In the last few years, Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has featured plenty of thrilling moments with one major setback: little set list variation. While fans in the mid-2000s never knew what Dylan was going to play when he took the stage, since 2013 they have been all but guaranteed to hear “Things Have Changed” as the first song, followed mostly by other well-rehearsed moments. One fan noted that Dylan has performed “Pay in Blood” more than 400 times since the song was released in 2012. He’s played “Early Roman Kings,” from the same album, even more. With these almost identical set lists, Dylan has seemed determined to lock into his own songs and find new meaning in them, or else drive his band crazy.
That’s starting to change. In Seoul, South Korea, last month, Dylan broke his opening-song streak by starting his set with 1967’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a song he hadn’t played live for three years. His summer overseas run also featured the first live versions of 1979’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and 1971’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” in seven years.
But Dylan saved the biggest surprises for the final night of his 17-night tour. In Christchurch, New Zealand, today, he pulled out “Like a Rolling Stone,” which he’d played only once in the last five years, and the even more rare “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, it Takes a Train to Cry” for the first time since 2005. The Highway 61 Revisited classics, which were recorded on the same day in June 1965, delighted hardcore Dylan fans on the site Expecting Rain. No recordings have surfaced yet, but reports say that he’s reinvented “Like a Rolling Stone”; one fan called it “a lovely new arrangement with slow passages where [bassist Tony Garnier] bowed the double bass.”
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh” has been in Dylan’s rotation since he played it at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when it was called “Phantom Engineer.” Dylan reworked the shuffle during the Highway 61 sessions, and it became one of his greatest blues songs. (It ranked number 61 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Dylan Songs.) Fans heard an excellent version of the song on June 30th, 1999 at Madison Square Garden, when Dylan joined Eric Clapton for an epic seven songs at the Crossroads Benefit, a show raising money for Clapton’s rehabilitation center. They performed an upbeat, swinging version of the track and clearly had a lot of fun together; it’s fascinating to hear Dylan’s sloppy, spare rhythmic lead style happening while Clapton unleashes his guitar fireworks.
Dylan’s recent setlist shakeups prove that he’s still busy being born when it comes to performing. “Songs don’t come alive in a recording studio,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Mikal Gilmore in 2012. “You try your best, but there’s always something missing. What’s missing is a live audience.” The moves also pose great possibilities for his upcoming U.S. tour, which kicks off October 4th in Phoenix, Arizona. American audiences may get to hear these classics for the first time in years. Or he just might defy fans and go back to the standard set of the last few years. Right now, all we know is that he does not care what you think either way.
Here’s the last time he played “Like a Rolling Stone” before the New Zealand show, at Desert Trip in 2016.