“Only A River Can Make Things Right” – Bob Dylan in Japan 2023.

Bob Dylan was always big in Japan, his first visit to the country was in 1978. the one that resulted in “Bob Dylan At Budokan” as a Japan only release in August the same year, and until his eleven shows in Osaka, Tokyo and Nagoya in April 2023. His ninth tour in Japan started in Osaka 6th of April and ended with the Nagoya concert the 20th.
(Actually, the great exclusive trippel-album compilation “Masterpieces” was released in Japan already in March 1978, also released in Australia and New Zealand)

After a fabulous streak of shows in Europe 2022, one could only hope for the same high quality shows in Japan, while expecting a set list with really no changes. Then again, this is Bob Dylan, his heart is a river, a river that sings, it rolls and flows and, above all, changes, the river that’s really never the same twice. It’s alright. Heraclitus told us that. Makes life and live music exciting. People all over the world waits for the first setlist in Japan – is it the same songs, the same band, the same arrangements? And after all these years, Bob Dylan’s art is still a moving thing. Nothing is stable, except change.

The Rough And Rowdy Ways World Tour Set List is the same, but the drummer is new. The fabulous Charley Drayton is replaced by Jerry Pentecost, the drummer from “Old Crow Medicine Show”, well schooled in Americana Music. Maybe not the magician as Drayton, but still Dylan succeeds in integrating a new musician into his band. Pentecost did a great job. From the first show the setup works well, Dylan on the baby grand piano the undisputed band leader both this and forthcoming nights. Of course.

The prologue for the Rough And Rowdy Ways album might also be the real prologue those evenings of the tour, I’m of course thinking of “I Contain Multitudes”, an utterly personal song, one might think, from an artist’s point of view, of course, but also from exactly this artist’s own vantage point. Even this song has changed since last year, now more melodic, with more sophisticated piano, more of a jazz feeling, also in the vocal phrasings, the whole song got a new suit, a new beat where it comes swingin’ against us one more time, now in Osaka the 6th of April, the first show in 2023.

The framework for the show is the same setlist as in 2022, but many of the arrangements keep evolving, like the sudden change in “Goodbye, Jimmy Reed” in Tokyo the 11th of April, and when it comes to “When I Paint My Masterpiece” a step back to the fabulous pre-pandemic version from 2018/19. Dylan’s singing is great, and he colors the song even more with his harmonica.

Quite as much a surprise as changes of the known songs, was the first inclusion of Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” the day after, a song Dylan also digged into in “The Philosophy of Modern Song”: “This song is medium tempo, but it seems to just keep picking up speed….The guy singing the song acts and talks like who he is, and not the way others would want him to talk and act.” Sounds familiar?

At the fourth show, what has to be an old favorite for Dylan, “Not Fade Away”, shows up in the set. A Buddy Holly classic, but also a signature tune for Grateful Dead, the band is the actual hub for the cover versions chosen for this Far East leg of the tour, one more time showing Dylan’s great respect for Jerry Garcia and his band, both as friends and inspirations.

Dylan’s words following Jerry Garcia’s death speaks volumes about this special relation, both when it comes to friendship and inspiration – and a great fellowship when it comes to a variety of musical roots:

“There’s no way to measure his greatness or magnitude as a person or as a player. I don’t think eulogizing will do him justice. He was that great – much more than a superb musician with an uncanny ear and dexterity. He is the very spirit personified of whatever is muddy river country at its core and screams up into the spheres. He really had no equal.

To me he wasn’t only a musician and friend, he was more like a big brother who taught and showed me more than he’ll ever know. There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school. His playing was moody, awesome, sophisticated, hypnotic and subtle. THERE’S NO WAY to convey the loss. It just digs down really deep.” (Bob Dylan, 1995)

The Grateful Dead Classic “Friend of the Devil” was included in the US leg of the tour last year, the song played as much as 99 times since 1990. It was included in the first show after Garcia’s passing in 1995, and quite regular the year after.

The sentiment of “Not Fade Away” is an inspiration to us all, it always was, as the years are passing by, even more, not the least for an artist still on the road at nearly 82. Dylan included the song in his show first time in 1986, now reaching 140 times, still not fading away.

The 14th of April in Tokyo, Dylan introduces another cover version, the beautiful Grateful Dead song “Brokedown Palace”, lyrics by Robert Hunter, the long time collaborator also for Dylan. Again, the theme of the song is easily read into a theme of goodbye and of being at the end of a journey – in a way a theme for all the cover versions, as it is for some of the Rough And Rowdy Ways songs on the setlist, notably “Mother of Muses” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”, as well as the use of “Every Grain of Sand” as the closing song each night. This first attempt of “Brokedown Palace” is tender and touching, Dylan in a way rehearsing the song, not remembering all of the words. He returns to the song the 16th of April but it collapses after one and a half minute, Dylan then nails it the third time, a wonderful version of the whole song, Dylan’s vocals brimming with sadness and melancholy, giving all his deep respect for the song in his performance.

“Fare you well my honey
Fare you well my only true one
All the birds that were singing
Have flown except you alone

Going to leave this broke-down palace
On my hands and my knees I will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time, in my time, I will roll, roll, roll

River gonna take me
Sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy
All the way back back home
It’s a far gone lullaby
Sung many years ago
Mama, mama, many worlds I’ve come
Since I first left home

Going home, going home
By the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul

Going to plant a weeping willow
On the banks green edge it will grow, grow, grow
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll

Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul

“Black Rider” has been included for the whole RRW tour, but in Japan also this song gets a new treatment, more piano, another beat, making the song fresh. Great stuff.

Grateful Dead’s “Truckin'” is also included in the last of the shows, Dylan more confident when it comes to the lyrics, which fits perfectly into the theme.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times, I can barely see
Lately, it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been

A long, strange trip, indeed.

We know that Bob Dylan love the song “Shenandoah”, included as it was on the album “Down In The Groove” (1987), actually the same year he had this little tour with Grateful Dead. Piano hints of “Shenandoah” started to sprinkle into the set several nights the fall of 2022, I heard it in London myself, maybe heard most notably in Dublin, the last show of last year. The Irish always loved the song, as we can hear in the beautiful Van Morrison version from 1998. The famous folk song from early 19th century has moved people since then, flooded with the themes of both love, yearning, borders, the river and the travel, changing lyrics through years and version, set to the beautiful melody. No wonder Dylan fell in love with the song in the first place, presumably from childhood. The song is recorded in more than 320 versions since first time recorded in 1928.

Whether Dylan in 2022 already was thinking of Bob Weir’s and Josh Ritter’s song “Only A River” is not for me to say. The song written by Ritter a long time ago, but first released by Bob Weir in 2016, on his third solo album, through Weir it is of course making also for this song an indirectly link to Grateful Dead. I only know of Bob Weir’s studio and live versions, never seen it covered before. A very fine song in Weir’s version, but Dylan, in the last show in Japan, transforms it into a song as deep as the ocean, making the original’s effective use of “Shenandoah” in the chorus underline the strong rolling like a river theme in his Rough And Rowdy Ways Tour setlist, a setlist that each night starts with “Watching The River Flow”, which now, more than fifty years after its release, melts into the bigger picture, not only waiting for something to happen or more songs to be written, now contemplating that, in the end, only a river can make things right. Dylan makes the song “Only A River” his own, but deeply respectful to a song that connects to him these days, with a voice marinated in lived life, love of music & sense of poetry, masterly phrasing each line and each word into a powerful, majestic performance, rolling like the big river itself. Wow!

Well I was born up in the mountains
Raised up in a desert town
And I never saw the ocean
Till I was close to your age now

Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey, you rolling river
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right

I’m going to back to San Angelo
The ground is hard and the county’s dry
But I’m gonna get my fill somehow
Rivers of corn and wheat and rye

Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey, you rolling river
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right

Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey, you rolling river
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right

Oh Red, Red River Valley
Where she remember all the things we said
And what’s the chance that she’ll remember
All those nights in the river bed
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey, you rolling river
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you
Hey, hey, hey
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right
Only a river gonna make things right

(Josh Ritter/Bob Weir)

Josh Ritter, a great singer/songwriter himself, learnt that Dylan performed the song in Japan, and commented beautifully on Twitter the following days:

20th of April: “I am speechless. I wrote that song in the stairwell of my dorm in college, 25 years ago. Music is a blessed traveler.

21th of April: When I learned yesterday that Mr. Dylan had sung a song that I’d written, I was washed over with a feeling that that can only be described as a cousin of vertigo. So many songs, and all of them rambling around out there. Somehow, this one found Dylan’s pasture. How beautiful.”

21th of April: “It opened a crack in the door through which I could momentarily imagine all of these many songs out in the night , traveling, sneaking cookies from the jar, attending the air around griefs and joys of all kinds.

21th of April: I wrote Only a River in my dorm in college. Like all my favorites, it came unbidden, and I just wrote it down. Many years later, as I got the amazing opportunity to work with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, this song rose to the top of the pack, asking to be let out the door.

21th of April: I sent it to Weir and Josh Kaufman, who beautifully arranged and recorded and performed the song that Dylan eventually must have heard.

21th of April: To all my friends out there making art: it’s not always this easy seeing the ripples your work makes, but take the story of my little song, Only a River, as comfort. Art travels. Voices carry. Your art is out there in the world, making its home in many places, many hearts.

25th of April, after listening to Dylans performance: “I just think he sings it so beautifully. I mean, WOW.”

He and I agree.

It might seem like the band introductions caught the band by surprise most nights, they could happen anywhere in the show, including Bob’s surprising information about the musicians CV, Bob Britt starring in Colombo, Doug a starring role in the musical Tommy and so on. A feelgood vibe, one really must say.

“Every Grain of Sand” ended each show, with some real wonderful harmonica solos along this run of shows, like this one from the 14th of April.

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, at times it’s only me
I’m hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand”

Another fabulous leg of the tour has ended, full of great performances, changes and surprises, with a vigorous band leader, pianist & singer in charge. He is still collecting his songs in a pattern, moving from place to place, stepping into the dark night, stepping into the space. He is movin’ on, and we still are the lucky ones.

Looking forward to Barcelona!

Johnny Borgan

with many thanks to Bennyboy for being able to share the music.

7 thoughts on ““Only A River Can Make Things Right” – Bob Dylan in Japan 2023.

  1. I always look forward to your blog. I wish I could have been in Japan for this tour, but your writing helped to transport me there. Thank you!


  2. I was at Dylans Concert in with my son most of my family are well connected to Dylans music it was hard not to with all thoese L P about .O M G how does do it from Japan to Barcelona ,thank you Mr Dylan for the great music especially that first time I heard him a life changing experience

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hjertelig takk, Johnny. Må innrømme at “Not Fade Away” var den jeg likte best, men til gjengjeld er den versjonen du sendte helt utrolig flott.¨

    Med vennlig hilsen / Best regards / Slava Ukraini! Knut I. Tønsberg Mobile +47-95524558


  4. Pingback: Happy 82nd Birthday, Mister Dylan. 24th of May, 2023. | Johnny B.

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