This concert took place in New York’s Madison Square Garden in October 1992, thirty years after the release of Dylan’s debut album Bob Dylan. The concert was three hours long. It’s hard to know what to say about these songs—they’re all live of course, so it’s not like we were going to get many particularly creative or inventive versions. There’s a large audience present—18000 according to Howard Sounes. Most of the performers here are pretty popular well-known artists whose main purpose would have been to please the crowd, except for Sinead O’Connor who got heckled because she’d recently dissed the pope. In retaliation she began to play Bob Marley’s “War” and got booed off stage. So while most everyone else played it safe, what I’m interested in most is those honest, heartfelt vocal performances that really stand out for one reason or another. Dylan’s here too, playing on three songs at the end. It’s a long set and I found I enjoyed it more if I just treated each disc as a separate album, getting familiar with the set before I moved onto the next. Booker T and the MGs provide much of the backing music.
John Mellencamp (with Al Kooper) – Like A Rolling Stone… what makes this nice to listen to of course is Kooper’s fiddly organ playing. Mellencamp, on the other hand, sounds like every two bit Bryan Adams/Tom Cochrane gravelly-voiced dullard on the planet. Besides Kooper there’s also a couple of female singers (one of who shares lead with Mellencamp) with wildcat voices giving it their all. In fact, one of them pretty much steals the show from Mellencamp who becomes increasingly non-descript as the song gets on. Towards the end, he starts affecting a Dylanesque phrasing style which helps a little. Nevertheless the rock’n’roll true-to-the-original nature of his band’s rendition wins the day. We’ve also got Lisa Germano on violin here, although I can’t remember hearing her.
John Mellencamp – Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat… we continue with the same band, but the violin plays a larger role over a thumpin’ syncopated rhythm section, some more of that great sixties organ sound and Mellencamp channeling Dylan again, quite well in fact. In the middle things quiet down, Kooper is really the key ingredient here, though it’s Dylan’s lyrics that remind us why this song works as a cover. The backing singers join again briefly at the end for a really effective duet – only one bar though, pity.
Kris Kristofferson – Introduction… “I’m Kris Kristofferson and this is Bob Dylan’s night.” He reels off some history about Dylan, then some praise for Dylan. “…to pay tribute to Bob Dylan through his own songs. Hang on to that spirit.” I don’t like the gruff way he announces it though. Sounes claims he’s nervous. He sounds like a grumpy old man to me.
Stevie Wonder – Blowin’ In The Wind… Wonder had already recorded this song nearly three decades earlier, getting it into the R&B top ten of 1966. Here Stevie gives us a sappy, sentimental introduction about how this song will always remain relevant to something going on in the world…Vietnam, Watergate, the struggle with apartheid in South Africa, the fighting to end starvation, and then he uses his platform to urge people to vote for “the one who is going to commit to opening up his heart.” Oh shut up Stevie and get on with it already. A chiming piano note plays over his speech and then he starts singing, his sweet-whine rattling on about roads, seas, white doves and cannonballs being fired. The crowd noise gets in the way. They should have been excised from the recording. There’s a pretty great harmonica solo after the first verse, but the pace is quite slow suggesting that this song is going to overstay its welcome. Wonder has a backing vocalist too, another who tries to steal the show, although it’s a bit over the top, that impassioned wailing. Then Wonder tries to get the audience to join in, with that most obnoxious of lines, “I don’t hear ya, let me hear ya sing it louder.” Ugh. Aren’t they paying to hear you Stevie? I didn’t buy the bloody record to listen to 5000 tone deaf New Yorkers sing the chorus to “Blowin’ In The Wind.” A few more trademark wails from Stevie and the crowd go wild.
Eddie Vedder / Mike McCready – Masters Of War… however, all of the above was worth wading through if only to hear this, surely the best cover of this song ever. Vedder sings this with so much understated tension that you’re immediately pulled in, listening closely. He sings it with absolute conviction, tempering his voice, quavers, nuanced, manipulating tone, and never once overdoes that wobble thing of his. I love this. He makes it way more serious than Dylan’s version, sounding truly disgusted, downright dangerous, and pissed off. “How much do I know / To talk out of turn / You might say I’m young / You might say I’m unlearned.” He gets pretty intense at this point, before lowering his voice into that slightly scary tone that a parent or teacher uses to effect a sense of gravity before you get blasted for some petty crime. The crowd love him. Me too. McCready does a great job keeping the guitar part plaintive and simple. There’s a mandolin in here too but I was so drawn in by Edder’s voice I didn’t notice it.
Lou Reed – Foot Of Pride… and so Reed, just to prove he’s the god of eternal cool, chooses an outtake track from the Infidels sessions that nobody knows, a track only available on the Bootleg Series Vol 1-3. But it does sound great. A sharp electric guitar note pulses along in stark counterpoint to the heavy bass/drum part. Reed sings it entirely in his own half-sung/half-spoken style, and he gives it a real growly cynical tone. I don’t know what the song’s about exactly. The song doesn’t change much. Every few bars there’s a chorus where the music surges briefly but that pulsing rhythm section never lets up. In fact, the song, one that few in the audience will know, is a standout for its length and the power of Reed’s performance. This is great. Quite different to a lot of the other claptrap here.
Tracy Chapman – The Times They Are A-Changin’… this is Chapman solo with her acoustic guitar, and again, because there’s no full band, the song is infinitely more effective. Chapman’s in fine fettle here, singing it so naturally, smooth, but with real meaning. In fact this competes with Vedder’s “Masters Of War” for best track here. Chapman adds a real sense of melody to the song, one that isn’t even heard in such a pleasing way on the original. I confess to only having heard Chapman by osmosis, but I could be a contender for a couple of her albums after listening to this. There’s something so much more empowering about the solo artist covering Dylan, rather than the full band.
June Carter Cash / Johnny Cash — It Ain’t Me Babe… Kristofferson introduces the Cashes in that silly cowboy-acculturated voice of his. Carter and Cash’s band launch into a fast farmyard boogie rhythm, the pony express thing that Cash practically owns. I’m not sure I think much of their duet. Cash’s singing here is far superior to his awful studio version of the same song that we heard on The Songs Of Bob Dylan. This has real energy and none of the dumb over-enunciating that he did on that 1964 version. June’s voice is slightly irritating though; I don’t think their voices go together all that well.
Willie Nelson – What Was It You Wanted… is slow, moody, a rich sound, a neat pulsing bass line, and Nelson sings this Oh Mercy track really well, without any theatrics, in fact quite blandly, but that works with the nature of the song—keeps it pensive, mysterious, which is in accord with the title and questioning nature of the lyrics. Another great mix of harmonica and organ here too. Reminds me of the Church with that haunting vibe.
Kris Kristofferson – I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight… opens on piano and wiggly harmonica, introduced by Willie Nelson; “Here’s a really good friend of mine ladies and gentlemen, Kris Kristofferson.” Kristofferson chose a good song that suits his style at least, though I find his voice to be incredibly uninteresting, boring to the point where the song quickly starts to sound like filler. You can enjoy it for the melody, but there’s nothing in Kristofferson’s style that makes you sit up and take notice of the lyrics at all. As the song goes on I begin to find the whole simple 4/4 rhythm so bog standard I want to electrocute the grizzly old goat.
Johnny Winter – Highway 61 Revisited… opens with a swanky guitar solo, followed by Winter’s super-gravelly, “All right, it’s good to be here.” Then we get some more virtuoso riffing followed by Winter’s bizarre gravel-throated yell-type singing. He’s just a bit different old JW but all the wiggly guitar stuff in between the verses is pretty cool. Winter kind of destroys the melody though with his awful gruff, punchy singing, which only messes with the music in an annoying way. He should’ve stuck to guitar and let somebody else sing. He sounds like a weaker version of the inimitable Jimi Hendrix. The music’s quite good though, really energetic, all sorts of notes sparking out of Winter’s guitar at skyrocket speed.
Ron Wood – Seven Days… crikey Ron, is this the only Dylan you know? Like Johnny Cash with his “It Ain’t Me Babe,” Wood had already recorded this song thirteen years earlier, and it was also included on The Songs Of Bob Dylan. Of all the artists here, Wood wins the Dylan-soundalike talent quest hands down. His band’s aesthetic is very straightforward pacy rock, organs in the mix, everything else in perfect time, but it’s not difficult to enjoy Mr. Wood’s vocal, even if the song itself seems to pass by without really grabbing your attention. It’s Sunday afternoon barbecue music, ain’t it?
Richie Havens – Just Like A Woman… at least Havens covers something different to his contribution on the Michael Gray-curated compilation mentioned above. I like Richie Havens. I liked his version of “I Pity The Poor Immigrant,” and I like him here too. It’s just him and a soft, quickly strummed acoustic guitar. Havens has a good voice, not quite as magical as Eddie Vedder or Tracy Chapman, but a notch above most of the other fare here. Yet again, Havens proves that solo, the Dylan cover is capable of rising above mere mediocrity. His guitar playing too, is really nice, a lovely sound. Impressive stuff. It’s a pity he chose this song though; great tune and all that, but lyrics…well, is there anything in this world that’s really ‘just like a woman’?
The Clancy Brothers with Robbie O’Connell and Tommy Makem – When The Ship Comes In… apparently the Clancy Brothers flew in from Ireland specially for this concert. “Hello, you never thought you’d hear Dylan with an Irish accent did you?” asks a Clancy brother before launching into the first verse. There’s a strumptuous guitar sound, flute, mandolin, and all five voices in the chorus, which makes this something of a glorious singalong. “Then the sands will roll out a carpet of gold / For your weary toes to be a touchin’ / And the ship’s wise men will remind you once again / That the whole world is watchin’.” I like this a lot, and I love how you can hear their wondrous Irish accents. In October 1992 I was sitting a dreary accounting exam when I should have been traveling the world. How dull of me.
Mary-Chapin Carpenter / Rosanne Cash / Shawn Colvin – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere… introduced by Johnny Cash this time. It’s upbeat, almost funky, with rich guitar tones, and even richer vocals from Carpenter or Colvin. I’m not sure which voice belongs to who. They sing a verse each and join for the chorus. Rosanne Cash sounds fine by herself. It’s pretty, poppy, soaring electric lead in bridge. They’ve got classic country voices, and they sound pretty good together on the chorus. Critique? Nothing really, perfectly competent. A nice change of voices from all the blokes.
Neil Young – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues… not sure why Young’s mix sounds a little too-loud. His voice nearly drowns out the music. It’s like he hasn’t got good distance control with his microphone, and I’m not quite sure just yet, how much I like the sound of Neil Young playing Dylan. Young’s vocal style doesn’t quite suit Dylan’s words. I mean there’s nothing wrong with it, but he lacks the subtleties of some of the other singers. The music is a surging, powerful, suitably histrionic affair, and there’s no doubt this is a great song, but Young does a weird thing with his breathing, like he sounds a touch out of breath, or he’s trying to sing too loud. Yeah, anyway, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should, that’s all. I love Neil Young’s own work, and here I’m not hearing the melody take hold. Instead, Young delivers a slightly theatrical performance, but it sounds unrehearsed, like he hasn’t quite ascertained exactly which syllables he should stress.
Neil Young – All Along The Watchtower… this on the other hand sounds like it could be much better. There’s already a strong bass backbone on the song, some pounding drumming and a lightning storm lead guitar. Once again, Young’s voice is recorded just slightly too loud, so that it comes across a little harsh over what is already a live recording with its own recording-dynamic problems. At one point, the sound washes out horribly. I don’t think the engineers were equipped to deal with Young’s increase in volume. Yeah, the playing is all fine, stormy and impassioned, but the mix and mic levels are whacky-doo-doo and it just starts to hurt the ears after a couple of minutes. Awful. What a disappointment. And oh how it goes on. Wonderful freakout breakdown at the end though.
Chrissie Hynde — I Shall Be Released… I’m starting to think this record was not mixed to be played loud. Best keep the volume low, otherwise the sound turns to shit. Now that I’m in a bad mood about that, I’m feeling mean, and I can’t see that Hynde is doing anything to appease me. I was hoping for something softer and smoother from Hynde, but she doesn’t have that sort of voice. When the electric guitarist takes a solo, it all starts to sound overly familiar, like the exact same kind of thing, such that the only thing to differentiate the song from those around it is the melody and lyrics. I first discovered this song through the Heptones and Keith Hudson, and that’s how I like it, not this bang-and-clash rock/pop thing. Doesn’t do much for me.
Eric Clapton – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right… launches straight in with a squealy-loud Clapton guitar solo, followed by a bluesy rhythm and Clapton offering us a flemmy-throated vocal that’s kind of average fare. Mid-concert, this is probably supposed to be the real meat of the affair but I’m feeling listener fatigue already and I’m only halfway there. Clapton’s bluesy vocal doesn’t seem to really capture much of the spirit of the words either. He’s just churning out a performance, adding a few vocal flourishes, but I don’t hear anything real coming out of his mouth, only garrulous over-expressing. Crowd love him. I don’t.
The O’Jays – Emotionally Yours… don’t think I’ve ever heard the O’Jays before, a black R&B vocal group from Ohio, who start off their version of this Empire Burlesque number with chiming piano chords, and swirly organ tones. We get some stuttering drum breaks around the vocal, and it all gets a little bit thunder and lightning in the middle, although I love the choir singers on backing, and I like how the lead vocal changes on different parts. They’ve clearly gone to some lengths to arrange this, and I daresay it’s a lot more exciting than Dylan’s version. Nice wiggly chorus line: “I will always be…emotionally…forever and ever, ever and ever, passionately, forever and ever and ever, I will always be emotionally yours,” sings O’Jay Eddie Levert with his throaty gargle.
The Band – When I Paint My Masterpiece… nice strummy sound, accordion, and Levon Helm’s rich yankee-accented vocal. It pretty much sounds like The Band have always sounded, and by tempering their individual excesses, the thing mixes quite well. It reeks of country dirt, this song; cowpats and wooden fences, a waterwheel perhaps, a few goats and chickens, and a milking machine. Howard Sounes sort of slags them off in his book Down The Highway for the way they looked during this concert; drug-bloated, grey-bearded, but that’s pretty dumb, because they sound just fine.
George Harrison – Absolutely Sweet Marie… “another guitar hero, let me give you a little clue, hallelujah, hare Krishna, yeah yeah yeah, George Harrison!” And oh yeah, I love his digs, lovely sweet guitar sound, warm boogie groove from the Booker T band, and Harrison’s mellifluous vocal. This is vastly superior to so much of that rocky stuff. And the mix is perfect. How about the vocal delivery? It’s quite Dylanesque in places, a little over-enunciated sometimes—I mean, we’re only talking gradations of difference from other performers, but it’s those gradations that make all the difference. Harrison could sing anything and I’d probably enjoy it. He’s a way better listen than his buddy, Clapton.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – License To Kill… I don’t mind Tom Petty, and while I’m finding the Heartbreakers to be turning in the same old noisy organ/drums/guitar and tambourine sound we’ve been hearing for the past ninety minutes, I find Petty’s nasal vocal expressive enough to hold my interest, even if he is bleating big-themedly on about man’s global imperative to destroy himself, sigh. Gets a bit wanky toward the end, more meaningless thrashy chords. “Yeah who gonna take away his licence to kill?”
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Rainy Day Women #12 & 35… the Heartbreakers turn this into a heady, tipping-forward smooth-bouncy rock number, while Petty simply can’t help sounding like Dylan here, such is the profound similarity of their styles. When Petty sings, “Eeah, but I would not feel so alone / Everybody must get stoned,” you could forgive him for thinking he wrote the song. He’s really good. It’s raining in this version too. They kick up a cloudstorm. Some thrillingly fast piano playing can be heard in the guttering. The 12 bar blues structure keeps things rollicking along, and all the guitarists in the house keep those frets hot. Noisy in a way that annoys me not.
Roger McGuinn – Mr. Tambourine Man… everybody’s very happy to hear the announcement of Mr. Roger McGuinn who sounds like he just popped out of a time travel machine, his voice is that youthful. Amazing. This is almost note for note identical to the 1965 version heard on the Byrds album by the same name, as well as The Byrds Play Dylan. He still has that sweet, high harmony thing down pat, and to be able to reproduce it so beautifully in this live setting is a wondrous thing. Tom Petty provides backing vocals here. I’m really enjoying this.
Bob Dylan – It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)… naturally the crowd go wild when Bob’s announced. He’s just come out of his backstage room where he’s been watching the show on live circuit TV. Offers a “hello everybody” and launches into a fast version of this classic. His voice is gnarly, gnarled, crooked. This version reminds me of that one by Hamell On Trial available on an Uncut magazine-only CD, though his guitar playing isn’t quite as ‘hard.’ But even his singing style sounds a bit like Ed Hamell doing Dylan, if that isn’t too much of a mindloop to take in. It’s just Dylan and his guitar here, perfect. It doesn’t quite have the impact of the 1964 version, but there’s something quite real about hearing Dylan sing his own words, after all the fandom. “It’s all right ma, it’s life and life only,” he sings followed by a wonderfully fiddly, very detailed finale.
Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, George Harrison – My Back Pages… this reminds me of that scene in the 2012 flick, The Avengers where all the superheroes gather around in a half-circle ready to take on Loki and his army. Look at the lineup! Each takes a turn at a verse, which is a neat idea, and given the nature of the lyrics, there’s surely no small irony in each of these blokes singing the line, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” I must be softening. How nostalgic. How crowd-pleasing. When Dylan sings his verse though, your mind automatically locks in for those few lines. During the interlude we get some bog-standard soloist doing the old electric wail. Good song though.
Everyone – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door… opens with a swirlin’ electric lead, and you just know this going to be absolutely awful. “Everyone” and their mother. Dylan starts the song, his voice tightly wound up in its nasal crumble, that phase where he sounded the way people sound when they mimic him for parodic effect. Of course everyone joins for the chorus while some dullard provides electric fills between each dreary round of “knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.” Once you’ve got everyone on board, the song just loses itself in bland mediocrity, though I was never a fan of this song from the start. What can I say? Sizzling electric lead, crowd chorus, Dylan going through the motions.
Bob Dylan – Girl Of The North Country… is played on amplified acoustic guitar, very much like his Good As I Been To You sound. Again, his voice is so curled over, the nasality so pervasive, it renders the words almost indecipherable. Of course he plays it nothing like the original, but rather comes up with a new fast/slow strummy rhythm, to which he adds some mellow inventive harmonica, along with lyrics about how “she was once a true love of mine,” and you’ve got yourself a pretty decent number of whose poignancy has only increased with time.
As always, the only thing I can say is ‘wish I’d been there’. I’m sure live this would have been infinitely superior to hearing it spread over three pieces of vinyl. I can’t see I’ll play this much more, other than to play Vedder and Chapman’s songs for any interested guests. And it’s telling that the best stuff here was those who did as Dylan does—kept things simple; acoustic guitar and vocal, and we’ll hear a lot of that on the superb May Your Song Always Be Sung Vol. 3 from 2003. There was other good stuff on here, but live concerts are usually dodgy affairs, let alone live concert birthday celebrations full of self-important rock stars.