The Gospel According to Bob Dylan

He's gotta serve somebody, but do we want what he's preaching?

Bob Dylan
Peter Noble/Redferns
Bob Dylan
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Bob Dylan
The Warfield Theater
San Francisco
November 1st, 1979

The new Bob Dylan tour began on a chilly Thursday evening at the Warfield Theater, a cozy 2200-seater in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Outside, grizzled panhandlers solicited; holdout hippies, whose cassette players blared "Gotta Serve Somebody," tried to scavenge tickets; and dozens of porno theaters and sleazy topless joints advertised their wares in flickering neon. Inside, Dylan sang about salvation.

Regina Havis, one of his four backup singers, began the show with a sermonette on a mother's faith. There were snide comments from the audience – "I went to church this morning," "How about some sin?"– but once Havis and the other vocalists began singing an uptempo spiritual, the resistance seemed to melt away. At twenty-five minutes, the backup singers' opening set may have been a little too long, but it was tough, sincere black gospel. Each of the three women in the group – Havis, Helena Springs and Monalisa Young – took an intense, virtuosic solo turn, while Terry Young provided vocal harmonies and tasty Baptist piano.

Dylan and his new group came on without a break, opening with "Gotta Serve Somebody." Their ninety-minute set consisted of the entire Slow Train Coming album plus seven unrecorded songs in a similar vein, and while the unrelenting sermonizing grew tedious, the music was top-notch. The band – Fred Tackett on guitar, Spooner Oldham and Terry Young on keyboards, Tim Drummond on bass and Jim Keltner on drums – provided attentive backing in a Southern soul-gospel groove. Tackett's fingerpicking and lead-guitar fills were sensitive and fluid, Oldham and Young were appropriately churchy, and the rhythm section provided a tremendous kick. Given some time to play together (and Dylan's open-ended tour plans ought to provide plenty of that), this group should soon become one of the best Dylan has ever fronted.

In his new songs, Dylan sang of being "saved" and "born again," of "Hanging on to a solid rock/Made before the foundation of the world." He didn't move around the stage much, and his celebrated scowl was broken by only three or four glancing smiles, but he sang strongly and with evident conviction. His extensive use of vocal decoration and his unusually full-bodied tone reflected the apparent influence of down-home gospel singing. The trouble is, Dylan is not a great gospel singer; not yet, anyway. Regina Havis did one number in the middle of Dylan's set, and it was a welcome change of pace; the show would be more exciting with the backup singers' solos scattered evenly throughout, rather than grouped together at the beginning.

Dylan looked much the same, in his dark jeans, leather jacket and white T-shirt, but he's changed his way of thinking – that much, at least, is clear. The end of the concert was greeted with both applause and boos, but there were surprisingly few emotional outbursts. As the audience filed out quietly, they were confronted with the words "You've Gotta Serve Somebody," writ large across the back of the illuminated marquee.

This story is from the December 13th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 306: December 13, 1979