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.