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.
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