If the band helped provide the musical continuity, Sinead O'Connor lent the evening more than its fair share of drama. That afternoon she rehearsed a haunting version of Dylan's "I Believe in You." But when introduced to the crowd by Kris Kristofferson as "a name synonymous with courage," O'Connor was met with a loud mix of boos and cheers, the former apparently inspired by the singer's controversial shredding of a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live two weeks earlier.
The cheers gradually faded away, leaving only boos as O'Connor stood at attention and stared down the crowd, stopping the band twice from launching into the song. She defiantly launched into an abbreviated version of "War" – the same Bob Marley song that had preceded her papal protest on SNL – before leaving the stage. A shaken-looking O'Connor then stood just offstage for much of Neil Young's set, while a courtly Kristofferson attended to her. O'Connor returned to the stage with the other artists for the encore of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," even chiming in with some prominent "Hey, hey, hey's" that seemed inspired by Guns n' Roses' version of the song. Other artists backstage seemed split between those who were supportive of O'Connor and those who felt that she was wrong not to simply start the song and win the crowd over and that by performing the Marley song, she had violated the spirit of Dylan's evening.
Lou Reed, for one, later said that he was outraged by the audience's treatment of O'Connor. "I thought the way the crowd behaved was absolutely reprehensible," said Reed. "You would think that if any audience would be responsive to protest music, it would be Bob Dylan's. She's a real artist, and now they say Madonna's attacking her, which is totally ridiculous." Even without O'Connor, the concert did show that Dylan's songs transcend genre, seamlessly incorporating everything from the heartland rock of John Mellencamp (who played a strong "Like a Rolling Stone," complete with Al Kooper on organ) and the swampy country noir of Willie Nelson ("What Was It You Wanted?") to the gospel-tinged soul of the O'Jays ("Emotionally Yours"), the inspired hard-rock thump of Lou Reed ("Foot of Pride") and the timeless traditional Irish folk grace of the Clancys (a breathtaking "When the Ship Comes In").
Still, the show was hardly perfect. Some exciting planned selections – "Forever Young" by Neil Young and a link-up of Clapton and Dylan for "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" – were sadly cut because of time constraints. The appearance of Sophie B. Hawkins – who acquitted herself well enough with "I Want You," her latest single – struck some as a case of label boosterism by Columbia, and one could question the logic of adding George Thorogood to a bill that already included Johnny Winter.
Indeed, Winter was one of the night's most pleasant surprises, with a powerhouse version of "Highway 61 Revisited" that was a nice nod to Dylan's own deep-blues roots. There were plenty of other highlights. Rolling Stone Ron Wood rocked the house convincingly with "Seven Days" and gave the evening's most winning Dylan impersonation. There were also strong turns from, among others, Roger McGuinn (who joined the Heartbreakers for a rousing "Mr. Tambourine Man"); Tracy Chapman ("The Times They Are A-Changin' "); the trio of Columbia folkish divas Rosanne Cash, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"); and Chrissie Hynde (a lovely, Paul Shaffer-assisted "I Shall Be Released"). And an all-star version of "My Back Pages" – with Dylan, McGuinn, Clapton, Petty, Harrison and Young among those pitching in – was loose but memorable.
The man of the hour took to the stage only toward the end of the show, introduced by longtime pal and devoted admirer George Harrison, who referred to their shared Wilburys past. "Some of you may call him Bobby," said Harrison. "Some of you may call him Zimmy. I call him Lucky. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Bob Dylan."
With that, Dylan – dressed in his rock & roll formal wear – appeared with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and opened his own set with "Song to Woody," a moving tribute to his own musical hero, Woody Guthrie. Next up was a passionate "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," with its poignant insistence that "I got nothing/To live up to." Unfairly or not, the truth remains that a living legend like Dylan does have a tremendous amount to live up to, and he did so gracefully.
Proving that the Bobfest was a movable feast, Dylan and most of the performers adjourned after midnight to Columbia's all-night postshow party at Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion – Dylan's choice – for food, drink and further early morning bonding. But the lasting final image of the concert came just after the pay-per-view cameras were turned off and the final credits had rolled. Without introduction, Dylan returned to the Garden stage one more time, apparently correctly sensing that the audience had not heard enough from him yet, and launched into a heartbreakingly lovely and understated version of "Girl From the North Country." In doing so, Dylan brought it all back home one more time.
This story is from the November 27th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.
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