Every once in a while we play requests," Bob Dylan said to the audience at Toad's Place, in New Haven, Connecticut, where he and his band were playing what amounted to an open rehearsal. When a voice from the front row of the club called out for "Congratulations," from the Traveling Wilburys album, Dylan's face lit up. Turning his back on the audience of 700, Dylan — who had only performed the song once before — was forced to show his band the chords for the mocking ballad.
And for the benefit of any listeners who still doubted that they were witness to an extraordinary evening, the band next went straight into Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." Dylan's failure to remember all the lyrics was more than compensated by the grin on his face as he proved that he was still capable of delivering a surprise or two.
The January 12th show was a striking contrast to Dylan's recent lackluster, perfunctory performances, at which he has appeared so indifferent that the audience has been lucky if he acknowledged its presence, much less invested any of himself in his songs. But at Toad's, he rose to the challenge of his first scheduled club date in countless years with a brilliant marathon show. Dylan and his usual touring trio — featuring Saturday Night Live guitarist G.E. Smith — blazed through an even fifty songs in four hour-long sets.
It was also one more feather in the cap of Toad's Place, where stars such as Cyndi Lauper have kicked off tours in recent years and which, five months to the day before Dylan's appearance, had hosted a surprise visit by the Rolling Stones at the start of their Steel Wheels tour. The nominal reason for the Toad's date — announced only four days before the show — was to prepare the band for Dylan's first tour of South America, which began in late January and was to be followed by a swing through Europe. Dylan reportedly chose Toad's on the condition that he receive 100 percent of the box office, but considering that his appearance spanned six hours, the club must have easily made up for that sacrifice in bar receipts.
Dylan's song selection was as unlikely as his mood. He generally avoided his most familiar hits, leaning instead on personal favorites and unexpected covers. After opening with Joe South's "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," the first two sets included such seldom-heard Dylan gems as "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,'' from John Wesley Harding, and a heart-wrenching "Tears of Rage." By the fourteen-song third set, though, Dylan sounded like a bar-band veteran, playing such country and blues standards as Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and a convincing version of Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway."
Dylan also played most of the songs from Oh Mercy; the highlight was a chilling rendition of "Man in the Long Black Coat." Explaining that "we're working on our endings tonight," he played his latest single, "Political World," three times, increasing the intensity and adding new verses with each rendition.
Dylan picked up an acoustic guitar only once, to lead the band through "Watching the River Flow." It was a night for rock & roll, with Dylan turning in a majestic electric performance of the folk classic "Pretty Peggy-O," which he originally recorded for his 1961 debut album. He traded frequent Fender solos with Smith, who deferred to Dylan's genial attitude and concentrated on playing strong, blistering leads.
Even lesser Dylan numbers came off well this night. The maudlin "Lenny Bruce," from the 1981 album Shot of Love, was passionate and moving. After initial resistance to a request for "Joey" — "We'll be up here all night if I sing that one" — Dylan gave in. "I ought to do it — God knows we don't have many heroes left these days," he explained before launching into the epic tribute to the slain mobster Joe "Crazy Joey" Gallo.
Though most of his choices ran toward the obscure, Dylan did not neglect some of his more familiar compositions, including "Maggie's Farm" and "Lay, Lady, Lay," which he introduced as "one of my favorites." Dylan's tendency of late has been to toss this material off with an apathy bordering on disdain, but these versions were rich and impassioned, full of the humor and bite that he seemed to have lost.
After almost four hours of singing, Dylan launched into a stinging "Highway 61 Revisited" and the wistful "Precious Memories," from Knocked Out Loaded. Finally, after a few false starts, Dylan swung into "Like a Rolling Stone," requisite even on such an unprecedented night. Though his voice was starting to show signs of fatigue from its arduous workout, and the audience was exhausted, it was a final, exultant moment, releasing everyone for home at 2:30 a.m.
Bob Dylan is only one year away from his fiftieth birthday and his thirtieth year as a recording artist. Yet here he was, in close contact with his fans once again, still experimenting with new songs, still working on numbers he has been playing for decades. It was an awe-inspiring performance, as close to a comprehensive retrospective as Dylan is ever likely to offer onstage.
This is a story from the March 8th, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.