In the summer of 1969 a strange new Bob Dylan double LP hit record store shelves in a plain white sleeve. The words "GF 001/2/3/4" were stamped on the cover, though later editions were called Great White Wonder. One record consisted of the tracks from the long-rumored Basement Tapes, while the other one was largely folk covers taped live in 1961. Nobody realized it at the time, but it was the first commercially available bootleg.
Great White Wonder flew off shelves, kicking off the age of the rock & roll bootleg. In the four decades since, Dylan has been bootlegged more than any other artist. In 1991 he decided to beat the bootleggers at their own game by releasing the three-CD set, The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. He’s since put out six more volumes (always with better sound quality than what’s previously circulated), but it’s done nothing to stop the flood of underground releases.
His refusal to release a single show from the Never Ending Tour, the complete unedited Basement Tapes or countless other legendary bootlegs has led to a very active underground Dylan recording community. To a newbie the sheer amount of material can be overwhelming, but here’s a guide to the best of every era of Dylan’s career. As the man himself sang in 2001, "Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff."
Carnegie Chapter Hall, 11/4/61
Dylan had been playing New York coffee houses for just 10 months when he got booked at the city's most prestigious venue, even if it was in the smallest theater in the Carnegie Hall complex and only 53 people showed up. A great recording of half the show has circulated for years, though the inclusion of the previously unreleased "This Land Is Your Land" on the No Direction Home soundtrack seems to confirm that Columbia has the entire set in their vaults.
Clearly nervous to be on a big stage 40 blocks uptown from the Village, Dylan doesn’t play a single original, instead opting for tried-and-true tracks like Woody Guthrie’s "1913 Massacre," which formed the basis for his own "Song To Woody" recorded just a few weeks later. The highlight is Bukka White’s "Fixin’ to Die," which also appeared on his debut. In less than two years he would hit the main stage at Carnegie Hall with an arsenal of original material.
Town Hall, 4/12/63
Near the height of his protest period Dylan played one of the biggest gigs of his career at New York’s Town Hall. Columbia taped it for an official release and many tracks leaked out over the years, but in 2008 the complete soundboard appeared online with 10 unheard tunes. Through the 24-song set Dylan focuses on finger-pointing social justice songs like "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Who Killed Davey Moore" and "Masters Of War."
In the year and a half since his Carnegie Hall show, the 21-year-old had developed incredible confidence onstage, regularly causing the crowd to break into laughter or listen to his words in absolute silence. Writing in the New York Times, Robert Shelton gave the show a rapturous review. "Mr. Dylan’s mastery of mood built up an almost physically discomforting intensity in ‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown,’ a song about death on a South Dakota farm," he wrote. " 'A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall' about the pollution of the atmosphere with fallout, generated similar tensions through repetition and an inexorable guitar beat." The pristine bootleg is far and away the best recording from this period of Dylan’s career.
The Complete Basement Tapes
Of the many versions of the Basement Tapes to trickle out over the years, the official release by Columbia in 1975 may be the worst. Not only did the Band overdub new guitar and drum parts, eight of the tracks didn’t even stem from the legendary Basement sessions – and some of them didn’t even feature Bob Dylan. A source tells me there are 10 CDs worth of material floating around, but so far only enough material to fill four CDs has popped up. It’s still enough to make it the greatest of all Dylan bootlegs. Not only do you get to hear Dylan and the Band going on a journey through the history of American music on covers ranging from Hank Williams' "You Win Again" to Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues," but you get to hear Dylan at his most relaxed and silly as he cracks himself up singing an impromptu song fans have labeled "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg."
In the second half of the set Dylan begins writing his first original sings since his motorcycle crash in the summer of 1966, and they are a far cry from the "thin, wild mercury" sound of Blonde on Blonde. "I Shall Be Released" and "You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere" have become campfire sing-alongs over the years, but it’s fascinating to hear them as little more than early sketches. The latter is particularly revelatory because an early take has surfaced with completely different lyrics, mostly nonsense like: "Look here you bunch of basement noise, you ain’t no punching bag… pick up your nose you canary, you ain't goin' nowhere." By take two they had it nailed. If the Dylan camp has any sense, a definitive, undoctored Basement Tapes box set will be their next release.
Rolling Thunder Revue
The Dylan camp has released two official live albums from the Rolling Thunder Revue. The first, Hard Rain, is an intense nine-track disc drawn from two May 1976 shows. The other, the Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, cobbles together various songs from the fall 1975 leg. Both have absolutely pristine sound and show the band (led by David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson) in peak form.
The problem is that neither set represents a single show or includes tracks from the other artists on the tour. After all, the tour was conceived as a multi-artist gypsy caravan across America. For the best complete 1976 show, check out New Orleans 5/3/76. By this point in the tour Dylan’s marriage to his first wife Sara had been severed beyond repair, purging "Sara" from the setlist and replacing it with Blood On The Tracks songs like the snarling "Idiot Wind" and "You’re A Big Girl Now." You also get a sense of the complete show, with Joan Baez doing her hit cover of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Kinky Friedman doing his signature song "Asshole From El Paso" and Roger McGuinn’s solo take on the Byrds classic "Eight Miles High." Just an unbelievable night of music that’s worthy of a box set release.
Few eras of Bob Dylan’s live career have a worse reputation than the 1978 tour. Backed by an 11-piece band, the show featured radically rearranged versions of Dylan’s greatest hits – with lots of saxophone and back-up singers. Just weeks into the tour Columbia taped Bob Dylan At Budokan, which was originally only supposed to come out in Japan. Cringe-worthy, slick versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Blowin' In The Wind" sullied Dylan’s reputation as a live performer for years to come, but when the tour came to America many months later it finally hit a groove. By this point Dylan was playing songs from Street Legal, which was recorded with his touring band. Unlike most of his catalog, these tracks were actually enhanced by the big band. On this tape from Charlotte, Dylan is on fire as the band plays killer versions of Street Legal tracks "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)," "We Better Talk This Over" and "Changing of the Guards." With the exception of "Señor," he’d play virtually nothing from the drastically underrated Street Legal over the next three decades.
Dylan may have faced some backlash when he toured with an electric band in 1965, but it was nothing compared to what he dealt with 15 years later. After converting to Christianity and cutting an album of born-again songs, Dylan hit the road singing only the new material. He also preached from the stage. "I told you 'The Times They Are A-Changin' and they did!" he told a crowd in New Mexico. "I said the answer was ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and it was! And I'm telling you now, Jesus is coming back, and he is! And there is no other way of salvation."
Often lost amidst all the craziness is the fact that the new songs were great, the band was amazing and he was singing with more gusto and conviction than he’d ever shown before. At this Toronto stop (which was also videotaped), he opens with "Gotta Serve Somebody" and rips into gospel classics like "Precious Angel" and "Slow Train." Guitarist Fred Tackett, drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Spooner Oldham form the core of one of Dylan’s all-time great backing bands, and the finale of "Pressing On" is positively chilling. Beginning alone at the piano, Dylan is slowly joined by the band and back-up singers into what erupts into what is perhaps the most emotionally raw performance of Dylan’s career. An absolute must-hear for Dylan aficionados.
With the exception of a six-week European stadium run in the summer of 1984, Dylan stayed off the road between 1981 and 1986. When he returned he was at the absolute nadir of his career, but with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers serving as his backing band he slowly began to revitalize himself. "I didn’t figure I had much of an audience," Dylan wrote in 2004's Chronicles. "As big as the crowds were, Petty was drawing most of the people."
That’s a bit of an understatement, and even if it were true the show was largely devoted to Dylan’s catalog. At this Sydney show – which is captured on an absolutely flawless soundboard recording– Dylan is in an unusually chatty mood, telling stories behind songs and lashing out at the rock critics who had been ravaging him. In a nice change of pace from his usual Sixties nostalgia shows, he plays a large amount of new songs – highlighted by "Lenny Bruce," "Seeing The Real You At Last," "I and I" and "In The Garden." The masterpiece here, though, is "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky." On Empire Burlesque Arthur Baker buries the song underneath layers of horrendous Eighties production, but with the Heartbreakers the song is revealed to be one of the all-time great forgotten Dylan songs.
The Never Ending Tour:
In June of 1988 Bob Dylan kicked off a tour that has yet to stop. Nearly every show has been taped, leaving fans with hundreds upon hundreds of tapes to sort through. Here are some of the best.
Jones Beach, 6/30/88
This is the best soundboard from the early G.E. Smith era of the Never Ending Tour. The setlist isn’t very adventurous, but the guitarist adds an extra oomph to standards like "All Along The Watchtower" and "Maggie’s Farm." It opens with a fairly rare "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and has a gorgeous "Boots Of Spanish Leather."
Toad’s Place, 1/12/90
The single weirdest show in Dylan’s career. This four-and-a-half-hour marathon set was a warm-up before the 1990 leg of the NET kicked off. Extreme rarities like "Man Of Peace" and "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" are mixed with shocking covers like "Dancing In The Dark." By the end he’s taking requests, and playing whatever the crowd yells for. You have to hear it to believe it.
The Supper Club, 11/16/93
The most beloved gig of the Never Ending Tour. In this tiny New York club Dylan performed an acoustic gig that outshined the following year’s MTV Unplugged by a huge margin. Lost Eighties track "Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)" is transformed into a song of haunting beauty, while "Queen Jane Approximately" has never sounded so tender. Ironically 1993 was a lousy year of the NET, but on this November night Dylan played his most perfect show of the past quarter-century.
He refused to play the original, but in 1994 the Woodstock payday proved too tempting. Playing to his biggest crowd in years, Dylan goes the extra mile delivers fiery versions of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Jokerman." It was overshadowed by Nine Inch Nails, Green Day and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he definitely didn’t phone this one in like many had predicted.
El Rey Theater, 12/19/97
Time Out Of Mind not only revitalized Bob Dylan’s recording career, it seemed to have revitalized his concerts as well. With an arsenal of great new songs and the addition of guitarist Larry Campbell, the winter 1997 theater shows are some of the most beloved shows of the NET. Sheryl Crow guests on "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."
San Jose, 5/19/98
The band assembled here – with Bucky Baxter and Larry Campbell on guitar – ranks among the greatest backing groups Dylan has ever worked with. This soundboard captures them at their peak. "Love Sick" has never sounded so haunting, and "Tangled Up In Blue" soars like it hasn’t before or since. The sound is also better than most officially released live albums.
In the middle of a co-headlining tour with Paul Simon, Dylan booked a last-minute show at the miniscule Tramps in New York. Elvis Costello comes out for "I Shall Be Released," but the real highlights are "Visions of Johanna," "Seeing The Real You At Last" and "Every Grain Of Sand." Dylan’s always more adventurous in small halls, and this stunning show is the best example of that.
Fans were stunned at opening night of the Fall 2002 leg of the NET when Dylan began the show on piano, playing the born-again track "Solid Rock." Shock turned to outright disbelief when he covered the Rolling Stones’ "Brown Sugar" and three Warren Zevon songs. It persisted through the rest of the year – with tracks by Don Henley and Neil Young coming in later. These shows were the most bizarre and fun of the NET and must-hears.
Opening with "Rumble" to honor the recently departed guitar great Link Wray, Dylan pulled out two of his most unexpected songs of his live career at this London show: the first (and to date only) performance of the Basement Tapes gem "Million Dollar Bash" and a cover of the Clash’s "London Calling." He sounds like he was having a blast, and the crowd goes absolutely batshit crazy. If only he did stuff like that more often.