Bob Dylan’s made a career out of confounding the expectations of his fans, and October 2002 was no different. He’d been off the road for a little over a month at that point, and when the Never Ending Tour started up again at Seattle’s KeyArena he suddenly was playing a piano on the side of the stage for half the night. Even more shocking than that, he played three Warren Zevon songs (“Boom Boom Mancini,” “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Mutineer”) along with “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones.
As the month went on, he added in Neil Young’s “Old Man,” Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence,” Van Morrison’s “Carrying a Torch” and Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” The Zevon covers were easy to understand since the singer had recently been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer, but the others were a little more mystifying. Covers had been part of Dylan’s live repertoire since his earliest days, but they were rarely the work of his peers.
Here’s video of “Brown Sugar” from one of the shows. The sound is pretty stellar, but the video quality is abysmal. This gig predates the age of the cellphone camera and almost no Never Ending Tour shows have been professionally filmed, so footage like this is all we have from this pivotal era of Dylan’s career.
As quickly as the covers entered Dylan’s set, they vanished when the tour picked up in Australia in February of the following year. Former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Billy Burnette replaced Charlie Sexton by that point and they did play “Brown Sugar” the first night in Canberra, but after that they were completely gone – and after just 11 shows Burnette was gone as well. Filling Lindsey Buckingham’s shoes was no easy feat, but apparently it was even harder to fill Charlie Sexton’s.
Dylan fans that have followed the Never Ending Tour since it began 27 years ago almost all point to Sexton’s original tenure in the band (1999 – 2002) as a real high point. Dylan was still in great voice, the band had incredible energy and the setlist fluctuated wildly from gig to gig. Here’s hoping it’s the subject of a future chapter of The Bootleg Series.