Thursday 13 April 2023

(Un)Important Words: "Truckin'" in Tokyo 2023

At a show just yesterday in Tokyo, Japan, Bob Dylan and His Band surprised the audience (and fans following events from overseas) by performing a cover of the Grateful Dead song “Truckin’”. Unexpected covers were once a big part of the Never Ending Tour, but in recent years they have become much rarer. Since the beginning of the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour in 2021, there have been just three: another Dead song, “Friend of the Devil,” in Oakland, California last June (played twice more in Los Angeles); Jerry Lee Lewis’ “I Can’t Seem to Say Goodbye” in Nottingham, England last November; and finally, “Truckin’” in Tokyo.

The biggest difference between “Truckin’” and the earlier covers is that Bob seems somewhat unsure of the words, switching the order of verses and sometimes singing off-mike to conceal a forgotten lyric. But it doesn’t matter; he and the band are having a great time, and their joy at performing this song is infectious. It’s possible that they’ve only played "Truckin'" before at rehearsal, and may have only decided to perform it while the show was in progress. 

Strangely, Bob has a long history of covering songs that he doesn’t know the words to. For example, the famous performance of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’” on Late Night with David Letterman in 1984 contains very few of that song’s actual lyrics. Bob remembers the chorus (“Don’t start me talkin’/I’ll tell you everythin’ I know/I’m gonna break up this signifyin’/Somebody’s got to go”) and the phrases “beauty shop” and "two dollars," but that’s basically it; everything else is coming straight off the top of his head.


Similarly, a bootleg called The 1985 Rehearsal Tape – featuring Bob backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and The Queens of Rhythm – includes a moment where Dylan begins singing wordlessly, almost to himself. You can hear the other musicians listening intently, trying to figure out if this is a new song or something they should know. Eventually, it turns out that Bob is singing Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” the twist being that he knows none of the words except some of the chorus and a few phrases like “guitar playing.” Nevertheless, it’s beautiful, perfectly capturing the plight of that song’s doomed narrator. Bob would later perform word-perfect versions of “Sing Me Back Home” in 2004 and 2005

The early years of the Never Ending Tour feature several great “forgotten lyric” covers. One of my all-time favourites is a performance of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” from Peoria, Illinois in 1989. Not only is Bob deeply unfamiliar with words of the song, but he is also on a mission to outfox his band, repeatedly catching them off guard by jumping ahead of the beat or unexpectedly launching into the chorus. It’s as though Dylan is acting out the part of the outlaw Pancho, with the band as the federales on his tail: each time they think they’ve caught up with him, he slips out of their grasp once again. The drums of this performance sounds like galloping horses, and I can’t help picturing Dylan as the intrepid adventurer who appeared on the cover of Desire 13 years before.

1989 also brings us lyrically-jumbled-but-brilliant (to me, at least) performances of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and Van Morrison’s “And it Stoned Me.” I don’t think Bob’s unfamiliarity with the words can be put down to laziness; this was a different time, and Dylan is a spontaneous man. In the absence of the internet - and unless he happened to have the album containing the song with him on tour - procuring lyrics would probably involve sending someone to a music shop in search of either a copy of the album or the printed music and words. Once that had been accomplished, enthusiasm for performing the song may have already been and gone.

As the Never Ending Tour became a more polished operation throughout the '90s and into the 21st Century, the chances of Bob spontaneously covering a song that he only half-remembered the lyrics to became less and less. However, this ramshackle but loveable performance of “Truckin’” in Tokyo shows that it can still happen when the mood takes him.

Sunday 11 December 2022

Bob Dylan, Stu Kimball, and The Art of Rhythm Guitar

Stu impersonates Tom Waits, 2009

Bob Dylan has had many guitarists in his band over the years: Robbie Robertson, Fred Tackett, GE Smith, Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, to name just a few. Dylan’s longest-serving guitarist, however, is also the one who tends to get the least recognition. I’m talking about Stu Kimball, who played guitar with Bob for an incredible 1,323 concerts between 2004 and 2018.

Kimball joined the band in June 2004, replacing Freddy Koella as co-lead guitarist alongside Larry Campbell. It didn’t take long for the new bandmember to make an impression, as Peter Stone Brown reported in his BobLinks review of that month’s show in Atlantic City, Kimball’s third show with Dylan:

“A great guitar player not only knows what to play, but equally important when to play, and when not to play. A great guitarist isn't only about speedy licks, it's about taking all the licks and guitar tricks you've learned and knowing when and where to use them. Like Larry Campbell, Stu Kimball is a walking catalog of great guitar licks. And like Larry Campbell, though they have very different style, Stu Kimball knows when and how to use those licks and use them with taste. Now reports from the first two shows of this tour basically had Kimball holding back. However, tonight he did anything but. He shined, bringing back to this band a feeling and a power that's been missing for a long time. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Kimball can take his place as one of the top five guitar players to play on-stage with Bob Dylan - easily. There was no stumbling about looking for a groove, searching for that magic thing that might lead somewhere. Every time out he hit it. It fit, it was right, and it was soulful.”

This paragraph might sound hyperbolic, but there’s something to it. Go back and listen to the shows from the second half of 2004, and you’ll find a band in which Stu Kimball is often the lead guitarist, with Campbell serving as more of a rhythmic anchor. The show from St Etienne, France, on 5th July 2004 is a great showcase for the unfortunately short-lived Kimball/Campbell guitar team.

The arrival of Denny Freeman as Larry Campbell’s replacement in 2005 led to Kimball assuming the role of the band’s rhythm guitarist. And this is how it stayed for the rest of his tenure. Other guitarists came and went in the lead guitar position – Charlie Sexton, Duke Robillard, Colin Linden, Charlie Sexton again – but Stu remained in a background role, only occasionally called upon to step out of the shadows.

Rhythm guitar is often seen as an unglamorous position in a band, but the truth is it’s an important role; one that goes all the way back to the 1920s, when the guitar gradually replaced the banjo in the big bands. As a rhythm guitarist, your role is to fill out the sound, provide harmonies to support the melodic instruments/vocals, and to lock into a groove with the rest of the rhythm section. There are some bands where the rhythm guitar player is the timekeeper who everyone else follows, like The Rolling Stones in their younger days. Another function of rhythm guitar is to accompany yourself while singing alone, as Bob Dylan himself did once upon a time. It may often be portrayed as a thankless task, but rhythm guitar is an art that relatively few have been able to master.

The nature of the role means that rhythm players tend to fly under the radar, but they’re worth paying attention to. Take Leon Warren, for example, rhythm guitarist in B.B. King’s band from the early 1980s all the way to the early 2000s. King rarely played chords, and from the early ‘70s onwards relied on another player to augment his solos (his original second guitarist was the excellent Milton Hopkins). Leon Warren’s playing was jazzy, in the mould of players like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, and he would occasionally step out to play a precise, unflashy solo that provided an interesting contrast to the inimitable style of his boss.

We can’t talk about rhythm guitar without mentioning New Orleans legend Danny Barker. Born in 1909, Barker’s professional career began in the early 1930s, several years before the guitar became firmly established as a lead instrument. As such, Barker remained a devoted practitioner of rhythm guitar (and banjo) throughout his life; it would be fair to say that he knew every variation of every chord under the sun. Nearly 30 years after his death, a music festival is still held in Mr Barker’s honour every year in New Orleans.

Keith Richards, himself one of the great rhythm guitarists, took the time in his autobiography to praise the rhythm playing of Don Everly of The Everly Brothers. He was right to do so: you need only to listen to Don’s acoustic guitar intros to hits like ‘Bird Dog’ or ‘Claudette’ to hear that the elder Everly knew what he was doing.

I would argue that the best showcase for Don’s talents is the 1983 live album The Everly Brothers Reunion Concert. This album makes it clear that Don’s rhythm playing was the bedrock of the Everly Brothers sound: songs often begin with just his acoustic guitar strumming, the rest of the band gradually falling in behind him. If you watch the video of the concert, you’ll notice that while Phil Everly is playing along quite capably with his brother, his guitar is neither miked nor plugged in – the guitar you’re hearing is Don’s.

Moving to the present day: if you’re following London’s vibrant jazz scene, you’ll know that one of the best rhythms players around right now is Shirley Tetteh, who has played in the band Nerija and with many other London Jazz performers.

Bob Dylan himself is a fine rhythm player, which (as mentioned earlier) is probably borne from the years spent accompanying himself solo. Several songs in Dylan’s discography, from ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ to ‘Saved’ to ‘Highlands’, begin with him setting the pace with his guitar before the band picks up the beat. In concert, some great Dylan rhythm guitar playing can be found throughout 1989 and into early 1990: check out the video of that famous concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in February 1990 to see how he drives the band forward with his guitar.

We could talk about great rhythm guitarists all day (for the record, some more of my favourites are Joan Armatrading, Black Francis/Frank Black, and Steve Van Zandt
). But let’s get back to Stu Kimball. I would say that Stu’s finest hour as Bob’s rhythm player is on the 2015 album Shadows in the Night. This album is almost entirely drumless (or at least, the drums are so quiet as to be inaudible most of the time), leaving Kimball’s guitar as the main percussive instrument. 

If you’ve attempted to learn these songs on guitar, you’ll be painfully aware that they use a lot of jazz chords that aren’t easy to play. Stu’s playing on Shadows might not draw attention to itself, but it’s rock steady, and the perfect foundation for the delicate electric guitar/pedal steel work of Charlie Sexton and Donnie Herron. You'll need a good pair of speakers or headphones to hear it, but there's some great, subtle acoustic playing going on here.

Stu’s acoustic rhythm playing was also a big part of Dylan’s live sound around this time, contributing to the quieter performance style Dylan had initiated in 2013. You could say that it also extended an olive branch to fans who might have been less familiar with Bob's latter-day performance style: at least someone onstage was playing an acoustic guitar, even if Dylan himself wasn't.

Stu Kimball was notable by his absence when I caught the Dylan band in performance in July 2019. Curiously, Bob took a full year to replace him, leaving the remaining bandmembers working overtime to fill the gap in the sound. That's the thing about even the best rhythm guitar players: you often notice them more when they're gone.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Tour Diary Part 1: London Palladium, 23rd and 24th October 2022


I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the last two shows of Bob Dylan's London Palladium residency. Here are some thoughts about what I heard and saw...

23rd October

If I had to use one word to describe this show, I would say “absorbing”. It took a few songs to find the groove, but, much like a David Simon TV drama, it gradually pulled you in. The first four songs were good (I particularly loved watching Bob leaning into the microphone, one arm draped over the top of his upright piano, delivering a tender ‘I Contain Multitudes’), but things really started to fall into place on ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’. 

When I saw this song performed in New Orleans earlier this year it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Here, however, it came alive. The musicians transformed into an old-time southern mountain string band straight off a 1950s Folkways album: Bob Britt switched to acoustic guitar, Donnie Herron picked up his fiddle and Tony Garnier played double bass. Drummer Charley Drayton, meanwhile, largely sat the song out, springing into action here and there to add the occasional percussion flourish.

Speaking of Charley: you need to see him play the drums on ‘Black Rider’ if you haven’t already. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure “playing the drums” is an accurate description of what he does here. He has a box of percussion devices that he dips into throughout the song, including what appeared to be a pearl necklace that he dragged across the cymbals. This man is a master of his craft: you could spend the entire show watching only him and go home a happy customer.

The success of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ set the tone for the rest of the evening, in that (from my perspective at least) the older tunes were the highlights of the set. ‘To Be Alone With You’ had a great gospel style intro, with Bob playing solo piano before the band shifted the song into the acoustic stringband format from ‘Masterpiece’. 

‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, which also features a solo piano intro, highlighted how important the visuals are to these shows, featuring some dramatic moments where guitarist Doug Lancio – who up to this point had been rooted to the spot directly behind Dylan – suddenly rushed centre stage to trade guitar riffs with Britt. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ was also warmly received, morphing from another solo piano introduction to a rocking middle section, and then into a slow blues finale.

All three of these songs had a real gospel flavour to them. Standing behind the piano, Bob now resembles a John Bunyan-esque preacher holding forth from the pulpit.

‘Every Grain of Sand’, while not quite on the level of the rendition I saw in New Orleans, was a fitting end to the show. As Bob sang, I could see his left hand crawling across the top of the piano towards his tray of harmonicas. Would he play it? Yes! And he really played – I’ve seen shows where the harmonica playing felt like more of a gesture than anything else, but this powerful, heartfelt solo was the real deal.

Let’s talk about the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs. They were performed well, but – except for ‘Black Rider’, which was excellent – I got the impression that Bob was struggling to get into them on this night. ‘Key West’ in particular felt a little off: Bob stumbled over the words at the beginning and never seemed to entirely get the song back on track. ‘False Prophet’ still felt like it was adjusting to its recent rearrangement, and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ had been toned down compared to the huge, lumbering monster I witnessed in New Orleans. Having said that, it was fascinating to watch Dylan wrestle with these songs and try to find a way into them.

As Bob stood centre stage at the end of the show, I got the feeling he might have been slightly frustrated with his performance. This is the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour after all: those songs are presented as centrepieces, and for them to be overshadowed by the older material may have bothered Dylan. It was something he would seek to rectify the following night.

24th October

I knew this was going to be a very different show just from the manner of Dylan's arrival. Before the lights had even gone down, or the sound man had time to cue the intro music, Bob strode onto the stage looking like a man on a mission, followed by his band. They looked like a bunch of 1930s gangsters on their way to carry out a mob hit.

Once the music started, things were again different from the previous night. Like the day before, we got a quiet piano overture from Bob, followed by Bob Britt cueing Charley into ‘Watching the River Flow’, but this time Dylan remained seated behind the piano, the lights still down while the band jammed and we (both audience and band) waited for him to start singing.

But he didn’t - at least not for a while. Instead, he spun around and beckoned Doug Lancio to come closer to him. This led to the strange yet thrilling sight of Lancio playing a solo while literally leaning over Dylan’s shoulder, just inches away from him. The interaction between the two became one of the themes of the night: Bob would suddenly turn and point to Doug, who would oblige with a deft, restrained solo. Watching this play out reminded me of how Dylan would single out Freddy Koella when he was a guitarist in the band, and I really hope Bob’s connection with Doug continues in this direction.

The entire show felt as though Bob had sat in his hotel room and reviewed a tape of the previous night’s performance, identifying areas for improvement. Whereas that concert had taken a while to start cooking, on this night Bob was razor sharp from the beginning. He also seemed to be on a mission to ensure that the Rough and Rowdy Ways songs were the standout tracks: ‘I Contain Multitudes’ swelled beautifully, ‘False Prophet’ finally found its feet in the new arrangement, and by the spooky double header of ‘Black Rider’ and ‘My Own Version of You’, you could tell that Dylan knew he was on a roll.

‘Crossing the Rubicon’ also came across better than it had done the previous night, and highlighted another striking aspect of the show: Dylan’s unconventional piano playing. It struck me during this concert that Dylan’s piano is the main rhythmic instrument in the band, more so even than the drums or bass. Everyone onstage is following Bob, and he leads with his piano.

As I mentioned before, I felt that 'Key West' – with its relatively new, ultra-minimalist arrangement - hadn’t quite worked on the 23rd. On the 24th, however, it was nothing less than sublime. To listen to this performance was to fall under the spell of a master storyteller, and the hushed atmosphere in the theatre as Bob went into full ‘Shakespearean soliloquy mode’ was something to behold. 

The momentum continued with excellent, tenderly sung versions of ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ and ‘Mother of Muses’ (which featured an extended intro that sounded to me like the traditional ‘Shenandoah’), plus a strong ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ on which Bob once again sought out the lead guitar services of Doug Lancio.

All the older songs were well performed, but with this concert they resumed their intended place as supporting actors rather than the stars of the show. Once again, I loved ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ and the accompanying theatrics from the guitarists, and Bob also delivered an excellent performance of the standard ‘That Old Black Magic’ (which, incidentally, is the only song remaining in the setlist from the first time I saw him at the Palladium in 2017). We were treated to another virtuoso harmonica solo at the end of Every Grain of Sand – plus Bob playfully singing the first two lines of ‘Friend of the Devil’ at the start of the song – and that, it seemed, was that.

But it wasn’t! As you have doubtless already heard, Bob’s final bow was greeted by an incredible standing ovation which never abated, leading to him and the band returning for not one but two extended curtain calls. It looked like he was tempted to play another song, but eventually decided against it (possibly because the crew had already removed the guitars and some of the amps from the stage).

I don't think I've ever witnessed an outpouring of love from an audience to a performer quite like this, and Dylan appeared moved. The message being transmitted by both parties was clear: nobody has to ask Bob Dylan how he feels about this town, and nobody has to ask this town how it feels about Bob Dylan.

You can find parts 2 and 3 of my tour diary on Ray Padgett's Bob Dylan newsletter Flagging Down the Double E's:

Friday 2 September 2022

Centre Stage: Charlie Sexton

"There aren’t any of my songs that Charlie doesn’t feel part of and he’s always played great with me." - Bob Dylan, 2020

When I started this blog, one thing I meant to do was a recurring series profiling various Bob Dylan band members. I did one (on Larry Campbell) and then forgot about the whole thing for two years. But now I’ve remembered! And who better to take a closer look at than another beloved Dylan guitarist, Mr. Charlie Sexton …

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968, Charles Wayne Sexton arrived in Austin at the age of four, with his younger brother (Will Sexton, also a future guitarist) and their mother, and soon found himself immersed in the city’s famous music scene. "
[M]y Mom was a huge fan of everything from blues and rockabilly to R & B and rock and roll," Charlie told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "[S]he'd drag me along to all these shows and clubs."

“Little Charlie” watched and learned from guitarists like Jimmie Lee Vaughn (and his sons Jimmie and Stevie), Denny Freeman, John Lee Hooker, and W.C. Clark, and played his first professional gig the day before his eleventh birthday. By the age of thirteen, Sexton was touring with Joe Ely, and by fourteen was sitting in with The Clash at Dallas’ Memorial Auditorium. Charlie was also in a few bands of his own around this time, including The Eager Beaver Boys:

This swift rise did not go unnoticed by the major labels, and Charlie was quickly snapped up by MCA. His debut album, Pictures for Pleasure, was released in 1985. Slightly before this, Charlie had his first encounter with Bob Dylan, meeting him while doing some session work with Ron Wood and Keith Richards. Bob and Charlie also recorded some demos around this time, which Charlie briefly describes during the 1986 Chicago Tribune interview:

''[Bob would] just pick up his guitar and start singing and playing without any introduction of explanation--no key, no chords, nothing. And my job was to figure out all the charts and produce it on the spot. We must have cut about 9 or 10 songs, and I`d keep asking him, `Is this one of yours?` and he`d just mumble in this gravelly voice, `Nah, it`s from the Civil War.` With Dylan, you never quite know for sure. They`ll probably all surface on one of his albums about 20 years from now.''

Dylan had some encouraging, if slightly foreboding, words for Charlie in the interview included with the 1985 box set Biograph. “I’d like to see Charlie Sexton become a big star,” said Bob, “but the whole machinery would have to break down right now before that could happen.”

Regrettably, Dylan was right, and Sexton’s decade at MCA was marked by repeated attempts to reinvent him. There was ‘80s Charlie, who released two solo albums and opened for David Bowie on the Glass Spider Tour; early-‘90s Charlie, who formed the supergroup Arc Angels with Doyle Bramhall II and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s rhythm section Double Trouble; and mid-‘90s Charlie, repackaged as a roots-rock singer-songwriter with the 1996 album Under the Wishing Tree (credited to The Charlie Sexton Sextet). All these projects are well worth investigating, but none of them led to the massive breakout success MCA were looking for.

Helen Thompson of Texas Monthly summarised the issue in an article called ‘Little Boy Lost’ in February 1996:

“So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been the nonstop efforts to make Sexton into a star; he was positioned and repositioned so many times that his fans never knew which Charlie they were looking at.”

Through all of this, Bob Dylan had remained an interested observer of Charlie’s career, featuring him as a special guest at shows in 1991 (in Tulsa, Oklahoma), 1995 and 1996 (both in Austin, Texas). A 2005 profile on Charlie in No Depression noted that Dylan had attempted to recruit Sexton for his band more than once during that decade. It wasn’t until mid-1999, however, with no clear path forward in his solo career, that Charlie accepted Bob’s offer. “It was either be a carpenter or go on the road with Bob Dylan," Charlie told Chron in 2005.

Charlie’s arrival in the Dylan band prompted a change in the dynamic of a well-established touring group. Whereas it had previously been Dylan and Larry Campbell playing duelling electric guitars - with Bucky Baxter providing colour and texture on pedal steel and other instruments -  now Campbell became the multi-instrumentalist, while also forming a formidable guitar partnership with Sexton. Bucky's position as ‘atmospherics man’, however, stayed with Charlie, who fulfilled this role through his subtle yet masterly use of effects pedals, and a unique style that stretched far beyond the bounds of traditional lead or rhythm guitar.

Charlie commented enigmatically on his position in the band during the 2005 No Depression profile. “My role in Bob’s band is between him and me,” he reflected. “He knows what I was there for, and I knew what I was there for.”

Check out this performance of ‘Standing in the Doorway’ to get a sense of what Charlie was doing during this period (you’ll need headphones to get the full effect – Charlie’s guitar is mixed to the right) 

Charlie’s influence was also felt strongly on Dylan's 2001 album “Love and Theft”, perhaps most prominently on the closing track ‘Sugar Baby’, on which the eerie sounds coming from Charlie’s guitar deftly shadow Dylan’s vocal. (Charlie's guitar is mixed to the left)

Another favourite of mine from this era is the instrumental break from the 2001-02 performances of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, with Charlie expertly playing around Dylan’s own lead guitar. Charlie never played this break the same way twice, as you can see/hear from the clips below.

(I've often wondered whether Charlie might have been influenced around this time by Bill Frisell, the only other guitarist I can think of who plays in something close to this style.)

Charlie still knew how to rock out, too, as the performance of 'Cold Irons Bound' in Dylan's 2003 film Masked and Anonymous (filmed in summer 2002) demonstrates (Charlie is mixed to the left).

Sexton left the Dylan band in November 2002, following that year’s celebrated fall tour. Bob would have a hard time replacing him. In the meantime, Charlie concentrated on building up his resume as a producer - working with artists like Lucinda Williams (on her album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) - and released his fourth solo album, the Williams-produced Cruel and Gentle Things in 2005, plus a duets album with Shannon McNally called Southside Sessions the following year
. He also briefly reformed the Arc Angels with Doyle Bramhall in 2009.

Eventually, however, Charlie found himself drifting back into Dylan’s orbit once again. It all started in Round Rock, Texas, on 4th August 2009: Bob was playing a show in town and invited Charlie to sit in (incidentally, Dylan’s band by this point included Sexton’s Austin mentor Denny Freeman). Reports from the show indicated that Dylan seemed inspired by the presence of his former guitarist.

Michael Nave’s review of the concert on Boblinks captured an intriguing post-show interaction between Charlie and Bob:

“Halfway through [the closing song], I moved back to my spot beside the stage where I could view the backstage area as Bob and the band walked down from the stage. As they came down the stairs sure enough Bob and Charlie were walking side by side talking. They walked toward centerfield, then stopped and continued to talk for a few moments, as if they were saying goodbyes; about to part.. But then they continued walking together talking, all the way out of the Dell Diamond. One could only hope the conversation was something like, “sure Bob, I would be glad to do the rest of the Texas dates with you while Stu, Denny, and Donnie take a well deserved few days off. .. .”

Mr Nave’s reading of the situation turned out to be prophetic. By the end of the month, Rolling Stone magazine had announced that Charlie Sexton would be returning to the Bob Dylan band beginning that October. “I love and respect Bob and am very happy to be reunited with my friend onstage,” said Charlie.

For this stint in Dylan’s band, Charlie filled more of a traditional ‘lead guitarist’ role, adapting his playing to suit the blues-rock style Dylan favoured at this time. With Bob mostly on keyboards, Charlie often became the visual focal point of the show, prowling the stage and frequently interacting with Dylan. For a taste of what things looked and sounded like onstage circa fall 2009, have a look at this 'Stuck Inside of Mobile' from that tour:

Things stayed this way from late 2009 to mid-2012. By the end of 2012, however, Charlie’s role had been noticeably reduced, and – although it’s easy to forget looking back – he departed the band once again at the end of the year (one day shy of the 10th anniversary of his first departure). This turned out to be a temporary break: things didn’t work out with Sexton’s replacement, Duke Robillard, and Charlie was back in his old position by the end of the summer 2013 tour.

Charlie was back, but things weren’t going to revert to what they had been in 2009-12. Dylan’s sound was changing, with the rockier style that had dominated most of the preceding decade now replaced with a hushed, delicate sound that brought Bob’s voice and lyrics back to the forefront. In hindsight, this change was more gradual than it initially appeared; it’s already in evidence on much of the 2012 album Tempest, which would serve as the core of Dylan’s live show for much of the 2010s. Charlie’s restrained solo on the track ‘Scarlet Town’ is a good example of what would be required of him over the next few years.

This period segued neatly into Dylan’s extended exploration of The Great American Songbook, which encompassed the albums Shadows in the Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016), and Triplicate (2017). The band’s playing on Shadows in the Night, in particular, is so subtle that it sometimes sounds like Dylan is backed only by Donnie Herron’s pedal steel. As always, though, Charlie’s playing (mixed to the left) rewards close attention: just listen to how he weaves around and responds to Bob’s vocal on ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’.

By 2018, Dylan had returned to concentrating on his own material, and was reintroducing songs that had been absent from his show for some time. Charlie Sexton, a 40 year veteran at 50 years old, had by this point acquired the aura of an old master, able to anticipate every sudden left turn that Dylan might take during a song. In 2019, the fall tour contained what might be Charlie’s finest contribution to Dylan’s live show: a stunning reworking of ‘Not Dark Yet’, in which Charlie conjures an atmosphere filled with ghosts and shadows while Bob’s voice floats over it all like mist across a lake. My favourite performance of this arrangement is the one from University Park, Philadelphia - particularly the last verse, where Charlie’s guitar answers Bob’s vocal at the end of each line.

Following that well-received tour, the band reconvened with Bob in early 2020 to record the album that would become Rough and Rowdy Ways, which was released in June. In the interview with Douglas Brinkley that accompanied the album, Dylan – somewhat uncharacteristically – went out of his way to heap praise on his long-serving guitarist:

DB: Charlie Sexton began playing with you for a few years in 1999, and returned to the fold in 2009. What makes him such a special player? It’s as if you can read each other’s minds.

BD: As far as Charlie goes, he can read anybody’s mind. Charlie, though, creates songs and sings them as well, and he can play guitar to beat the band. There aren’t any of my songs that Charlie doesn’t feel part of and he’s always played great with me. “False Prophet” is only one of three 12-bar structural things on this record. Charlie is good on all the songs. He’s not a show-off guitar player, although he can do that if he wants. He’s very restrained in his playing but can be explosive when he wants to be. It’s a classic style of playing. Very old school. He inhabits a song rather than attacking it. He’s always done that with me.

It certainly sounds like Charlie playing the guitar solos on ‘False Prophet’. On most of the record, however, I believe Charlie can be heard shimmering away on the far left-hand side of the mix. It’s hard to describe this incredibly subtle style of playing: the phrase that springs to my mind is ‘sound effects.’ It’s particularly effective on some of the quieter, slower tracks like ‘I Contain Multitudes’, ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’, and ‘Mother of Muses’. Once again, you need headphones to really zero in on what’s going on here.

Rough and Rowdy Ways turned out to be Charlie’s last stand to date with Bob. Shortly afterwards, of course, came the Covid-19 pandemic, and once the dust had settled and Dylan was able to resume touring, Charlie had moved on to pastures anew. By this point it had been 22 years since Charlie played his first show as a member of Bob’s band, and 38 years since the two had met for the first time.

While I was writing this article, I was watching videos on YouTube of Bob and Charlie playing together. In many of them there are moments when Charlie is soloing, and Bob seems to be communicating with him through nothing more than a series of little nods and glances. This reminded me of something, and I couldn't figure out what it was. Then I remembered: it was a video of Billie Holiday singing accompanied by Lester Young on saxophone. Lester takes a solo, but the camera stays on Billie as she reacts to what Lester is playing. Her expression seems to be saying "that's it - that's what I want to say." So it is with Bob Dylan and Charlie Sexton: when Charlie plays, he's saying what Bob wants to say - the parts that can't be communicated by words alone. 



If you like Charlie Sexton but wish he played a bouzouki instead of a guitar, then this is the video for you!

I'm not sure what song Charlie is singing in this video from 2017, but his playing is fascinating. As a couple of the comments note, it's very much in the 'desert blues' style prevalent in Mali, West Africa, popularised by the late Ali Farka Toure.

And finally, this:


'CHARLIE SEXTON -- SEXY AND 17'  by Steve Pond, Los Angeles Times, 18th May 1986

'CHARLIE SEXTON, IN THE BIG TIME AT 17, IS THROWING ALL HIS PASSION INTO WORK' by Iain Blair, Chicago Tribune,  6th April 1986

'Little Boy Lost' by Helen Thompson, Texas Monthly, February 1996

'Charlie Sexton - The Austin Kid' by Don McLeese, No Depression, 1st September 2005

'Charlie Sexton exceeds all expectations' by Kim Curtis, Chron., 3rd November 2005

'Changing hats' by Chris Parker, San Antonio Current, 19th March 2008

Reviews: Round Rock, Texas, The Dell Diamond, 4th August 2009 - BobLinks

'Bob Dylan Welcomes Guitarist Charlie Sexton Back Into His Band', by Andy Greene, Rolling Stone, 26th August 2009

'Charlie Sexton Interview Part I: How to Session with Bob Dylan' by Arlene R. Weiss, Guitar International, 8th August 2011

'Charlie Sexton: Too Many Ways to Fall' by Jason Crouch, 2019

Tuesday 26 April 2022

It's Getting There: 'Not Dark Yet' in the Key of Bob

Is there an artist more restless than Bob Dylan? Probably not. The most compelling evidence of this is how he treats his songs onstage: as we’ve seen with ‘Key West’, to use the most recent example, a Dylan song is never finished. There is always a chance that it will be completely overhauled either lyrically or musically (sometimes both).

It's easy to forget that this process of reinvention often begins in the studio. As we’ve heard on various installments of the Bootleg Series, Dylan might experiment with entirely different melodies, alter keys and time signatures, and extensively rework the lyrics before choosing which version to release. Once the song makes it to the stage, the process continues: it’s common for Bob to stick very closely to the studio version of a song for early performances, only to gradually take it in other directions over time.

One of the 'song evolutions' I find most interesting is ‘Not Dark Yet’, the centerpiece of Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind. On the surface, it seems to have enjoyed an unusually stable history – the live arrangements were very faithful to the studio version for many years, until Bob unveiled a drastic rearrangement in the fall of 2019. However, the journey of this song has featured more twists and turns than might be apparent at first glance, going right back to its birth in Oxnard, Los Angeles, in late 1996.

In his 2011 book The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein quotes keyboardist Jim Dickinson talking about the genesis of the song:

“Dylan had started the sessions at Oxnard,” Dickinson recalled. “It was just a trio, the way Lanois wanted to do it, obviously.” Then some Columbia executives heard [an early version of] “Not Dark Yet” and got excited, smelling the money. “The management had heard over the phone a version from Oxnard with Dylan singing in a higher register, and this quick and spare guitar stuff that Lanois was playing, and it had stuck in somebody’s head.”

As Dickinson tells Epstein, this led to an uncomfortable situation – during the later sessions held at Criteria Studios in Miami – in which Lanois, at the behest of the executives, put pressure on Dylan to return to the earlier version of the song.

“We do the song and they keep changing keys,” Dickinson recalled. “Daniel said, ‘Bob, will you try it in another key?’ Nobody will say this thing about putting his voice up, right?” What the management really wanted was for Dylan to sing the song in a higher, brighter register. “So we did it in three or four different keys [….] And finally Dylan was just obviously pissed off.”

Dylan held his ground and got his way: the version of ‘Not Dark Yet’ that appears on Time Out of Mind is in the key of E, which is as low as you can get while remaining in standard guitar tuning. However, the question of which key to play the song in is one that continued far beyond the sessions for the album.

Engineer Mark Howard, who worked on Time Out of Mind, touched on Dylan’s relationship with keys during his 2008 interview in Uncut:

The way Bob works is, he kind of writes on a typewriter, so he has no idea where these songs lie, in what key they live in, what tempo – anything of that. Musically, there’s no chords written. So it’s like, he’ll say, “I got this song, and maybe this is how it goes,” and you try a couple of different versions of it in different keys, and he just finds where it sounds best, where it sounds best for his voice, where it’s comfortable. And that’s usually the open you end up going with.

When ‘Not Dark Yet’ made its live debut in Columbus, Georgia, on 30th October 1997, it was once again played in the key of E. However, the performance was a one-off, and the song was not played again that year. (Bob would sing it in this key just once more, when he performed it with Eric Clapton and his band at the 1999 Crossroads Festival.)

Not Dark Yet in the key of E

‘Not Dark Yet’ re-emerged in January 1998, now being played in the key of C, and was performed three times before disappearing once again. It turned up one more time that year, at a show in Berlin on 3rd June, where it was played for the only time in the key of D.

Not Dark Yet in the key of C

Not Dark Yet in the key of D

In 1999, ‘Not Dark Yet’ became a setlist regular for the first time (played 56 times that year), now in the key of G. Bob must have been fairly happy with this key, as he stuck with it all the way through to 2002, although by this point the song was once again being performed only sporadically.

Not Dark Yet in the key of G

‘Not Dark Yet’ sat out the whole of 2003, but reappeared in the spring of 2004. It was now being played in the key of C-sharp, where it would remain through 2005.

Not Dark Yet in the key of C-sharp

In 2006 Dylan shifted the key of ‘Not Dark Yet’ to G-flat, where it would remain for the next six years. I have a special fondness for the 2011 performances – despite the ravaged state of Dylan’s voice during this period, these versions have a sweeping, majestic quality that’s hard to resist.

Not Dark Yet in the key of G-flat

The various performances of ‘Not Dark Yet’ between 1997-2012 reveal how altering the key of a song can give it a noticeably different feel, even if the arrangement itself barely changes. You can see why Dylan would spend a lot of time trying to find the ‘right key’ for the song.

‘Not Dark Yet’ is yet to make an appearance on the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour. The question I have is not ‘Will it be back?’, but ‘If it does come back, what key will it be in?’

Sunday 17 April 2022

Down to New Orleans Again: Bob Dylan (and Me) at the Saengar Theater, March 2022

"New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it" - Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One

Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing Mr Bob Dylan and his band play a show at the Saengar Theater in New Orleans. This was a big deal for me: the last Dylan show I saw was at Kilkenny, Ireland in the summer of 2019 – less than three years ago, but also a lifetime ago, before Everything Changed Forever. During the worst of the pandemic, I had remained hopeful of seeing Dylan in concert again, but also quietly acknowledged the possibility that this was not going to happen. If you’d told me in March 2020 that, precisely two years later, I would be sitting in a theatre in New Orleans (a place I’ve dreamed of visiting for a while) watching Bob Dylan perform nine out of ten songs from his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways – well, I think I would have spontaneously combusted.

However, thanks to the stars aligning a certain way, that’s exactly what happened (seeing Bob in New Orleans, not the spontaneous combustion). I’m going to try to write about what it was like in the Saengar Theater that night, and what it meant for me to be there. But first – and so that I can stall for a bit more time to get my thoughts together – let’s take a look at Bob Dylan’s long history with the Big Easy.

The earliest Dylan/New Orleans connection, unless I'm mistaken, is on his first album, in the form of the traditional song ‘House of the Rising Sun’. There was some distant hope that Dylan might sing this at the Saengar, seeing as the show took place on the 60th anniversary of Bob Dylan, but (not surprisingly) it wasn’t to be. Bob has revisited 'Rising Sun' very occasionally over the years – most recently in 2007 – but for me the most interesting performance is the one Dylan gave at the home of Eve and Mac MacKenzie in April 1963. In this version, Bob sings the alternate melody favoured by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly

During the early sessions for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1962, Bob recorded a traditional song called ‘Going Down to New Orleans’. The song is a close relative of the blues standard ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, which Dylan reworked on his 2006 album Modern Times.

New Orleans was still on Dylan’s mind a year later. During the sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob recorded several takes of an original song called ‘Bob Dylan's New Orleans Rag’, which he also performed at his famous Town Hall concert in New York City in April 1963. ‘New Orleans Rag’ mentions the historic Rampart Street several times (coincidentally, the Saengar Theater is on the corner of North Rampart Street and Canal Street), although, curiously, all mention of Rampart has been removed from the official published lyrics.

Not content with simply writing about New Orleans, Dylan visited the city the following year while on a road trip with friends, just in time for Mardi Gras. This trip is detailed in Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, and by Joe B. Stuart, who was there. My favourite version of this story, however, appears in Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 Dylan biography Bob Dylan, and contains this exchange:

Out in front of one bar they came across a young white street singer who was busking – playing for the coins of passersby – his guitarwork and singing style a fusion of Leadbelly and Guthrie. “Hey,” Dylan said, “can I borrow your guitar?” The singer handed it over and Dylan began to sing a couple of things off his first album. “Man, the kid exclaimed, “you sound just like Bob Dylan.” Bob’s face was impassive. “Saw Dylan once,” he said. “A place in the village. He’s alright, I guess.”

Dylan didn’t play a show in New Orleans until the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976, when he played two shows (one afternoon, one evening) on 3rd May at The Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street. Since then, he’s been back many times, playing a variety of venues: the Saengar Theater in 1981, 1991 and 2015 (and now 2022); the Lakefront Arena in 1989, 1999, 2002, and 2011; the House of Blues in 1994; McAlister Auditorium in 1995; the Municipal Auditorium in 2003; and appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fairgrounds Racecourse in 1993, 2003 and 2006. In 1988, Dylan even played a show at the Pavilion at Audubon Zoo, just a stone’s throw away from the animal enclosures. There may still be some elephants at the zoo that remember this performance.

It was during this visit to New Orleans that Bob met Daniel Lanois for the first time, stopping into the studio while Lanois was producing the Neville Brothers’ album Yellow Moon. A few months later Dylan would be back in the city again, holed up with Lanois at a house in the Garden District to work on the album that would become Oh Mercy. Jeff Hannush reported in the May 1989 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine that Dylan had been spotted about town:

Dylan’s presence in New Orleans has caused a stir among the locals. Residents are abuzz with reports of various Dylan sightings, and a gossip columnist for the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, has gone so far as to install a semiregular Dylan Watch as part of a daily column. But one local hairdresser claimed that no one in the city could possibly recognize Dylan — because to disguise him, she had cut off all of his hair. (The haircut story turned out to be false, thankfully - TE)

Bob writes about this period at length in Chronicles Volume One, sharing his impressions of the city.

New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, but none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful between every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it but you know it’s here. Somebody is always sinking. Everyone seems to be from very old Southern families. Either that or a foreigner. I like the way it is.

Scott Warmuth’s 2008 essay 'The Dylan Doodlebug' revealed that Dylan had borrowed several phrases from a New Orleans travel guide by Bethany Bultman, incorporating them into both Chronicles and the song ‘Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee’ on “Love & Theft”. In 2016, Dylan held an exhibition of his paintings, entitled The New Orleans Series, at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He has mentioned New Orleans in his songs ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’, plus the elusive mid-1980s outtakes ‘Nothing Here Worth Dying For’ and ‘Won’t Come Back Til They Call Me Back Again’ on the bootleg After the Empire. New Orleans also features in the traditional song 'The Lakes of Ponchartrain' which Dylan performed frequently in the early years of the Never Ending Tour.

There is a big New Orleans connection in Bob’s band, too: bass player Tony Garnier, who is the grandson of early New Orleans jazz musician D’Jalma Garnier. Tony’s older brother, multi-instrumentalist D’Jalma Garnier III, is still active on the city’s zydeco scene. In 1998, Tony was interviewed by the New York Times, where he shared his recipe for an authentic Louisiana gumbo. Between 2002 and 2019, Dylan’s band featured a genuine New Orleans rhythm section, as drummer George Receli also hails from the Big Easy.

In 2017, Dylan enlisted New Orleans author Tom Piazza, author of Why New Orleans Matters and the novel City of Refuge (amongst many other books), to write the liner notes for the album Triplicate.


That brings us to the Saengar Theater, 19th March 2022.

I was struck by the manner in which this show began. You may have attended theater shows that have been proceeded by an announcement advising the audience that the show will begin in ten minutes, and could everyone please take their seats. Well, that didn’t happen here: Bob and the band simply appeared onstage at the stroke of 8 o’clock and began cranking out the vortex-like intro to 'Watching the River Flow', leaving bewildered audience members stumbling around in the dark trying to find their seats. On top of that, the sound (at least from where I was sitting) was cranked up insanely loud for the first two songs, forcing people to yell at each other as they tried to figure out seat number mix-ups.

It might sound like I’m complaining, but I loved all of this. There’s something very appropriate about Bob Dylan arriving and immediately throwing everything around him into chaos - may he continue to do so for a long time to come.

Seated in the balcony, I felt like I could appreciate the huge amount of thought that has gone into the visual presentation of this show. It’s very surreal: you’re looking at the musicians mostly in silhouette, with all the lighting coming from the floor beneath them and the curtain behind them. Guitarist Bob Britt has become a visual focal point, positioned at the back of the stage in the centre, often adopting a gunslinger stance. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, surveyed the crowd from behind an upright piano. 

The other musician who frequently caught my eye was drummer Charley Drayton. Everything he does is fascinating. I’ve written before about how I suspect that Bob likes to have at least one person in the band with a lot of stage presence that he can play off, and it feels like Charley is fulfilling that role right now.

There were many highlights. ‘False Prophet’ swung hard, so much so that the studio version now sounds too slow in comparison. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ was a revelation – surprisingly quiet and menacing, sometimes feeling like a Shakespearean soliloquy, and a showcase for some great rhythm section work by Tony and and Charley. I wasn’t sure about the recordings of the totally reworked version of ‘Key West’ I had heard before the show, but it clicked for me hearing it in person, with Bob in full storyteller mode. Doug Lancio nailed the short guitar solo on ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ (which always strikes me as the core of that song), and then had a chance to stretch out on ‘Melancholy Mood’, the one song that remained from my first Dylan show at the London Palladium in 2017. Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, meanwhile, watched Bob like a hawk from his riser overlooking Dylan's piano.

There were some moments in the show that had a comical feel to them. Bob sometimes walked out from behind his piano to soak in the applause – curiously, he often did this while the lights were down, which prompted huge roars from the first couple of rows who could see him, and confusion from everyone else. At one point a guitar tech solemnly walked onstage to present Bob Britt with a Gibson Flying V. Some of the audience leaned forward in anticipation of some hard rock, only for Dylan and the band to launch into the serene ‘Key West’. 

Despite all of that, the best was saved for last. 'Every Grain of Sand', much like 'I Believe in You' and some of Dylan's other religious songs, has the effect of making it feel as though the band and the audience have disappeared, and you are left to witness an intensely private moment between Dylan and the object of his faith. The band achieved a rare kind of unity with this song, where they ceased to be six individuals and temporarily morphed into a single being. Moments like this are what it's all about.

My only complaint about the show was that it flew past in a blur. Before I knew it, I was back on Canal Street with everyone else, excitedly discussing what we had just seen. We were interrupted by the tour buses pulling away – everybody waved and cheered, and The Bob Express responded with a happy honk as it set off on its way.

It's taken me a long time to get here, but the bottom line is this: if you have the opportunity to see Bob Dylan and his band on the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour, don't hesitate! What we're seeing here is something precious and fleeting. Bob Dylan, unlike some performers you go to see who don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it.

Recording and concert dates from

Last year I wrote about Bob's performance at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival -  you can read that here

Monday 28 February 2022

Walking in the Shadows After Dark: Bob Dylan's 'Key West' in Chicago

After spending over a year living with the studio version of ‘Key West’, I still can’t believe that we now have 21 live versions to enjoy as well, each one slightly different from the last. When Dylan finally unveiled it live for the first time (in Milwaukee, at the first show of the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Wide Tour) there was almost a sense of relief about the performance, like someone exhaling after holding their breath for a long time. You can tell the audience felt the same way: one of my favourite things about the recording is that you can hear a collective gasp sweep through the crowd as Bob sings “McKinley hollered…”.

As beautiful as the live debut of ‘Key West’ is (and it’s still the version that moves me the most), I’ve become even more partial to the performance of the song Dylan gave a day later in Chicago. While this version is a departure from Milwaukee, it’s also very different from the new arrangement that began to take shape at the following show in Cleveland. It occupies its own little island, which I guess is appropriate for a song called 'Key West.' 

Where the drums, pedal steel and Dylan’s piano were the most prominent instruments in Milwaukee’s ‘Key West’, in Chicago the dynamic gets reversed - it’s all about the guitars, played by Bob Britt and Doug Lancio. Britt, on lead guitar, is particularly impressive, playing the same role Charlie Sexton specialised in during his years in the Dylan band, conjuring an atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Dylan’s singing.

And the atmosphere is worth talking about, because – in sharp contrast to the celebratory debut a day earlier, and the ‘dreamier’ versions that followed – this ‘Key West’ is positively menacing. Some of more sinister lines in the song suddenly come into sharp focus: “China blossoms of a toxic plant/ They can make you dizzy, I’d like to help you but I can’t”, “The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees/ They can give you that bleedin’ heart disease”, “Walkin’ in the shadows after dark”, “It’s hot down here”. Even the refrain about “looking for immortality” suddenly seems shrouded in darkness.

The role of the narrator in the Chicago 'Key West' is also different from the other versions. Rather than being a benevolent guide to this wonderland, here he comes across as more of a snake-oil salesman, trying to tempt us down a wrong path - not unlike the 'Black Rider' Dylan sings about earlier in the song cycle.

That’s the musical side of things, but thanks to a YouTube channel called Bird that Flew on the Avenue, we also have a video of this performance. A key part of Dylan’s live shows that often gets overlooked is the visuals, and how the very deliberate choices of lighting and the positioning of the band can often be a key part of the performance. For Chicago's 'Key West', the stage is in almost total darkness, with the lighting – all from below – giving Bob and the band a strange and otherworldly appearance. Everyone (besides Bob) is wearing black, which makes the band look like disembodied faces looming out of the shadows. The final dramatic device is Bob’s new smoke machine, which by the end of the song has nearly consumed the whole stage in fog. All of this ties in with the new, darker interpretation of the song: a literal Shadow Kingdom.

After this performance, Bob took ‘Key West’ in a new direction. Donnie Herron switched to the accordion he had played on the album, the foreboding tumble into the chorus became a heavenly ascent, and the chord sequence for the chorus itself was altered. There’s a lot to recommend about the subsequent ‘Key West’ performances, but Chicago is the one I keep coming back to.

I do want to say a few words about one of the other versions, though: the performance from 21st November at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. This is the only other ‘Key West’ that we have a complete video of (so far), and, once again, it really underlines just how much the visual drama playing out onstage can add to a performance. This time around, a lot of the intrigue is provided by new guitarist Doug Lancio. Doug has a music stand positioned at the back of the stage; at first I thought it might be sheet music or chord charts, but on closer inspection it appears to be lyric sheets for ‘Key West’. During the verses, Doug hovers over the music stand, spider-like, studying the lyrics intently. As the music shifts into the chorus, Doug moves centre stage to face fellow guitarist Bob Britt, and gives a nod in the direction of drummer Charley Drayton (presumably to cue him into the chorus). When the chorus ends, Doug drifts back to his position over the music stand, and the whole process repeats itself throughout the song. I don’t know exactly what's going on here, but as a visual device I find it weirdly fascinating, especially combined with the hypnotic guitar riff that runs through the song.


Where will Dylan take 'Key West' next? Will the arrangement stay the same, or perhaps revert back to something more like Milwaukee or Chicago? Maybe it will become something completely different again, or maybe (and this is an absolute worst case scenario) it will simply disappear. Whatever happens, the fact that this remarkable song has been performed at all is nothing less than a gift. 

(Un)Important Words: "Truckin'" in Tokyo 2023

At a show just yesterday in Tokyo, Japan, Bob Dylan and His Band surprised the audience (and fans following events from overseas) by perform...