Pulled from the ‘rock room’ compact disc archive today comes a much celebrated and excellent Bob Dylan performance from his spring 1995 tour. A swing on the ‘Never Ending Tour’ much celebrated by fans, today the ‘rock room’ takes the soundboard line recording from the May 27, 1995 for a spin around the musical block. Hailing from Monterey, California this 13th performance of the tour features a well-balanced and crispy recording and a fiery Dylan. My recording hails from the silver CD bootleg Laguna Beach and is one of the most respected ‘unofficial’ recordings available from the era.
The concert was held outdoors and Dylan was the headlining act with other bands such as the ‘Black Crowes’ and George Clinton. The backing group for this portion of the ‘Never Ending Tour’ features Bucky Baxter on pedal steel and slide guitar, John Jackson (guitar), Tony Garnier (bass) and Winston Watson on drums. While Jackson and Baxter do much of the heavy lifting for the solo’s Dylan also plays quite a bit of his own unique brand of lead guitar during this era. The recording is popular with Dylan fanatics for both sound quality and performance. The band is a guitar heavy, rock and roll steamroller.
The crowd on this particular evening was treated to a well-played show that featured a number of first times for the tour as well as many top notch renditions. Following the MC’s introduction, beginning the evening is a bombastic vamp on ‘Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)’ that lets the assembled crowd know that the band has already primed the pump. Dylan begins the show with a sinister pout, the vocals power increased by the slippery descending lick central to this arrangement. The song gains momentum as the flood gates open and by the final verse Dylan is feeling it with syncopated melodic shouts. A couple of solid Jackson solos ignite the fuse and by the songs conclusion the band is a full torrent.
Bob shouts a quick ‘Thank You’ and with just a brief pause, the weighty slow roll of ‘It Takes A lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” leaves the station. Dressed in fuzzy slide and succinct rhythm guitar, this is a patient and stellar rendition. Dramatic Bucky Baxter steel enforces Dylan’s elastic and soulful dictation. Dylan is in fantastic voice and each movement of the song has a purpose and the well-known changes become more substantial with the throttled down tempo.
With hardly a pause an aggressive ‘All Along the Watchtower’ scans the evening’s landscape. As is typical Dylan stays with Hendrix’s arrangement but with a dash of funkiness added by Watson’s gunshot snare drum. The joker, thief and price weave their three guitars into a frenzy during the mid-song jam with Dylan underneath soloing without restraint. The group brings the dynamics way down before a series of scrubs by Jackson separated by a verse bring the song to a substantial peak. By this time the group was very familiar with each other’s moves, this freedom allowed Dylan the ability to just jam without bogging down the song. The ‘rock room’ recommends reading Dylan’s Chronicles I for a deft description of Dylan’s approach to the guitar during this era and how he received an awakening during his 1987 rehearsals with the Grateful Dead. ‘Watchtower’ gets a huge round of applause.
After a rolling and raucous concert opening Dylan brings things to a simmer with a rendition of the ‘Never Ending Tour’ concert standard, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’. Here the classic is played as a slow march, with Dylan’s investment in the vocals a highlight. Dylan pulls lyrical taffy, stretching and tugging the melody line as the steel moans from a distant country hill top. The sparkling ding of a bell punctuates each verse prior to a swaying solo spot for all three string wielders where the central refrain is dispersed in a variety of ways.
Another popular choice for Dylan during this era comes next with ‘Silvio’. A song co-written with the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter. ‘Silvio’ screams with bombastic riffs and an extended jam. Dylan rings out each word as he searches to find out what only dead men know. Dylan always has a huge ‘rocker’ in the early portions of this shows and this version of ‘Silvio’ fits the bill. An additional three guitar maelstrom comprises the central segment of the song. Dylan’s guitar work here is quite good in the ‘rock’ sense. Following ‘Silvio’ Dylan introduces Jackson’s own impressive guitar work with a slight joking aside.
Two major highlights follows as Dylan and the group have properly stretched their legs and again dig into Dylan’s mid 60’s catalog. ‘Tombstone Blues’ is played as a grinding and vamped on 12 bar blues, where the intro reminds of ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ from Dylan’s yet to be released 2001 LP Love and Theft. As opposed to the track’s usual high speed rap, Dylan’s approach includes crooning with a blues man’s swagger. Here Dylan focuses less on rhythmic invention and more on swing and raw authenticity. Distorted guitars and twangy licks frame Dylan’s sneaky lines. Wooly steel lines by Baxter shred the first break and give Bob a gentle nudge into the next verse where he plants his heels into the fresh dirt. Another stunning guitar break follows, this time by Jackson where Bob lets him shovel another load of dirt. The guitarists get another chance to shine as a third round of pyrotechnics occur after the concluding verse. Rough ready and rolling, the perfect set up to the acoustic set.
The second of the two highlights mentioned above comes next with the anticipated acoustic set. With the stellar display already put on for the Monterey crowd via the incendiary electric set, Dylan fittingly follows it with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. While not as surreal as the 1966 tour versions or as fiery as the 1975 renditions, this reading is a delicate country lullaby. With a laser focus on the words and melody, Dylan pulls from his most famous song a Hank Williams ballad. Acoustic, with harmonica and slide guitar the psychedelic poetry is sung over pastoral landscape of smoke rings and tambourine tapping jesters.
Dylan sings tenderly, gentle and inquisitively, sharing a lyrical secret. Patient, like a back porch ballad, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, bass and harp collaborate sewing a delicate framework to cradle Dylan’s words. Following the final verse, Baxter’s slide and Dylan’s harp enter into an outro duet. Dylan blows his harmonica soft as baby’s breath, gently exploring repetitive notes like he has never witnessed them previously. Completely invested, Dylan uses his setup before taking a breathy swell for the final trip around the melody before coming full circle to complete one of the finest ‘Mr Tambourine Man’s’ of the 1990’s.
‘Masters of War’ continues the acoustic set, the second of a triad of some of Dylan’s most emotive cuts. With a rhythm like the doomsday clock, Dylan’s acoustic pushes the hands of the song forward, the distant sound of a foot soldier’s cadence reflected in the sound. Dylan takes three differing harp breaks that lay dividing lines in the dirt. The second solo races forward with Baxter’s succinct mandolin strikes setting the tempo, before Dylan lays down a third more aggressive solo after the dark concluding verse.
The final song of the acoustic set is a wonderful waltz time reading of ‘To Ramona’. Again, mandolin, Dylan’s acoustic and bass are the spotlighted instruments. Dylan, as has been the standard for the show sings endearingly to Ramona, each line lovingly crafted but with a slight twist at the end that makes you wonder. A melody that never grows tired, and a singer who is inside of the song. Stunning.
Dylan then introduces the band following the acoustic set in preparation for the concert’s home stretch. Another small Dylan joke can be heard during these intros. Ushering in the rest of the electric set is an unassuming track from Dylan’s 1986 LP Empire Burlesque. ‘Seeing the Real You at Last’ while not a concert standard seems to always make an appearance at some point during a Dylan tour. The cut starts out thumping out a slippery riff and reveals itself as Dylan enters into the verses. This is a guitar leaden version with Chuck Berry licks flying around the stage and Dylan gruffly singing the slightly accusatory and differing from the studio record lyrics.
In the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion the previous jam was just a minor setup for the regal version of ‘Every Grain of Sand’ that follows. ‘Every Grain of Sand’ is always a welcome addition to any Dylan set and a special occurrence when it does. The perfect blend of faith and secular love, the song is easily one of Dylan’s finest compositions. The band begins buy contemplating the songs changes instrumentally, setting the table for Dylan’s entrance. Jackson quotes the descending central lick from the studio album Shot of Love in between the verses, while Baxter’s pedal steel lends a mystical air to the proceedings. While there is no harp solo, Dylan does pluck the guitar around the edges of song's melody throughout. The verses are complete and by the end the song, the entire band has reached a central place of thoughtless ecstasy.
A standard crowd pleasing, but nonetheless high octane, ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, comes next and closes the concert proper. A big shifty version, the tune skates across freeway bridges and heads down the interstate. A series of heavy riffing and Dylan’s tangled verses bring the assembled crowd to their feet after a series of climaxes. While well played, I am still feeling the emotional repercussions of the previous cuts, but it is nice to just rock!
What could Dylan possibly pull out as an encore after the set crowning ‘Every Grain of Sand’ and closing ‘Memphis Blues’? A wonderfully long, stirring version of ‘Knockin on Heavens Door’ that’s what. Admittedly, the ‘rock room’ isn’t a fan of ALL the versions of this Dylan classic, as it sometimes can become a dirge. This version is a poignant conclusion to a special performance and pairs perfectly and thematically with the sets conclusion. What begins as a small tip tapping becomes a full blown cop knock by the end as the band lays into the show’s conclusion. The first verse is drumless with only Dylan’s voice and before long the song reaches skyward, increasing its momentum and bursting into a wonderful show ending conclusion. Dylan takes one guitar solo before letting Baxter and Jackson take the final solo spot to a big riveting end.
It is a substantially tall order to sift through Bob Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ and reveal its numerous hidden jewels. There is an overwhelming collection of songs, line ups, venues, shows and extenuating factors that make up Dylan’s massive touring career. In the case of May 27, 1995, this is one show whose head bobs above the waterline and lets us witness its beautiful creation. Dylan would still have a number of musical peaks in the upcoming years, and is still reaching nightly summits as of this writing. The ‘rock room’ always finds it nice to dig into Dylan’s back pages not only to trace his career and development but to find the magic.