Even the most die-hard Bob Dylan fans admit that his Never Ending Tour hit some very rough patches in the Nineties. For proof, check out this disastrous rendition of “New Morning” from his June 19th, 1991 gig in Stuttgart, Germany. It stretches for seven minutes, although much of it just the band vamping until Dylan kicks in at the 4:30 mark with incomprehensible muttering that sounds vaguely like the words to the song.
But just six years later, Dylan had completely turned things around and was playing glorious shows, as you can hear from this bootleg of a December 19th, 1997 show at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles that recently surfaced on YouTube.
The road to that night was a long one since performances like the 1991 Stuttgart gig led to a toxic buzz around Dylan’s live show that continues to this day in some quarters. But the fans that stuck around saw a clear improvement as the years went by. His 1993 stand at New York’s Supper Club was a stunning achievement, and 1995 and 1996 gigs remain favorites in the Dylan bootleg community.
Things got even better in 1997. He kicked off the year by recording Time Out of Mind at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida. The world wouldn’t hear it until September of that year, but he brought guitarist Larry Campbell into the band that March, and his enthusiasm and passion elevated the shows to a new level.
Dylan was hospitalized in June 1997 with the chest infection histoplasmosis, forcing him to cancel a European tour and fear that he’d be “seeing Elvis soon.” But he was back onstage by October, just as glowing reviews for Time Out of Mind were pouring in and songs like “Love Sick,” “Cold Irons Bound,” and “Can’t Wait” were finally ready to be presented live. It all added up to the most positive buzz around Dylan since the Rolling Thunder Revue over 20 years earlier.
He capped off 1997 by booking a series of clubs in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago before wrapping up with a five-night stand in Los Angeles at the El Rey Theatre that featured Beck, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson rotating as his opening act. The place seats just 900 people and tickets were extremely hard to come by, although bootleggers still managed to capture every single night.
The best one is the penultimate show on December 19th. This is an audience tape (unlike the ALD-sourced 2002 gig we recently shared), but the bootlegger was clearly a pro and the sound is excellent. Many bootleg aficionados argue that great audience tapes are superior to soundboard recordings since they capture the ambiance of the room. This recording is strong evidence in their favor.
It’s an explosive show from the opening chords of “Maggie’s Farm” to the final notes of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” but the highlights are a blistering “Highway 61 Revisited” with Sheryl Crow on guitar and vocals, a rare take on the Desire deep cut “Joey,” and a haunting “Cold Irons Bound.” The mid-show acoustic set of “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “Tangled Up in Blue” is also incredible.
Two months later, Dylan would win the Grammy for Album of the Year and have a close encounter with Soy Bomb while performing “Love Sick” at the broadcast. And while the 1998 Never Ending Tour had many memorable nights, including the eight-show run with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, this night at the El Rey was never quite topped. Like so many shows from the Never Ending Tour, it deserves an official release. Until then, be grateful for the anonymous audience member that snuck in a recorder and created this amazing bootleg.