There had been varying reports from his Australian and Japanese tours earlier this year, but when Bob Dylan hit town June 1st for a week of shows at the Universal Amphitheatre here (2500 seats), he brought with him a radically different show and a whole new wave of controversy.
Dylan’s first American concerts since his much-acclaimed Rolling Thunder appearances in 1976 were glibly professional. Working with a tight and precise twelve-piece band (including three singers) and performing no solo acoustic numbers, Dylan left most die-hard fans and reviewers puzzled on opening night. “There were things that killed me, and there were things that really pissed me off,” said one prominent musician. “He could take this show to Vegas and not change one note.”
To be sure, Dylan was relaxed and gregarious onstage. The two-hour show opened with an instrumental version of “Hard Rain.” Wearing specially tailored clothes (alternately, a black studded pants outfit or one with a white sequined thunderbolt design), Dylan strode out for the blues song “Love Her with a Feeling.” After a new song, “Baby Stop Crying,” the show headed into a generous cross section of Dylan’s most famous work from every period except Nashville Skyline. Most of the new arrangements bore little similarity to the original versions. “Shelter from the Storm” was performed as a kind of rockabilly march, “Masters of War” as a Bo Diddley rocker, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” a calypso groove, “I Shall Be Released” a jaunty melody and “Tangled Up in Blue” as a blue spotlit, majestic show stopper. On “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Dylan removed the microphone from its stand and strolled out to shake hands with the audience.
Said one Dylan associate: “He’s discovered the show value of his music. He’s also rediscovered a lot of the old songs . . . he can pick and choose to match his any particular emotion.”
Dylan, who has been referring to himself as an “entertainer” lately, also surprised audiences with earnest between-song patter, like: “Here’s a song from my new album, Street Legal, on Columbia Records and Tapes! . . . Like to say hello to Richard Manuel and Raquel Welch out there tonight . . . Here’s a hit song from my hit movie Renaldo and Clara! . . . Here’s a song I recorded many years ago with the Band! . . . As Jerry Garcia says, ‘I must be checking on down the line.'”
It is said that ever since traveling to see Neil Diamond in Las Vegas last year, Dylan has been concerned with updating his concert stance. He was impressed enough to sign with Diamond’s manager, Jerry Weintraub, several weeks later.
“I’m ready to have a regular band,” Dylan announced in an interview late last year. “I want to be able to tour and record again with a group of musicians I know I work well with.”
Dylan has been very active since auditioning and putting the group together last Christmas. By performing this isolated week of Los Angeles concerts, Dylan had hoped to create a groundswell of support that would carry him through his current European tour and the release of Street Legal to his return to the United States, possibly for a tour this fall.
By the end of his Amphitheatre run, Dylan had won over many doubters. There were the usual spate of celebrities from music and film, of course, but Dylan had wanted to meet only one — Elvis Costello. Costello, who came back twice, was mightily impressed when he met and spoke with Dylan. And Dylan reported: “Hey, he’s a pretty normal guy!”
This is a story from the July 13th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.