Bob Dylan Live 1979-80
There’s no other way to grasp the wonder of these performances. And there’s a great deal of noise interfering with our ability to hear it. Noisy dogma, both evangelical and anti-evangelical. Noisy crowds shouting in the theaters, chatting among themselves right next to the taper, filling pages with dismissive comments about Dylan’s failure to retain his throne as chief mystic of the New Hip Humanity. Noisy us, fumbling about in search of the Dylan we want without facing the Dylan that is. Refusing to take his sudden overt religiosity at face value; as the statement of a man seeking deliverance from utter despair and inspired by that deliverance to celebrate his own personal salvation as he has celebrated new love before this.
The performances are wonderful and, I believe, signify a unique opportunity to witness a great performer stripped bare. Unlike every other Dylan tour, here he eschews his iconic songs in favor of a rigorously maintained setlist of brand new compositions. Only half of the songs performed during this tour had been released commercially; and those, comprising Slow Train Coming, had appeared only a few months earlier. He has also stripped down the overall instrumentation, choosing understated performers and precise arrangements of the songs. This more rigid musical structure, combined with a fresh palette of songs, provides a wonderful stage for Dylan’s own unique performing gifts.
Always an idiosyncratic singer, Dylan’s phrasing in the past was further leavened by a hefty dose of irony, both verbal and musical. Here, Dylan abandons irony in favor of confession and convocation -- confessing love (“Precious Angel,” “Covenant Woman”); and weakness (“Saving Grace,” “When He Returns”); disgust (“Slow Train,” “When You Gonna Wake Up”); and defiance (“Solid Rock,” “I Believe In You,” and “Pressing On”). Within these songs Dylan proclaims his faith with bracing -- to many, embarrassing – honesty. He has decided to recreate himself as an artist, throwing away the songbook and a complex stage persona; forcing himself and his audience to make do with the performances themselves. The results are electrifying, for instance:
“When He Returns” appears as the fourth song on Dylan’s setlist throughout the first and second legs of this tour. Standing alone at the front of the stage with his electric guitar and Spooner Oldham’s graceful accompaniment on keyboards, Dylan transforms the solemn majesty of this song as it appears on Slow Train Coming to a raw, urgent call from the wilderness. These performances, punctuated by shearing sustained notes – “ how long can you hate yourself for the weakness you connnceeeeeeeaaaaaallllllll?!” – bring the audience to a stunned silence every night as it recognizes the intensity of his purpose. Dylan ends each performance of this song with an inverted blues progression, reminding us that “When He Returns” is, in essence, a blues, and joining once more the bitter despair which underlies the blues and the deliverance sought within all spirituals.
“Solid Rock” is another performance which regularly stops the audience in its tracks on this tour. The arrangement is in place the very first night, but the band march through it tentatively, dutifully, almost waiting for it to catch fire. Within a half dozen performances, warmed by the audience response to its epic promise each night, the song is in full conflagration. By November 10th, Dylan and the band hammer out a defiant, brazen rocker that hits as hard as anything he, or anyone, has served up before. The percussive phrasing of what amounts to a single note bass riff, Dylan’s bark swirling within the wailing three-part harmonies of the backing singers, and Fred Tackett’s chugging lead guitar propel the entire hall like a thunderstorm sweeping across the plains.
“What Can I Do For You?” also takes a number of performances to jell. Following, most nights, immediately after “Saved” – Dylan’s most overt statement of Christian conversion set to a raucous traditional revivalist stomp -- “What Can I Do For You?” manages to soothe the audience even as it invites them nearer the core passion of his faith. At its heart, the song is a rare prayer of offering. Each stanza recounts the rewards Dylan feels he’s received through his faith. The chorus is a rejoinder, asking what Dylan has to offer in return. The song itself is a meditation on the compassion which flows from humility and subordination, draped upon a shrewd performer’s trick; in this case, Dylan choosing to play long solos on his fan-beloved harp, causing the crowd to hang on his every note.
Dylan displays his total command over the audience with, “Pressing On,” the final encore throughout this tour. Dylan begins the song alone, at a piano to the side of the stage. He slowly outlines the song’s chord structure, and begins singing the chorus, the backing singers joining in after one or two repetitions. Dylan completes the first stanza, then abandons the piano to join the backing singers at stage center, singing the chorus again together unaccompanied. The full band kicks in at the beginning of the second stanza, lifting the energy level from plaintive (“what kind of sign do they need?”) to defiant (“shake the dust off of your feet”) and by the third chorus the audience is standing, clapping along with the singers as they explode in ecstatic wails. Having brought the entire hall to a fever pitch, Dylan calls out “goodnight” and exits; the band and backing singers maintaining the chorus as the crowd’s clapping dissolves into shouts for more and general applause. The band draws the song to a close and we are left to ponder the brutally honest, naked statement of this icon tossing off the trappings of his and our past -- appearing before us, unafraid, as merely a man who has fallen to the depths of despair and found his feet again -- his music a frightening combination of supreme showmanship; the same awesome talent to match great poetry, cadence and melody; and the terrible self-certainty of the converted.
As is so often the case, Dylan disappoints those expecting to see and hear an icon of popular culture. Yet for those with eyes to see and ears to hear -- by no means solely Christian eyes and ears – Dylan delivers extraordinary performances. Here, he subsumes his own wandering genius within the carefully choreographed structure of a small, tight band and an unwavering setlist neatly balancing the rapture and prayers of his faith within the vocabulary of elemental gospel music. Underpinning the Christian message of his new songs, he exhibits a revivalist fervor for the music itself, reappropriating a vital source of what has long since become subsumed within rock-n-roll. For those willing to listen, for those ready to hear what Dylan chose to play, the result is nothing short of a musical and artistic revelation. But you have to listen.
A Rough Chronology:
Slow Train Coming released.
Tour rehearsals and October 20th performance on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
November 1 – December 9, 1979:
First of three legs of the tour, beginning with twelve straight concerts
at San Francisco’s Fox Warfield Theater.
January 11 – February 9, 1980:
Second of three legs of the tour.
February 11-15, 1980:
Recording sessions for Saved.
February 27, 1980:
Performance and award acceptance at the Grammy’s
(Best Male Rock Vocal Performance)
April 17 – May 21, 1980:
Third of three legs of the tour.
Each concert begins with an introductory monologue by Regina McCreary Havis, one of the backing singers. Her monologue leads directly into a series of six traditional spirituals, performed together with the other backing singers and the band. Dylan then emerges, kicking off his portion of the concert with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and concluding with “In the Garden” followed by two encores; “Blessed Is The Name” and “Pressing On” during the first and second legs, with “Are You Ready” and “Pressing On” throughout the third leg.
The setlist remains largely uniform, in both content and order, during the entire tour, with very few exceptions. Songs from Slow Train Coming dominate the first half of each concert, with songs from the upcoming Saved album comprising the entire second half. One of the backing singers would perform a song without Dylan near the midpoint of each concert. Dylan resolutely refused to play any songs which predated the Slow Train Coming album despite persistent shouted requests from the audience.
Dylan also punctuates a number of these concerts with brief comments and/or sermons, commonly referred to as “raps,” on the theme of biblical prophecy and impending Armageddon. The tone of these “raps” grows more ominous and exasperated as the tour progresses.
The instrumental core of Dylan’s touring band throughout this tour was comprised of:
· Tim Drummond on bass guitar
· Jim Keltner on drums
· Fred Tackett on lead guitar
· Terry Young on keyboards, and
· Spooner Oldham on a second set of keyboards.
Dylan also employed a number of different backing singers, varying their number and composition with each new lag of the tour.
Live, Drummond’s bass lines emphasize the economy of the rhythmic structure with a funk-influenced phrasing. Keltner’s drumming lifts the songs beyond the almost austere rhythm found on Slow Train and mysteriously neutered in the studio during the Saved sessions. They combine to invest a warmer, fuller rhythmic core to all these songs.
Tackett’s guitar work reflects a rhythm guitarist’s sensibility, underscoring the rhythmic pace of the songs as often as he provides compact melodic leads. He has the unenviable task of playing in Mark Knopfler’s shadow on many of the Slow Train songs; respectfully maintaining Knopfler’s phrases where they are integral to the song, but nibbling at the edges where he can. Tackett is given full throttle on “Solid Rock” and the pent-up energy building through the wonderful cocked cadences of this song is what propels it. Indeed, “Solid Rock” is a showcase for the unique pairing of three rhythmically gifted guitarists in Tackett, Drummond on bass, and Dylan. The incandescent groove they achieve during the autumn is somewhat diminished by the time this song is recorded for Saved. It is one of the particular delicacies of this tour to behold this song in full flower.
Young and Oldham could hardly be more different in their use of keyboards. Oldham plays introverted intricate phrases while Young provides the wailing, stomping keyboard and organ runs which give the gospel-inspired songs their revivalist fervor. Oldham’s sound dominates the Saved album, while Young invests a rawer, fuller sound to the harder rocking Slow Train compositions in concert, in many ways overshadowing, even overwhelming, the austere treatment these songs received on the Slow Train album.
The overall effect is of a stripped-down, highly professional and technically proficient band capable of busting loose in any number of directions, but disciplined to carefully follow Dylan’s lead. They are often hard-pressed to do so as Dylan is forever nudging the tempo, altering the key, and extending the measure in search of his own particular understanding of the song. There are a number of timing miscues, particularly at the beginning of the tour, and it is clear Dylan unnerves his band on a number of occasions with his constant fiddling. However, these are mere distractions from what are otherwise routinely high quality performances. Where they mesh, the results are nothing short of breathtaking.
Autumn 1979: Beginning November 1st in San Francisco’s Fox Warfield Theater and ending December 9th in Tucson, Arizona. Click here to review setlists, venues, and annotated notes on circulating recordings from this leg.
Winter 1980: Beginning January 11th in Portland, Oregon and ending February 9th in Charleston, West Virginia. Click here to review setlists, venues, band personnel changes, and annotated notes on circulating recordings from this leg.
Spring 1980: Beginning April 17th in Toronto, Canada and ending May 21st in Dayton, Ohio. Click here to review setlists, venues, band personnel changes, and annotated notes on circulating recordings from this leg.