Saturday, August 31, 2019

50 Years Ago Today: A Beautiful Night on the Isle of Wight with Dylan

As I think back on Bob Dylan's performance with the Band, which capped off the Isle of Wight Festival, my only recollection is that the reviews were not stellar. It wasn't until about four years ago that I acquired a bootleg CD of the concert, and gave it a listen. It was a very special set, but in such stark contrast to what must have been explosive sets by the Who, Joe Cocker and Ritchie Havens, among others, that it would have easily felt like a letdown, even though it should not have been. It was very special.

Context, however, is everything, and Clint Heylin's Behind the Shades, Revisited helps shed light on that context. 

First off, Dylan had not been in the habit of performing in front of lives crowds for several years, and after his period of hibernation he wasn't even certain he had a fan base left. So, in a toe-in-the-water trial (before signing the contract) he went and performed at the Mississippi River Festival in Illinois. "Disguised" as Elmer Johnson he did three covers with The Band. 

According to David Amran, Dylan said afterwards, "Man, there was something like 30,000 people there and they didn't forget me."

Heylin says that there was a reason Woodstock was selected as the site for this epic event. As Al Aronitz put it, "In essence, the Woodstock Festival was nothing but a call for Bob to come out and play."

Whether true or not, one thing is certain. There were plenty of people passing through looking for Bob and it must have felt creepy. Years later he said, "It was like a wave of insanity breakin' loose around the house day and night. You'd come in the house and find people there, people comin' through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin' at your door... We had to get out of there." Which is what he and Sara did, flying to England instead.

Dylan spent 12 days in rehearsals with his old bandmates before headlining the final night of the festival. They had prepared a much longer show than the hour they took the stage. Unfortunately, the crowd was exhausted after three days of music. 

The night before, The Who did an energetic set that began with hits, then showcased their rock opera Tommy, and finishing with more power. On the evening Dylan performed, Ritchie Havens preceded. There was a two hour delay between Havens and the Band and the crowd became restless and impatient, which also made Dylan edgy.

As any performer can tell you, when the crowd has been stoked, you are yourself energized. Al Aronowitz explained, "The crowd was getting tired. Both Bob and I knew the crowd must be feeling drained and worn out."

Those who were there remember it as anti-climactic. Which is unfortunate because as I listen today it has some very sweet moments and so strong ones. But in that context, the context of high-powered groups striving to leave their mark, Dylan's homespun, laid back effort failed to be memorable.

The festival had a sealed off VIP area in front of the stage that was populated by three Beatles and their wives (watch the video to see which was absent), along with Jane Fonda, Elton John, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and other celebs. I would be curious what they thought about Dylan's set, which is a compilation of some truly great songs. My favorites were those in his acoustic set, including the tender Wild Mountain Thyme. 

She Belongs to Me
I Threw It All Away
Maggie's Farm
Wild Mountain Thyme
To Ramona

Mr. Tambourine Man
I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine
Lay Lady Lay
Highway 61 Revisited
One Too Many Mornings
I Pity the Poor Immigrant
Like A Rolling Stone

I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
Quinnn the Eskimo
and an encore
Minstrel Boy
Rainy Day Women #12 & 35

According to Heylin, "Only once, on a raucous 'Highway 61 Revisited' did some of the old fire return to his singing."

Lavon Helm told Heylin that Bob had eight or ten extra songs on the intended playlist "with question marks" next to them, "but it seemed like everybody was a little bit tired and the festival was three days old by then; and so if everybody else is ready to go hoe, let's all go." 

It's easy to see why many were underwhelmed. In other words, why go through the motions when no one is into it. 

Related Links
UK's FarOutMagazine website has a cool 20 minute video with footage from the press conference and segments from the concert here:
(My apologies for the ads.)

Contrast Isle of Wight with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Here's the trailer.

And for the fun of it, here's what the weather looks like there this time of year.

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