I‘m Gonna do a song about my hero,” Bob Dylan announces at the beginning of Bob Dylan in Concert, which made its debut June 21st on Home Box Office. Then he leads Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers into a gloomy, foreboding rendition of “In the Garden,” from his 1980 pulpit-pounding album, Saved.
A nonhit from one of Dylan’s least popular albums, raising once again the specter of his zealous Bob-the-Baptist period, it is a curious way to kick off his latest television special. And Bob Dylan in Concert, a one-hour performance movie filmed February 24th and 25th at the Sydney Entertainment Center during the Dylan-Petty tour of Australia, is every bit as unpredictable as its star. Gillian Armstrong, the Australian director best known for her evocative dramatic features My Brilliant Career and Mrs. Soffel, inexplicably shot Dylan’s Sydney shows in a flat rockumentary style that visually blunts the kinetic surge of Dylan, Petty and the Heartbreakers as they rev up ancient history like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” The songs performed are an odd lot, ranging from “Just Like a Woman” and a rusty but tender acoustic “Girl from the North Country” to the Empire Burlesque ballad “I’ll Remember You” and the funereal “Lenny Bruce,” from Shot of Love.
Yet at full throttle the triple-electric-guitar axis of Dylan, Petty and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, together with Benmont Tench’s throaty carnival organ and the garage-door slam of the rhythm section, gives these hits and misses an aggressive radiance recalling the high-decibel jolt of Dylan’s 1966 shows with Robbie Robertson and the future Band. Armstrong’s close-up shots of Dylan — briefly cracking a whimsical smile, going into a Keith Richards crouch as he tears into a scratchy minimalist guitar solo — show him clearly reveling in the Highway 61-Blonde on Blonde swirl around him.
At one point in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Dylan throws his head back and closes his eyes, momentarily transported by the kick of the Heartbreakers and the rapier sting of Campbell’s Mike Bloomfield-like solo. Bob Dylan in Concert may not always send you into the same rapture, but until Dylan and Petty come to your town, this HBO special is the next best way of catching the tour of the year.
This story is from the July 17th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.