At press time, plans were being finalized for the Bob Dylan tribute concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on October 16th. The concert – which co-executive producer Kevin Wall describes as “probably the most ambitious and expensive for-profit show ever mounted” – will feature an all-star lineup and will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Dylan’s debut album by Columbia Records, in 1962.
In addition, Columbia will issue a new Dylan studio album shortly after the concert. According to those who’ve heard it, the LP features an intimate, powerful set of solo Dylan acoustic performances of folk and blues standards. The official lineup for the Garden show includes Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp, Sinead O’Connor, Neil Young and Willie Nelson. But sources close to the event suggested at press time that other artists would also perform, including Van Morrison with the traditional Irish group the Clancy Brothers; the Arkansas Traveler Revue, featuring Michelle Shocked, Taj Mahal and Dylan’s former Band mates Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm; and a trio of Rosanne Cash, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin.
Other possible additions to the lineup are Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Roger McGuinn, Chrissie Hynde and Johnny Cash with Kris Kristofferson. Meanwhile, a couple of logical performers – Bruce Springsteen and former Band guitarist and main songwriter Robbie Robertson – seemed unlikely to participate.
“The interesting thing about putting this together is that we have a finite amount of minutes to work with,” Columbia president Don Ienner said of the concert, which is scheduled to last four hours. “And we’re running into a situation in which basically everybody wants to participate. That’s not because everybody is looking for a payday. We’re certainly not. It’s because we are celebrating the music of Bob Dylan, and everybody wants to be there for Bob.”
The show’s format calls for each of the guest artists to perform short sets of Dylan songs. Dylan will play his own set and will also join some of the other artists. Guitarist G.E. Smith, who served as Dylan’s bandleader during part of the Eighties, will be the musical director of the concert. The house band will feature Booker T. and the MG’s – Booker T. Jones on keyboards, Steve Cropper on guitar and Duck Dunn on bass – with drummers Jim Keltner and Anton Fig. (Fig has been drumming with the MG’s in recent years.) “Anything to do with Bob, I’m going to be there if I’m asked,” said Keltner, who has played alongside Dylan in the Traveling Wilburys. “I think most people feel that way. He’s absolutely my favorite artist – he’s just about everybody’s favorite artist. He’s the daddy, the real mama jama. Anything you do with Bob is shrouded in some element of the unknown, and this is no exception. But we’re doing some real rehearsals, and that’s a good call.”
“What can you say about Bob Dylan?” said Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers. “There’s just nobody like him. And it’s never boring playing with him; he can always catch you off guard. Any chance to play with him or even just to play his songs, I’ll jump.”
According to Wall, who’s the CEO of Radio Vision International, which is producing the show, the cost of the tribute will be about $5 million. And though the show’s producers say it’s hard to predict final revenues, Wall said the event was not going to be tremendously profitable, “because the expenses are so large.”
“Our company has been at the forefront of multiple-artist events,” said Wall, “and when Columbia and Dylan’s management wanted to celebrate the music of Bob Dylan, they came to us to help put it together. They wanted to do everything right, and that costs a lot of money, from renting Madison Square Garden to bringing all these people into New York and putting them up, to paying for five days of rehearsals.
“Everybody is being paid for this,” Wall continued, “but it’s pretty clear that the reason people are so anxious to do the show is out of respect for Bob and his music. No one’s doing this one for the money.”
More than 19,000 tickets – priced at $80, $50 and $35 – sold out in approximately seventy minutes, according to the event’s publicists, even though sales were limited to two per person in order to discourage scalping. Additionally, 700 tickets are being held for the music industry and media, to be sold at $150 each; those tickets entitle the holder to access to a backstage hospitality area. There will be no free tickets to the show. Radio Vision expects that the show will attract a worldwide TV audience of 500 million. In the U.S., the concert is being presented via pay-per-view cable TV by the World Concert Network and is scheduled to run three hours. It will be broadcast live and will cost viewers $19.95.
In the rest of the world, the event will be shown on tape delay within forty-eight hours of the event. Thus far, networks in France, Japan and Italy have agreed to present the show.
“It’s not clear that pay-per-view really works well with rock,” said veteran TV producer David Saltz, referring to the potential audience for the event here. “But this show may really bring people in, because it truly is a legitimate musical event and not just another date on somebody’s tour.”
In addition to releasing the new studio album, Columbia has discussed the possibility of issuing a live album of the Garden show, according to Ienner. Also under discussion is a proposed Dylan appearance on MTV’s Unplugged.
This story is from the October 29th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.