhaps Dylan was double-booked in 1999? I don’t know.

I can’t find a complete clip of the presentation. You can see Hill reading the winner if you click through to the Grammys site here. Dylan is kind of funny here, pointing (I think) at Carlos Santana. Did he know who the winner was, or was he just suggesting that it should go to his friend? Likely the latter.

It must have been a big moment for Santana, who won a slew of awards that night. Lauryn Hill was one of the guest stars on Supernatural, and he toured extensively with Dylan in 1993, so it was a pretty ideal set up in terms of the people up there to give him the big prize.

Earlier in the show Santana performed “Smooth” with Rob Thomas. This song won three awards. Do you remember Matchbox 20? I had totally forgotten that they existed until I clicked on this video, and now it is stuck in my head. I’m terribly sorry.

Sorry, not much to this one – just an early 2000 Dylan cameo. Bit of a bizarre jacket, if you ask me. (Hill, of course, looks great).

Touring with Paul Simon

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Bob Dylan ended the 1900s on a bit of a downswing. In the midst of a four year drought where no new albums were released (and his only new song in 1999 was a redone version of “Chimes of Freedom” with Joan Osborne). There wasn’t much to report about all year.

Of course, Dylan toured relentlessly, because that’s what he does. Indeed, in 1999 he performed 119 concerts – a new Dylan record! These were broken up into five distinct tours:

January – March   US Winter Tour   28 shows
April – May   Europe Spring Tour   21 shows
June – July   US Summer Tour with Paul Simon   38 shows
September  US Fall Tour with Paul Simon  10 shows
October – November  US Fall Tour with Phil Lesh  22 shows

Notably, 1999 was the year that Bucky Baxter left the Never Ending Tour (in May), replaced by Charlie Sexton. Sexton had one hit in 1985 (“Beat’s So Lonely”) and has toured with Dylan from 1999 to 2002, from 2009 to 2012, and from 2013 to today. I already miss Bucky Baxter on the slide guitar, though there are some interesting new arrangements and solos that Sexton has brought to some familiar songs. Life moves on.

The shows that I listened to all week were from all June and July (the tour with Paul Simon). It was an unusual tour, and clearly a nostalgia tour for the most part. The AP story about the announcement called it “nirvana for 1960s folk fans” and noted that each man would play a 75 minute set each night, flip-flopping the opening/closing spot. This was the first tour for Simon since 1992, with the AP noting that Simon had spent the last few years working on “the Broadway flop The Capeman”, which is something that I have never heard about in my life.

Let’s start with Simon. I used to have no strong feelings about Paul Simon. Like every other white person on the planet, I owned a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and I think that The Graduate has a great soundtrack. I kind of liked Garfunkel better than Simon, but if I’m being honest that’s just because Carnal Knowledge is such a great film. I hated the Paul Simon of the Graceland period, when it was inescapable on the radio, and his decision to break the cultural boycott of South Africa was simply unconscionable. Simon has “no regrets” and my feelings haven’t changed either – I think he’s a scumbag.

So. Here he is touring with Bob Dylan, playing to the nostalgia crowd (the bank managers super-show, as my wife just put it). Someone has nicely put together a lovely little two CD bootleg called Boys in the Bubble that includes selections from various shows with each performing solo, and a few of them playing together. It’s a well done set (they’ve even included Dylan and The Grateful Dead doing (badly) “The Boy in the Bubble” from 1987 (they can’t remember all the words), and a 1992 Dylan cover of “Homeward Bound”). Each disc opens with one man introducing the other for his set, which is a nice little touch.

The duets are probably the most notable things here. There are six of them:

“I Walk the Line” and “Blue Moon” from Mountain View. In Virginia Beach they did “That’ll Be the Day” and “The Wanderer”.  “The Boxer”, which Dylan (horribly) covered on Self-Portrait, is included from Dallas, “Forever Young” (tried only one time) from Denver, “The Sound of Silence” from Concord, and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from Austin. The crowd goes crazy virtually every time – waiting for that magical moment, but it never really comes. Here’s a version of “Sounds of Silence” that is as good as they got together. It’s fine, but Dylan is no Garfunkel, so there isn’t a lot of effective harmonizing. In general, none of the duets are very good – but they’re better here than they are on any of the Dylan songs:

Generally speaking, Dylan performed far more interesting sets than Simon did. Simon does his hits. Dylan did “Highlands” (the whole song!) and “Down Along the Cove”. There is no question that Dylan is the more interesting artist at this juncture by a wide margin. Evidence of this can be found on best four shows from the tour where Simon doesn’t appear. These are collected in a five CD bootleg titled Ace of Clubs, because Dylan was playing small venues (Tramps in New York City the night before a Madison Square Garden show with Simon; Bogart’s in Cincinnati and so on). These shows are fantastic (except for the occasional idiot fan whooping and hollering, but what can you do?), and consistently a lot stronger than the big stadium shows. Dylan’s band is much more interesting when they’re trying to fill a small room than when they’re in full rockstar mode of any venue with a name like Coca Cola Star Lake Ampitheatre, Pepsi Arena, or Nissan Pavillion. I’d really recommend the Ace of Clubs collection as the highlight of the year, and I’d suggest simply skipping the Paul Simon shows.

I do wonder if Dylan and Simon are genuinely friendly. He seems to appreciate him on stage (Dylan is terrible about faking things like this). On the other hand, Simon did write this anti-Dylan piece in 1965:

Rank jealousy.

In the 1960s I’d have put Simon a step below Dylan, but at least in the same ballpark. In 1999? It’s not even close – Simon is the anchor dragging down the summer Dylan shows.

“Chimes of Freedom” with Joan Osborne

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In 1999 NBC aired a miniseries that seems symptomatic of the decline of network television. While HBO was putting The Sopranos and Sex and the City on television screens and changing our understanding of what the medium was capable of, NBC aired The Sixties. Check out the trailer:

Even the callback to Roots seems retrograde. I never watched this show, and, bizarrely, it doesn’t even seem to have a Wikipedia entry. It just looks like the worst thing ever.

For the most part it used exactly the kind of music that you would expect it to, and that is used in the trailer – pop hits from the Lovin’ Spoonful to R&B hits from Smokey Robinson. If you imagine that this is going to have to use “Sunshine of Your Love”, you’re absolutely correct.

As far as I can tell from the soundtrack listing, the only new song that they used was a cover of “Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan with Joan Osborne. Listen to that here:

Musically it is quite nice, even if the bass is a little too upfront for my tastes. Not a bad version at all. I don’t think that the presence of Osborne adds a great deal – she’s yet another talented vocalist who is pretty much incapable of finding a way of harmonizing with Dylan. Don’t worry, Joan, everyone fails this test.

Osborne is an interesting figure. An almost textbook definition of the one-hit wonder, she had tremendous success in 1995 with the horrible song “One of Us”, and has never come close to a hit subsequently. She’s still recording country music, and she clearly has some talent, but she would have seemed to be on the downside of her career by 1999, although she did open for The Dixie Chicks on their ill-fated 2003 tour (post-Natalie Maines criticism of George Bush).

The funny thing about the video of this song on YouTube is that the whomever made the fan video clearly thought that Dylan was singing with Joan Baez – and, indeed, more than a few commenters feel the same way. It’s sort of bizarre to hear Dylan and Osborne and to watch a series of stills of Dylan and Baez, even if it probably fits the theme of The ‘60s better.

Perfectly fine version of this. It was the only new material that Dylan put out in 1999 (one of his slowest years in a long time). Not memorably good nor bad, it’s just sort of out there. Forgettable is probably the best word for it.

Dharma and Greg

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One of the most inexplicable Bob Dylan appearances of any time or any place is his mysterious guest spot on Dharma and Greg on October 12, 1999. Dharma and Greg was one of those inexplicably popular shows (it followed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire at the height of that show’s ratings ascendancy) that ran for five seasons on a very thin premise, weak writing, a generally amiable cast, and very little inspiration. Jenna Elfman was the pixie-ish star, but most of the rest of the cast around her was funnier, though not by very much.

The episode with Dylan (“Play Lady Play”), which I just watched here, is really quite bad. The plotting is at a level that you would expect to find on The Brady Bunch – it is all very heavy-handed and ham-fisted. At a time when Seinfeld was on the air, this was a very backward-looking type of sitcom.

So, the plot, such as it is. Greg has quit his job as a lawyer and now argues incessantly with everyone around him. To escape her annoying husband, Dharma agrees to drum in the band of their teenaged grocery bag boy, Donald. They play a cocktail party, Dharma and Greg have a big fight, and Greg realizes that he’s been acting poorly and apologizes. The end. But it’s not the end. When they pack up Dharma’s drums, she tells him that she has another audition. Then the show has about a three and a half minute coda in which Dharma auditions for Bob Dylan (and T-Bone Burnett!), playing drums while he plays guitar (he doesn’t sing) and then trying to play a polka with him (unsuccessfully). Don’t believe me? Watch it yourself:

Dylan smiles. He kinda laughs. He genuinely seems to be enjoying himself in a way that you rarely see Dylan enjoying himself. It’s just sort of odd. Elfman is clearly in heaven about the whole thing too.

I have no idea – none at all – what would have attracted Dylan to this show, or who he might have known to get him hooked up with it. I suppose it is always possible that he was just a fan – I really, really don’t know.

The appearance wasn’t advertised in advance – you can find postings on Dylan mailing list alerting people on the west coast to turn in – and it was just a surprise thing for the die-hard Dharma and Greg audience, whomever they must have been. It’s Dylan’s first appearance on a sitcom, and one of his (at this point) very rare acting roles.

It’s all just kind of mystifying to me. I guess he liked Dharma and Greg.

Live Dylan – 1966/1998

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With no new album and only a few guest spots in 1998, I spent a lot of time listening to Dylan bootlegs this week. In 1998 Dylan kept on touring – performing the 1,000th show of the Never Ending Tour in Montreux at the Jazz Festival. I didn’t listen to that specific show as it didn’t earn any special praise anywhere that I saw. What I did listen to was a couple of compilations that I found really useful. One of the, Les Bons Moments, collects highlights from Dylan’s European tour. This is one of my favourite bootleg titles (for 1999 I have one titled Boots of Spanish Leather, which is highlights from his Spanish tour, that is even better). Another is a collection of better performances from Dylan’s New York City shows in 1998. Both of these are single CDs, and neither of them is totally awesome – there are some moments that left me thinking “if this is bon, what was mauvais?” At the same time, there is a great deal that I still like on these 1998 performances.

One thing that struck me about the New York disc is how poor the crowd behaves at Dylan shows by this point in time. Just awful. When Dylan does an interesting, but little known song, like “John Brown” or “Tomorrow is a Long Time” they essentially chat through it. When he plays a hit like “Desolation Row” they cheer when they hear the first line, and then go back to chit chatting. Plus there is always at least one guy “whoooing” away like Ric Flair. I am really starting to become intolerant of late era Dylan crowds.

One of the striking things about Dylan playing his hits thirty years later is that it always takes the crowd a few moments to pick up on the fact that he’s playing a song that they actually know. The version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on the New York set, for example, begins with some frantic mandolin playing that segues into a Mexican guitar sound. It is impossible to imagine what song is coming until the lyrics finally arrive. This version is just completely different than any version that I had ever heard. Dylan and his band make even the most familiar of songs totally unpredictable, which is what makes these bootlegs worth listening to. Even when his voice fails him (increasing at this point) the musical creativity is still there.

“It used to be like that, and now it goes like this”. One of the best ever Dylan lines from the stage, spoken during the “Royal Albert Hall” show in 1966 as a way of introducing “I Don’t Believe You”. The crowd in Manchester that night was having none of those changes – they boo, they stomp, they clap off rhythm trying to throw off Dylan and the Hawks. The English fans were furious at the rhythmic changes that Dylan introduced to his music, something that will be his hallmark for the rest of his career.

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The only “new” Dylan material in 1998 was the Bootleg Series 4: Live 1966, The Royal Albert Hall Concert. I didn’t buy this when it came out, because I had the concert on vinyl as part of Zimmerman: Ten of Swords, but I remember that I was thrilled that it had an official release because it seemed to signal that the Bootleg Series was going to be a potentially ongoing and huge series (which it is – the eleventh volume is due later this year) rather than just the one off triple CD. I wrote about this show in the 1966 week, but listened to the show again this week. It’s fascinating to return to the scene of the crime this many weeks later. In January I thought that this was one of the best shows Dylan would ever do. I still think it’s great, but it has also fallen a great deal for me. There are so many shows now that seem much more interesting and alive to me now. I’m not knocking this – and the sound quality here is really top notch – just realizing how much I over-estimated it in retrospect.

As I say, still a great show. The only song that I don’t much care for today is “Mr. Tambourine Man”, where Dylan sort of spits the word “to” into the microphone, popping it. This is far from my favourite Dylan song, and this version sort of irks me, but not nearly as much as the whole show irked his audience.

In 1998, Bootleg Series v4 may have served for a lot of people as a reminder of the young, dynamic, vibrant, outrage-inducing Dylan that they once knew and loved (or knew and hated). For a lot of those people – including me – the contemporary Dylan would’ve seemed second or third rate. Today I’m finding more and more that I’m excited about the Dylan that is still to come, rather than nostalgic at looking back to the Dylan from early in his career.

Can I give two strong examples of that? On a Dylan tour anthology that I have for 1999 he does “Highlands”. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning to listen to both of those tracks. Does he change the lyrics for “Highlands”? If he doesn’t, can he remember them all? It’s sixteen minutes long! More fascinatingly, in 2000 he’s going to start performing his worst song, “If Dogs Run Free”, for the first time (first ever: October 1, 2000 in Münster). I am so excited to see if he can turn this New Morning monstrosity into something worth hearing. With Dylan you have to keep moving forward into the past. So while it was nice to revisit 1966 briefly, there’s still a lot of future left to explore.

Here’s “Cold Irons Bound” from Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, October 29:

 

“Gone Till November”

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We had nothin’
I had to do something
So I’m Knocking On Heaven’s Door
like I’m Bob Dylan

So sings Wyclef Jean in “Gone Til November” the third single from his first post-Fugees album, The Carnival. That would be a minor thing – lots of musicians have name-dropped Dylan – but the truly bizarre thing is that Jean then got Dylan to appear in the music video. Shot at an airport, Jean sort of wanders around singing this sad song about leaving his girl, and then, suddenly, he’s sitting on a bench and Bob Dylan is beside him in a black cowboy shirt just sort of, I don’t know, smiling beatifically at him. It’s kind of creepy.

Good song though.

Jean told MTV: “‘Gone Till November’ is an original song that I wrote, but I mention Bob Dylan’s name in the song. I said, ‘I had none, so I had to do some/ So I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door like Bob Dylan.’ And I was like, ‘Yo, we should get Bob Dylan in the video!’ And it was like, ‘You ain’t getting no Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan never shows up in videos, man! Bob Dylan doesn’t do that kind of stuff!’ But I was like, ‘Yo, we can get him, man!’ And we got Bob Dylan. I think that what Bob Dylan brought to the game is lyrical continuity in the music, and [the idea that] it’s not all about the commercialism. It’s about standing up for something and speaking out for the rights of the people.”

I don’t know about any of that. I mean, I certainly don’t get the idea that this song is about speaking out for the rights of anyone, but who am I to judge?