Unless something very big changes in the next couple of months, 2020 will go down in history as the first year since 1977 that Bob Dylan didn’t perform live even a single time. This obviously isn’t by choice. He was supposed to play Japan in April and then travel across America in the summer on a bill with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and Hot Club of Cowtown. The pandemic had other plans and he hasn’t been seen in public since December 8th, 2019 when he played the Anthem in Washington D.C.
The Never Ending Tour has kept him on the road steadily since 1988. He averaged about 100 shows a year in the Nineties, peaking at 120 in 1995, but last year it was down to a slightly more manageable 77. (By comparison, the Rolling Stones played 17 shows last year.) In the years immediately preceding the Never Ending Tour, he hit the road with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In 1984, he played European stadiums with a band that included former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and Ian McLagan of the Faces.
To find a year where he almost didn’t play a single time, you have to go back to 1983. It was a quiet period in his life where he was still coming down from the tumult of his Born Again Christian era. Much of his creative energy was spent on the creation of Infidels with producer Mark Knopfler, but on February 16th he shocked fans at the tiny Lone Star Cafe in New York City when he showed up at a Rick Danko/Levon Helm gig and sat in for five songs.
In Levon Helm’s memoir This Wheel’s on Fire, he recalls Dylan walking into the venue during their soundcheck wearing a cashmere coat and big fur hat. He borrowed a guitar from Danko and the old buddies jammed in the empty hall, marking the first time they’d played together since The Last Waltz. He vanished for a couple of hours and reappeared at the bar midway through their set later that evening.
“Rick called him up to the stage, he took off his hat, and was handed a guitar,” Helm wrote. “And amid the pandemonium of the packed house, we played a rather liquid ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ before launching into a fun medley of ‘Hand Jive’ and ‘Ain’t No More Cane.’ We had a few laughs in the dressing room after the show, and then Bob was out the door, into the night. It would be a few years until we saw him again.”
Luckily, at least one fan had a recorder going to capture this historic moment. Here’s a recording of their “rather liquid” take on “Ain’t No More Cane,” a traditional folk song he first played with Danko during the Basement Tapes sessions in 1967.
Dylan wouldn’t perform live again until he appeared on Letterman 13 months later. And even though he’s turning 80 next year, it took a worldwide pandemic and the complete shutdown of the concert industry for him to take this year off. This is a guy that nearly died from a heart infection in 1997 and still played 96 shows in the same year.
Dylan has yet to announce any tour plans for 2021, but that’s probably smart since nobody knows if shows will even be viable next year. But if they are, expect Dylan to be back out there. You can also expect him to be quite a bit more rehearsed than he was that night at the Lone Star Cafe back in 1983.