Bob Dylan played over 3,000 shows on the Never Ending Tour and it’s gone through countless iterations since beginning in 1988, but when Rolling Stone asked author and longtime scholar Clinton Heylin to name his favorite period, he instantly went with 1995. “That year was amazing, absolutely amazing,” he said. “The whole year was fascinating in terms of the shifts and changes that he went through.”
Some fans may be surprised to hear this opinion, as it was a somewhat of a lost era for Dylan. In 1995, it had been five years since his last LP of original songs (the underwhelming Under the Red Sky), and the closest that he came to mainstream recognition was Hootie and the Blowfish nicking a few lines of “Idiot Wind” in their hit “Only Wanna Be With You.” While his lawyers let loose on Hootie, Dylan hit the road for a 115-date tour, one of the longest of his entire career.
Tour began in the Czech Republic at the intimate Prague Congress Centre, although opening night was delayed because Dylan was suffering from the flu. And when he took the stage on March 11th for the first show, many fans said that he still looked a little off. “Throughout the show, he retired to the rear of the stage between numbers and sat bent double seeming to gather his strength,” Dylan fan and early Internet adapter Mike Clendining recalls, “but then launched into each new number with even more feeling.”
Perhaps to save his strength, Dylan barely touched his guitar this night. This allowed him to focus all his energy on his vocals, and it let guitarists Bucky Baxter and John Jackson, bassist Tony Garnier, and drummer Winston Watson carry more of the musical weight than usual. “I was sitting here last night, got the flu,” Dylan says at one point. “Listen, you got a good place to recover from the flu!”
There’s not a weak moment in the entire 14-song set, but the highlights are powerful, electric renditions of “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood),” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and tender, acoustic takes on “Boots of Spanish Leather,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
There’s no soundboard recording from the show, but a stellar audience tape has surfaced. There are many other great 1995 bootlegs, including Philadelphia (6/21/95) and Oslo (6/29/95), but there’s something magical about this Prague gig they don’t quite capture. “That’s still probably my favorite Dylan concert of all time,” Heylin recently told Rolling Stone. “I’ll put that show next to any 1966 show you want to pick.”
And while Dylan World has released every single 1966 show they have on a 36-box set, including a couple that sound like they were recorded in a wind tunnel 20 miles from the stage, they haven’t released a single show from the 33-year history of the Never Ending Tour, aside from the MTV Unplugged special. When they finally get around to it, this Prague gig should be near the top of their list.