Blood on the Stage

Bob Dylan’s career as a performer has been marked by a propensity for being in-the-moment, open to nuance, inspiration, and chance. Through deliberate method, Dylan, onstage and in the studio, has eschewed rote performance.

Over the course of some 2,000 on-stage presentations, the songs of Blood on the Tracks, from the Rolling Thunder tour of 1975 to the present day, have been freshly imagined in myriad surprising ways, which is not to say these are drastic and continual new arrangements. The songs performed most consistently — “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Shelter from the Storm”, “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” — have appeared in maybe three or four distinct arrangements over the past 35 years (with some receiving lyric revisions, big and small, in keeping with a set of songs which have always seemed in some ways impermanent). Dylan put it this way in 2006: “I’ve heard it said, you’ve probably heard it said, that all the arrangements change night after night. Well, that’s a bunch of bullshit … The rhythmic structures are different, that’s all. You can’t change the arrangement night after night — it’s impossible.” (“The Genius of Bob Dylan”, Rolling Stone, Jonathan Lethem, 2006)

The first public performance of a song from Blood on the Tracks occurred in a Chicago television studio on September 10, 1975 at the taping of The World Of John Hammond for PBS. Dylan, backed by a trio gathered from the recent Desire sessions, stood still before a microphone and ran through two songs from the new album, and the second song from the album released earlier that year. The rendition of “Simple Twist of Fate” is lovely, with Scarlet Rivera’s violin weaving a smoky counter-melody over Dylan’s plaintive haunted vocals. There were lyric changes as the song unfolded, an occasional word or new turn of phrase, but then the entire fourth verse underwent a revision (“He woke up and she was gone / He saw nothing but the dawn / He got out of bed and put his clothes back on, pushed back the blind / Found a note she’d left behind to which he just could not relate / All about a simple twist of fate”) followed by a reworking of the sixth verse (“People tell me it’s a crime / To feel too much at any one time / She should have caught me in my prime, she would have stayed with me / Instead of going off to sea and leaving me to meditate / Upon a simple twist of fate”).

Seven weeks later, at the tail end of October, the Rolling Thunder Revue rolled into Plymouth, Massachusetts, and would keep on rolling into December, playing 31 shows at venues big and small. The tour was multi-purpose — it got Dylan back on the road surrounded by old friends, it was to promote the new Desire album (typically not released until the tour was wrapped), and it was to serve as a roving set for Dylan’s film concept that came to be known as Renaldo and Clara.

“Simple Twist of Fate” first appeared on November 8, during Dylan’s solo acoustic portion of the show, with the lyrics maintaining the changes from September. Three shows later “Tangled Up in Blue” debuted in the same slot, and the two songs would alternate for most of the rest of the tour (both songs are included on The Bootleg Series Volume 5: Live 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue). “Tangled Up in Blue”, during the November 21 evening show in Boston, was filmed for Renaldo and Clara. This was an intense rendition, the camera holding a close-up of Dylan’s face through the entire four-and-a-half-minute length, eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat, whiteface makeup patchy and voice slightly hoarse. The shifting identities and time vectors within the song were an appropriate fit for a film determined to explore exactly that territory.

The Rolling Thunder Revue was reassembled the next spring for a tour that would ramble across the southeast, southwest and Midwest states. As if personifying Dylan’s Gemini archetype, the 1976 tour was a dark twin to the inclusive caravan from the previous autumn. While seven songs from the album would make an appearance, three Blood on the Tracks numbers, new arrangements played with the full electric band, became highlights at the shows.

“If You See Her, Say Hello” was Dylan’s second song at the first show of the tour on 18 April in Lakeland, Florida. It was a harrowing solo performance, as sparse acoustic guitar supported biting vocals with at times harsh new lyrics (“If you’re making love to her, watch it from the rear / You’ll never know when I’ll be back or liable to appear / Oh, it’s natural to dream of peace as it is for rules to break / But right now I got not much to lose so you better stay awake”). He played the song once more nine days later in Tallahassee and then dropped it from the set-list.

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” appeared at about half of the shows, a happy jaunt much as on the album, but filled out with piano and lead guitar. It seems tempered by its presence in the midst of mostly darker material, which in turn reflected the tenor of the tour itself. Dylan was carrying his marital troubles with him, and was busy with alcohol and a stream of female companions. There were logistical problems as well, and shows were being cancelled due to poor ticket sales.

The Rolling Thunder Revue 1976 hit rock bottom in Fort Collins, Colorado, the site of the penultimate gig. It was raining heavily, forcing the postponement of the outdoor show several times. The band was put up at a local dude ranch, but the weather cancelled most activities other than drinking and feeling lousy. A film crew, brought out to Fort Collins at Dylan’s expense after he had rejected a television taping from earlier in the tour, was expensively standing by. Into this already sodden scene, Sara Dylan arrived, unhappy, to reportedly dress down her husband in a public parking lot. With that stage set, the Fort Collins performances, finally underway on 23 May, Mrs. Dylan in attendance, crackle with a rare intensity, as can be heard on the under-appreciated Hard Rain album, and seen on the footage from the TV special of the same name. (Clinton Heylin’s book Behind the Shades covers this tour in some detail).

“Shelter from the Storm”, the first of the Blood on the Tracks numbers, features a committed vocal, with careful emphasis on certain words such as “crocodile”. Dylan, in a leather jacket, faded jeans, and a white turban (the favored headdress for the rest of the musicians onstage), plays a slide refrain on a white National guitar between each verse, his shoulders bouncing rhythm.

While there was criticism that too many song arrangements for this tour feature a repetitive stop/start pattern, in the case of “You’re a Big Girl Now” the form and content match. The song plays at the tempo of someone who’s just been cruelly dumped by an intimate partner; a sluggish, weighed down, too sad refrain. The vocals are sad and the violin is mournful. The verses advance painfully then crumble to a halt. The band proceeds to pick it up again, like a series of sighs in a grey dawn. But there is also certain defiance in the vocal delivery, a sense of “look at me, look at what you’ve done”.

“Idiot Wind” was a song that took time to develop onstage, although Dylan had delivered a fully realized vocal performance from the first show in Lakeland. The accompaniment lacked the same conviction, though it gradually found it in step with the tour’s mounting problems.

After the rainouts and emotional blowouts, with the cameras filming and audio rolling, the 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue manages to crystallize this arrangement, and the Fort Collins “Idiot Wind” is one of Dylan’s all-time best concert performances. The delivery of the pointed lyrics is devastating, accentuated with crescendos from the band that have a real snap, the musicians snapping their bodies in time as well. The final verses, in particular, achieve a kind of venomous catharsis, capped off by Dylan’s dismissive head shake after singing “it makes me feel so sorry”.

A fascinating electric version of “Tangled Up in Blue”, worked up in rehearsals during the rain delay, was also played at the Fort Collins show, and would be again when one final Rolling Thunder show was staged in Salt Lake City two days later, one of the very few of Dylan’s entire career of which there is no known recording. “Idiot Wind” was not in the Salt Lake set, although, intriguingly, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was performed live for the one and only time, as a duet between Dylan and Joan Baez. Some years later, Joel Bernstein, the tour’s guitar tech, remembered a lyrically flawless performance which alternated verses between the two performers, the first word or two of each stanza written on Dylan’s shirt cuff (“Songs of the Underground — A Collector’s Guide to the Rolling Thunder Revue 1975-1976”, Les Kokay, self-published 2000).

In 1978, Dylan set out on what amounted to a world tour in three separate legs, referred to by some as “The Alimony Tour” and not entirely in jest. A large band was assembled, 12 performers in all, with a new sound — including a horn section and three backing singers — and some radical new arrangements. Dylan began 1978 determined to channel his inner Neil Diamond, evidenced by a series of rehearsals at Rundown Studios in January, including reinventions of “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her Say Hello”. Horn arrangements would add a Vegas showroom vibe (“I know where I can find you” bwaa bwa bwaaa “in somebody’s room” bwaa bwa bwaaa).

In late February through the beginning of April, he played 23 shows in nine cities across Japan, New Zealand and Australia. “If You See Her, Say Hello”, with a strange reggae lilt, still featured new lyrics, but far more restrained than two years earlier (“And though our situation has hurt me to the bone / She’s better off with someone else and I’m better off alone” and “If she’s passing back this way most likely I’ll be gone / But if I’m not just let her know it’s best if she stay gone”). “Simple Twist of Fate”, if somewhat lifeless (at least as on the At Budokan album), found a new full-band arrangement that has held to this day.

Over four weeks in June and July, Dylan played nineteen shows through Western Europe (plus seven warm-up gigs in Los Angeles). This was followed by a 65-show tour of North America. A torch version of “Tangled Up in Blue”, which would not be out of place at a Charles Aznavour concert, appeared nightly, Dylan singing against a simple backdrop of keyboards and saxophone. “Shelter from the Storm” was also in heavy rotation; slow and rhythmic, with percolating percussion and sax with female vocals wailing between verses in Europe, and then speedier in North America with chants of “from the storm” in place of the wails.

After the 1978 tour, Dylan entered his gospel period and his live performances for a time featured his new Christian-influenced material exclusively. In the fall of 1980, Dylan toured the U.S. west coast, on what was dubbed the Musical Retrospective Tour. Songs from across his career were back in the set-list, including “Simple Twist of Fate”, which appeared for 12 performances in an arrangement not dissimilar from 1978, but slower and more stately, with piano and rhythm guitar replacing the organ and classic-rock lead guitar.

In the summer of 1981, Dylan toured through Europe again, followed by a U.S. tour across the north and southeast later that year. “Simple Twist of Fate” was performed at about two-thirds of these gigs, featuring a mesmerizing vocal which sought out new melodies in the upper register of his voice, and shifting subtle lyrical revisions. The third verse went like this:

They walked along by the old canal

Down Grand Street I remember well

Stopped into the El Centro Hotel

He threw his wife and hat on the bed

Then he listened to something that she said

But it just could not wait

To take advantage of that simple twist of fate.

In 1984, after a much-anticipated South American tour fell through, Dylan again was in Europe, playing 27 shows on a bill with Carlos Santana from late May to early July, many of the venues being large football stadiums. Though absent from the first five gigs, “Tangled Up in Blue” made an appearance during the first of two shows in Rotterdam and “Simple Twist Of Fate” joined the set for the second night. At least one of the two songs, more often both, would be performed each night for the remainder of the tour. New lyrics for both songs worked in new, more impersonal narratives, set against love triangles.

“Tangled Up in Blue” was featured as a solo acoustic number, played much like it was in 1975, with two harmonica breaks and a nearly complete rewrite of the lyrics. Here’s the last verse as performed in Brussels, 7 June 1975:

So now I’m going on back again

To the forbidden zone

There’s someone there among the women and men

Whose destiny is unknown

Some are masters of illusion

Some are ministers of the trade

All of their strong delusion

All of their beds unmade

Me I’m still walking towards the sun

Trying to stay out of the joint

We always did love the very same one

We just saw her from a different point, different point of view

Tangled up in blue.

During an interview in 1989, Dylan was asked why he rewrote the song that year and he replied, “I can’t remember … because the original lyrics weren’t fair to me because they just didn’t feel right at the time.” (Adrian Deevoy interview, Q Magazine, December 1989). The song performed in Wembley Stadium later in the tour was recorded and released on the album Real Live. Dylan, in the notes accompanying the Biograph set, claimed that the 1984 version was “more like it should have been … the imagery is better and more the way I would have liked it.” It can be noted, though, that all subsequent performances after 1984 returned to the original version (more or less).

“Simple Twist of Fate” not only featured a radical lyric rework but a continual one, as it was markedly different from one night to the next. It could also be quite funny, as in this verse, from Brussels as well:

He woke up, and the room was thick

Something inside this room was making him sick

Hears those boot heels in the hallway click

Bursts the window open wide

Then throws it all up outside

You know it just could not wait

All the time for that simple twist of fate.

The tempo was faster than the previous tours, and on his best nights Mick Taylor’s lead guitar would rip inventive punctuations after certain phrases. As in 1981, Dylan was finding strong new melody lines with his voice, though not quite as high in the vocal register. The performances of both “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Simple Twist of Fate” are very spirited during the Rome show on 19 June, particularly the latter, which lyrically goes to very unpredictable places (or seems to, as some of the words are difficult to make out).

“Shelter from the Storm” was played only three times during this tour, but with a new arrangement. If 1978 could be said to have produced the template for all following renditions of “Simple Twist of Fate”, then the 1984 tour did the same for “Shelter from the Storm”. Although it sounds a tad under-rehearsed, with tentative lead and harmonica breaks, there is a swing to the music and a melody in Dylan’s vocal which would be mined for many years to come.

No songs from Blood on the Tracks were performed during Dylan’s tours with Tom Petty in 1986. A brief 1987 summer tour with the Grateful Dead (six shows) featured “Simple Twist of Fate” (three times), “Tangled Up in Blue” (twice), and “Shelter from the Storm” (once). Although the tour was not memorable, the Dead’s enthusiasm for neglected songs in Dylan’s back catalogue carried over into the subsequent Born in Flames tour of Europe again with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Fifty-six different songs made their way onto set-lists that were changing every night, a habit which has carried on into the present (as an extreme, at The Beacon Theater in New York in 2005, Dylan played 54 different songs over the course of five nights). “Simple Twist of Fate” (12 times), “Shelter from the Storm” (11 times) and “Tangled Up in Blue” (nine times), were all featured as somewhat subdued presentations, but with considered vocals and an emotional musical landscape not far from the original album.

During the Born in Flames tour Dylan experienced an onstage epiphany, as described in Chronicles. The overwhelming message of this was, as Dylan described it: “I’ve got to go out and play these songs — that’s what I must do.” Just weeks later, in late November, Dylan hosted a rehearsal in New York with a five-piece group assembled by G.E. Smith, a session which, with its emphasis on interweaving electric guitar riffs, would establish the musical direction for the so-called Never Ending Tour which began the next summer.

It’s interesting that Dylan would so quickly have an apparently clear idea of where he wanted his music to go (although an important precursor to this sound was presented on the David Letterman program in the spring of 1984, when Dylan played three songs accompanied by a three-piece Los Angeles group called the Plugz). “You’re a Big Girl Now” appears at this rehearsal in a rough but heartfelt version, with some lyrical invention. It starts slowly with two guitars repeating the refrain, then builds tempo verse by verse, finishing in a lead guitar driven crescendo. “Shelter from the Storm” is also played, stripping the arrangement from 1984 down to its bedrock, with a growling intriguing vocal.

The Never Ending Tour began on 7 June 1988 in Concord, California. Where each previous Bob Dylan tour was a unique event in terms of song selection and presentation, the changes from leg to leg of this tour, which is arguably still continuing, would evolve more slowly. Personnel would change gradually, usually with the arrival and/or departure of individuals (although there was a big changeover in 2005). Distinct features identified some legs from others: the obscure sea ballads scattered throughout an Australian tour in 1992; the extended jams in 1993; the man at the microphone with just the harp in Europe 1995, and so on, but not the night and day differences between, say, the second Rolling Thunder tour and the 1978 tour.

While a few live tracks recorded since 1988 have been officially released, for the most part the full import of the Never Ending Tour is known only to avid fans, and it may take some time before more people realize that it has been one of the great achievements of Dylan’s career. The number of astonishing individual performances is staggeringly large.

“You’re a Big Girl Now” was the fourth song played in Concord, and it can serve as a statement of intent as to where Dylan was going as a live performer. It follows the arrangement from the previous November, although played slower and without the dramatic buildup. It was recognizably more of a “rock” number than had been heard before. Dylan had embraced the stripped down band, and much punchier versions of his material. The tempo would increase as the tour moved along. At a Los Angeles show early in August, the song, nearly six minutes in Concord, was down to just over four, with crashing guitars and declarative vocals.

“Tangled Up in Blue” was re-imagined as another fast rock song, with a catchy repeating guitar hook that led into each verse, although it would not be a consistent part of the show until 1992. By then, the song had morphed into a jangly jam, electric or acoustic, with the rhythm guitar setting the pace and attitude, and usually clocking in at seven minutes or longer. “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Shelter from the Storm” would carry over previous arrangements, adjusted for the new band, and continuing to adjust as the personnel gradually changed. The former song would stretch out to eight minutes and beyond, while the latter frequently engaged a bouncy tempo led by the bass.

Dylan did two short tours of Europe in 1993 (February then June-July) which featured uniquely long versions of songs with plenty of guitar wankery, the verses playing as brief interludes between extended repeating guitar figures which offer the substantive heart of the performance. Dylan played acoustic guitar in February, and electric lead in the summer. “Shelter from the Storm”, almost eight minutes long in February, would go for over twelve minutes in June. In Gijon, Spain on 8 July “Tangled Up in Blue” was over thirteen minutes and “Simple Twist of Fate” almost ten.

The Never Ending Tour has featured some unique Blood on the Tracks performances. On 18 November 1990, Dylan opened the show at the Fox Theater in Detroit with the one and only rendition of “Buckets of Rain”. It might have been a request or response to someone pointing out that he had never played it live. The performance is loose and drunk.

In 2007 September, Dylan was joined onstage in Nashville by Jack White for a blistering version of “Meet Me in the Morning”, the sole remaining song from the album which had not yet been heard from a concert stage.

After pedal steel player Bucky Baxter was added to the tour band in 1992, a bigger sound allowed for more complex arrangements. On 2 April, nine shows into an Australian tour, “Idiot Wind” is played onstage for the first time since the Fort Collins show in 1976. It is played a total of 40 times that spring and summer through to the end of August (and never since). The final performance, at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis on 30 August, is particularly spirited, with Dylan stretching notes with his voice at appropriate moments and the band swelling and receding behind him, capped off with a rousing harmonica solo.

“If You See Her, Say Hello” has appeared occasionally since it was played for the first time in almost sixteen years on the opening night of a Japanese tour in February 1994. The arrangement, with pedal steel or violin usually prominent, has tended to be a bit more sprightly than one might expect. Unlike its two previous incarnations, it has been lyrically true to the album version, with a seldom new line or two (London May 2002: “If she’s passing back this way, it couldn’t be too quick / Please don’t mention her name to me, you mention her name it just make me sick.”)

Over the years, “You’re a Big Girl Now” fell back to a mid-tempo pace, sometimes with harmonica over the lead-in, sometimes with long instrumental passages between the verses. It would pop up in the set-lists consistently, but not frequently, with some occasionally outstanding performances (Lawrence, Kansas 1994; Toledo, Ohio 1998).

In October 2002, after three years of touring with one of his best bands ever (featuring Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell), having perfected at times astonishing interplay between the three frontline string instruments, Dylan effects a major on-stage shake-up and is suddenly behind a piano for most of the show.

Red Bluff, California was the site of the third show into this experiment and “You’re A Big Girl Now” was the second song on the set-list, its only appearance on this tour. Not unlike the concert at Concord, California over 14 years earlier, the performance seems a statement of intent, as the piano comes up in the mix and, with strong chording, assumes the rhythm guitar part. Dylan’s vocal is both strong and tender — a great reading — but it is his work on the keyboard that takes the number and, arguably from this point, the whole tour into brand new territory.

“Shelter from the Storm” would appear in a somewhat new arrangement on that Autumn 2002 tour, with the acoustic string instruments strummed enthusiastically and the final line of each verse repeated with harmonies by Sexton and Campbell. Like “You’re a Big Girl Now”, it is a consistent but not frequent offering. It has been played a few times on the (as of this writing) most recent leg, a tour of the Far East in March 2010.

“Simple Twist of Fate” has also appeared on 2010 set lists. With the new personnel in 2005, the song had received a jazz swing interpretation of the old arrangement, which gave Dylan a chance to sing rather than fall into some of the talk-sing mannerisms he has taken to. The lyric changes from 1975 stayed in place all this time, although back in 1987 the final verse had returned to the “twin” and the “lost ring”. The addition of pedal steel, and additional stringed accompaniment in 1992, added a lot of color to the performances. Standouts include Binghampton, New York 1992; Caspar, Wyoming 2000; Kansas City, Missouri 2002.

“Tangled Up in Blue” is the fifth most played song in Bob Dylan’s concert history, performed about 1,100 times (only a few behind “Blowin’ in the Wind”). In the three years between 1998 and 2000 it was played at just about every show. It has been a dependable crowd pleaser over the years, and consistently rousing, with a few performances that stand out — Berlin in 1996; Ithaca, New York in 1999; Southampton, New York 2002. In May 2008, Dylan introduced a new blues-shuffle arrangement at a gig in Norway, which was played occasionally through the year.

What are the highlights of Blood on the Tracks in a live setting? In my opinion, the 1976 Rolling Thunder tour has the most blistering renditions, which stand as an important counterpoint as certain emotions present but held in check on the album are released.

The 1975 tour presented more “classic” live renditions, but they are nearly definitive. The Neil Diamond-channeling Rundown rehearsals from 1978 are a lot of fun, and that year’s arrangement of “Tangled Up in Blue” is worth a listen because it is so strange (the first time I heard it, a friend and I both thought someone must have spiked our drinks).

“Simple Twist of Fate” as performed in 1981 is excellent, the vocal melody gets into your system. The first months of the Never Ending Tour in 1988 feature outstanding modern rock (circa that era) versions of four Blood on the Tracks standards; and anything in the Sexton/Campbell era 1999-2002 is worth checking out. That said, Bob Dylan’s working methods have produced a vast body of work that is of interest from any period of his career, and the versions of Blood on the Tracks are just a part of that larger continuum.