In our age of constant information, where the Internet and 24-hour cable TV allows us to keep tabs on just about anybody, it’s impossible to imagine anybody simply leaving the spotlight, let alone one of the biggest musicians in the world. But that’s exactly what Bob Dylan did after he broke his neck in 1966, settling into family life and, like the Beatles did after 1966, limiting his appearances mainly to his studio work. While not recording, he stayed holed up in his house in Woodstock, fending off various crazy fans and trying to be a good father and husband (and, sadly, ultimately failing). His lone concert appearances were his much-anticipated and uneven Isle of Wight show at 1969, his triumphant guest appearance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, the famous 1971 New Year’s Eve show with the Band…and this brilliant one-off, unceremoniously shoved on a Japan-only live compilation for collectors to hunt down.
Recorded as part of the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert in Carnegie Hall, this song features Bob with his erstwhile musical henchmen the Band, cranking out a marvelously ramshackle version of “The Grand Coulee Dam,” one of Guthrie’s most beloved songs. Dylan sounds great here, actually closer to his 1974 voice (heard on Before the Flood) than either his 1966 “Blonde on Blonde” track or his Nashville Skyline voice of the next year. The Band crank away behind him, Robbie Robertson’s rapid-fire guitar licks competing with Richard Manuel’s boogie-woogie piano during the instrumental breaks. Levon Helm and Manuel offer spirited backing vocals, practically shouting their way through the track (another hallmark of the 1974 US tour). The performance sounds more suited for a blues bar in Memphis—all that’s missing is a harmonica solo, ironically—than one of America’s most prestigious stages, which only adds to the charm. Think “Christ for President” on Mermaid Avenue– great, goofy fun, and deeply respectful of the source material.
Dylan’s years in the wilderness produced some great music—the Bangladesh set, a few songs on New Morning, Nashville Skyline (to me, anyway), “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and, of course, the one and only Basement Tapes. And, for one night in January 1968, he and his good friends blasted through a brilliant homage to folk music’s shining light, paying tribute to the past while looking to the future.
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