2004 Odds and Ends



Some good days, some bad days. That’s Dylan in 2004. He can make you think that all of the talent is lost on one occasion and then, on another, he can remind you that he can still find the top range of his game.

In between touring in 2004, Dylan made a few notable appearances, playing a few songs for benefits and friends. Let’s take a look, in order from worst to best.

1. May 5. Dylan performs “You Win Again” with Willie Nelson. This will later air on one of Nelson’s television specials, Willie Nelson and Friends: Outlaws and Angels. Nelson seems in much better form here than Dylan, who, at best, seems to know the words to the song. He can’t reach some of the notes that Nelson can, and, to his credit, he doesn’t even try. This is a pretty hardcore Dylan croak on this one, and the two don’t harmonize well at all. A disappointment to be sure. Nelson toured with Dylan this summer through all of August and a little bit of September, and they played a few things together on stage (with Nelson’s sons on occasion as well). There’s a great friendship in there, but you don’t get much sense of it from this clip. Dylan starts at about 3:15 of this clip. You might want to turn it off before Kid Rock takes the stage after him.

2. 28 March. Dylan and his band play one song at the Apollo Theater for the television special, Apollo at 70: A Hot Night in Harlem, which is broadcast in June on NBC. They do a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. This is better, but it’s still not essential by any means. It’s terribly shot, for one thing, almost annoyingly so. It is mostly interesting for Dylan being in this role of elder statesman at the Apollo. Dylan has been doing this elder statesman thing for a few years now, but this would not have been one of the places that I’d have thought to find him.

3. June 7. This one seems even less likely. Back once again at The Apollo (I’m not sure that Dylan had even played that venue before 2004, and here he’s played it twice in four months), Dylan performed with The Wynton Marsalis Septet at the third annual Jazz at Lincoln Center fundraiser (you can see pictures of rich people in the society pages here). This wasn’t broadcast, but some kind soul has put the audio on YouTube along with a picture from the event, and, bizarrely, a picture from 1981 of Dylan playing the saxophone (badly)). I went into these trepidatioulsy, but I’m going to give them full-throated support – you should listen to both of them. First is “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry”:

I didn’t like that at first, but by the end, by the harmonica part, I really enjoyed it. Now try “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”:

These are great. Dylan, more than any other performer in the history of rock music, constantly reinvents his own compositions – often quite radically – and here he finds new ways to perform two songs that are among his most familiarly tried-and-true. His voice seems totally in control, as if he has suddenly remembered that it is his most important instrument. Dylan has had some bad outings with jazz in the past, but this is really fantastic. He actually gets me to hear these songs entirely afresh, and that’s something.

I know I can’t say much about it due to chronology issues here, but now that it has been revealed that Dylan’s next album will be entirely Frank Sinatra covers, I’m hoping that it will just a little bit of this sound.

So, a couple of duds, a couple of hits. That’s pretty good.

Bootleg Series v6

Clinton Heylin sort of spoiled Bootleg Series v6 for me. On the Wikipedia page for this 2004 release, Heylin is quoted as saying: “I’ve never rated [the Halloween show] as a performance. Dylan is very focused when he comes to doing the new songs…But the old material, he’s completely and totally bored with. It’s not a good performance. He’s clearly stoned…The concert was a real landmark, not in the positive sense, but in the negative sense because it looked at the time like Dylan was going off the rails”.
I re-listened to this album, which captures a Dylan show from 1964, for the first time in forty weeks because it was the only Dylan release of 2004. My first thoughts were that it is a pretty remarkable show for a twenty-three year old just on the cusp of becoming a superstar, and that the variations on some of the then unrecorded material makes for some fascinating listening. I was struck by the different relationship of Dylan to his audience – here he jokes around quite a bit and makes some goofy comments, while the more contemporary Dylan can go years without directly addressing his listeners (though he still retains a penchant for dumb jokes from the stage when he does talk). But Heylin’s comment: “He’s clearly stoned” stuck with me. Those three words just jabbed right into my brain. You can’t unhear them.
The problem is that now when I listen to the introduction of “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, where Dylan just rambles and rambles like, well, like someone who is clearly stoned, all I can hear is the pot talking. So thanks for that, Mr. Heylin.
Implicit in Heylin’s comments is the idea that there were better concerts in 1964, and, possibly, that there are better shows out there for the collector. If there are, I don’t have them. I have only two complete or semi-complete shows from 1964 (San Francisco and San Jose, both from late November – a month after this show). I can’t really compare them to this because the sound quality is so poor (on one of them, the bootlegger – or someone close to him – starts to sing “To Ramona” with Dylan, but, fortunately, stops himself). Here’s the thing: those might be better shows, but the recording technologies of 1964 being what they were, you’d never ever know it.
One of the things that is great about Bootleg Series 6 is that the sound is terrific. In balancing releases like this Sony is torn between the best shows and the recordings of shows. When I was digging through Springsteen bootleg sites and discussion boards last week, I ran across a thread discussing the best sounding Springsteen shows – not the best performances, but the best job that people had done at capturing the sound. It was a really interesting discussion – someone posted a list of about 100 bootlegs arranged by year as well. I could totally relate, as now I’ve become quite picky about recording quality as well. I’d rather listen to a good Dylan show well recorded than a great one that has a lot of audience noise, for example.
What you get on Bootleg Series 6 is a truly superior recording. Maybe it’s not the best Dylan show of that year – I can believe that – but it’s still a good show (sorry, Heylin, it is). I just need to fast forward past the rambling that precedes “Davey Moore”. Of the six Bootleg Series releases so far this one is my least favourite, but I’m happy to have it.
Here’s Dylan from 1964 to remind you of how great he was so early on. This is the song that he told Ed Bradley that he wouldn’t have been able to write in 2004: