Bob Dylan is back on the road, and once again he is doing the unexpected. This time out, Dylan is only performing songs from his born-again Slow Train Coming, plus several newer, unrecorded religious compositions. And on the tour’s opening night (Thursday, November 1st, at San Francisco’s 2200-seat Warfield Theater), the singer received some boos from his unsuspecting fans.
“The public wasn’t aware,” said Bill Graham, who is promoting Dylan’s fourteen shows at the Warfield. “We are all used to nostalgia, but this was something completely new.”
By all accounts, the opening-night response was the worst. Isolated boos and catcalls (“We want Dylan!” “Rock & roll!”) punctuated the twenty-five-minute opening set by Dylan’s black backup gospel singers. Once Dylan took the stage with his five-man band, the audience listened attentively for the most part, though there were some requests for such standards as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” After ninety minutes, Dylan, who didn’t talk to the audience throughout most of the set, said, “That’s the show for tonight. I hope you’ve been uplifted.” At that point there was more booing, and several members of the crowd walked out in apparent disgust.
The local newspapers responded in an equally negative fashion: Born-Again Dylan Bombs, the San Francisco Examiner proclaimed in a page-one headline; Bob Dylan’s God-Awful Gospel, the Chronicle concurred. In addition, promoter Graham had some requests for refunds from disgruntled fans.
Once word about the content of the concerts began to spread, though, audience response seemed to change. Outside the old movie theater on Friday night, several people were trying to dump their unwanted tickets; inside, however, the audience appeared to know what to expect, and the reaction was better. By Saturday night the response reportedly was positive, and Dylan received his first standing ovation of the series.
“From night to night, the show keeps getting stronger and stronger,” Graham said. “It is awesome. I am a Jew, and I am deeply moved by what this man is doing. It’s a very profound public display of personal convictions.” Some members of Dylan’s troupe reportedly are referring to the performances as “Newport Revisited,” a reference to the singer’s historic appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where he confounded many fans by going electric.
How is Dylan reacting to all the controversy? “I think he’s perfectly self-assured,” said one source. “He knows history will prove him right. So many times in the past there has been hissing and booing, yet he has come out on top. I think he believes that will happen again.”
Dylan is forging ahead with his tour plans. After the San Francisco shows, he was scheduled to play four nights at the Santa Monica Civic Center near Los Angeles (the proceeds will be donated to World Vision International, a non-denominational Christian humanitarian organization). In addition, about ten more shows were being lined up through mid-December in Southern California, Arizona and Texas.
This story is from the December 13th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.