Here's a Look Back at Bob Dylan's Best NYC Concerts

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Bob Dylan
From the cover of The Cutting Edge 1965 - 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12

Bob Dylan is a New Yorker. Sure, he may have come here from Minnesota, but just like thousands of transplants before and after him, Bob Dylan used the magic of New York City to transform himself and become one of our adopted sons. Bob wandered the streets, slept on couches, played in basement coffeehouses, wrote songs, found his voice, and became Bob Dylan here.

The city would inspire him in countless ways. It would serve as a backdrop to album covers (most famously his walk down Jones Street with girlfriend Suze Rotolo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and turn up as both a character and location in songs: “Talkin’ New York Blues” was the name of the second song he ever recorded, while “Positively 4th Street,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” are probably his best invocations, with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and its Chelsea Hotel reference a close runner-up. He recorded almost all of his Sixties and Seventies output at Columbia Records’ New York studios, including Blood On The Tracks and Blonde on Blonde. Dylan recruited and rehearsed for the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue here, and it was here that dozens of musicians gathered to pay tribute for what Neil Young referred to as “Bobfest,” but was officially known as “The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration,” an epic-length tribute concert held at Madison Square Garden in 1992.

Dylan began playing live in New York City literally days after he arrived in 1961. Since beginning what’s been called “The Never-Ending Tour” in 1988, Dylan has performed here exactly 57 times, and New York remains the city he’s played the most during this era of his career. On the occasion of the latest Bob Dylan archival release (The Cutting Edge, 1965-1966 which was release on November 6 by Columbia Records), here’s a list of Bob Dylan’s most notable New York City performances.

Gerdes Folk City | April 11, 1961

On the record books as Dylan’s first professional New York City gig. Gerdes Folk City, located at 11 W. 4th Street in the Village (in a building that no longer exists), had established itself as the pre-eminent venue for the burgeoning folk music scene. Bob had played a few open mic hootenannies at the club before Gerdes owner Mike Porco took pity on the skinny kid with badly fitting clothes, and offered him a gig opening for John Lee Hooker. Dylan needed a musicians’ union card in order to take the gig, and since he wasn’t even 21 yet, he needed a parent’s signature. Insisting he was an orphan, Porco signed for him as guardian. (This would be chronicled in “Talkin’ New York” later: “After weeks and weeks of hanging around/I finally got a job in New York town/In a bigger place, bigger money too/Even joined the union and paid my dues.”) And it would be during a two-week residency at Gerdes later that fall that New York Times writer Bob Shelton would catch his act, and be so impressed that he would interview Dylan after the show and write a now-legendary positive review: ”Mr. Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty.” The next year, Gerdes would be the place he would play “Blowin’ In The Wind” for the first time.

Town Hall | April 12, 1963

This would be Dylan’s first major NYC concert, almost two years to the day from his first paid gig, and the transition is nothing short of phenomenal. In some ways, the differences are profound, in terms of his confidence and performing ability; in others, it’s a direct progression from the raw material he brought to New York. His guitar playing is effortless, the harmonica work is a joy, and his vocal is powerful and playful. Only three songs from his first record make the setlist, with the release of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan still a few weeks away, and the audience sits enraptured even through a set of mostly unfamiliar original material and sharply focused political diatribes, capped off with the dramatic reading of a poem called “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.”

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium | August 28, 1965

Fresh off of scandalizing the pants off the folkies up at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan and his new electrified backing band came rolling into town. If Bob thought he was going to get a better reception from the New York sophisticates, he was sadly disappointed. “Mods, Rockers Fight Over New Thing Called Dylan” read the headline of Jack Newfield’s Voice review, and Al Kooper would note, “...They sang along to 'Like a Rolling Stone' and then they booed at the end, like they were instructed to boo by the newspaper,” in an interview about that night from earlier this year. Unlike at Newport, this time the musicians had rehearsed, and were prepared, but the crowd wasn’t having any of it. There’s a (terrible) tape of this show, and there is clear audio evidence that no one exaggerated or fabricated the crowd’s reaction. But Dylan continued despite the crowd’s reaction, or maybe, precisely because of it?

Madison Square Garden with the Band | January 31, 1974

Aside from some guest appearances (a Woody Guthrie Tribute; the Concert for Bangladesh; a Band show at the Academy of Music) Dylan was off the road for seven-and-a-half years and didn’t play a full concert in New York City for a very long time. That was a lifetime, an entire career in rock and roll back then. A lot would happen in between: military actions, protest movements, motorcycle accidents, Woodstock. But then he came back with one of the greatest rock 'n' roll alliances on one of the most amazing tours ever. The ‘74 tour with the Band featured Dylan at the height of his Seventies powers, alongside Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm very close to the apex of theirs. This show at the Garden would amply showcase all of the above, and an audience at the height of Watergate roars like a jet engine as Dylan sings the “But even the President of the United States/Has to stand naked” line during “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.”

Madison Square Garden | December 8, 1975: “Night of the Hurricane”

The Rolling Thunder Revue — Dylan’s idea to round up his friends and other musicians that he liked, and take them on the road with no set itinerary — was presumably logical outcome of hibernating for seven-plus years and then getting a taste of what he’d been missing while he was out with the Band in ‘74. Bob recorded Desire, and then headed out with the likes of Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, T Bone Burnett, and many more. (Patti Smith was invited to join, and declined, as did Emmylou Harris, who had other commitments.) Dylan and Baez performed together for the first time in years, Dylan performed incendiary sets wearing white face like some kind of psychedelic troubadour, and other musicians came on and off the tour (Joni Mitchell came by for one show, and stayed for three more). The whole crazy caravan came to the Garden for the last show of the 1975 outing, which was also a benefit for imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (for whom Dylan had already recorded and released the protest song, “Hurricane”). The Garden performance also included Muhammed Ali, Roberta Flack, and Allen Ginsberg chanting poetry on the side of the stage.

Madison Square Garden | July 16 - 17, 1986: True Confessions with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Bob had been off the road and out of New York City for a long time at the point he returned with his latest backing band: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers! Put together on a suggestion from Bill Graham when Bob needed a band for Farm Aid, it was a lineup that tickled music fans of every persuasion: the old people were made to feel relevant and the young people got a chance to glimpse the greatness they’d all heard so much about, but hadn’t had a chance to actually see, especially given Bob’s projects in the years prior to this were what’s known as “the Gospel years.” As Dylan would later note in his biography, Chronicles, he viewed this tour as one last payday before retirement, as he considered Petty to be at the top of his career, while he saw himself at the end of his (“I was what they called over the hill,” he said). But the tour energized Dylan and clearly excited the Heartbreakers, who appear to be nothing but thrilled to be onstage backing one of their heroes. This was earring-and-a-leather-vest (and sometimes leather pants!)-era Bob, who rocked out unabashedly night after night. At the Garden, Ron Wood would show up as a special guest on July 16 and pick up a guitar for “Rainy Day Women #12 & # 35.” Bob’s “The Never-Ending Tour” would begin two years later. So much for being over any hills.

Madison Square Garden | October 16, 1992: “Bobfest”

Everyone showed up for the big 30th anniversary party (thankfully dubbed “Bobfest” by Neil Young). You had your big guns (Clapton, Stevie Wonder, George Harrison), your young guns (Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam) , your punk now-elders (Lou Reed, Chrissie Hynde), your peers (Johnny Cash, Neil, Kris Kristofferson, Roger McGuinn), and many more. Booker T and the MG’s acted as house band, with the additions of Jim Keltner and Anton Fig (Al Jackson required two drummers to fill in for him) and G.E. Smith as musical director. Broadcast on pay-per-view, it would be the first time Bob would be back at the Garden since the tour with the Heartbreakers. It could have been a train wreck but it was actually a pretty great evening. Highlights included Vedder (just a year out from the release of Ten) and McCready offering a mesmerizing “Masters of War;” Neil’s version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is fraught and driven; and George Harrison’s version of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is gorgeous and rollicking, his first U.S. performance in almost 20 years as well as the last time he would perform in public.

Sinead O’Connor was on the bill, and was booed off the stage after one line, days after her Saturday Night Live appearance where she tore up a photograph of the Pope (in protest against child abuse in the Catholic Church).

Bob did play at his own party, coming on at the end for “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and a stunning “Girl From The North Country,” as well as joining the all-star jam for “My Back Pages” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” (The entire evening was just recently released by Sony on DVD and re-released on audio, and is well worth picking up.)

The Supper Club | November 16-17, 1993

Dylan arrived in New York and played four acoustic/Unplugged-type shows at this small venue with an eye towards future release, giving away tickets to fans. Predating his actual MTV Unplugged by a year, a jovial and relaxed Dylan played a varied (and far superior) selection of songs that originated from his most recent releases, which at the time were World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You, both of which were collections of traditional songs, as well as rearrangements of Dylan originals. (These shows would end up being the only ones at which WGW songs would be played live.)

The arrangements of the songs performed in these four shows (two sets per night, early and late) were more country-flavored than usual, but the performances were consistently strong; Dylan played lead (acoustic) guitar, and his vocal delivery was sung and not half-spoken, as he’d already begun to revert to in concert. The performance of “Queen Jane Approximately” is stunningly, achingly gorgeous; “I Want You” becomes a loping, rockabilly tune; “Forever Young” is relaxed and majestic. These shows were the kind of experience fans dream about being able to attend. The Dylan camp keeps promising to release these officially and it’s hard to understand why they don’t.

The Beacon Theatre | December 11-14, 1995 

For this short Eastern winter run dubbed The Paradise Lost Tour, Bob invited Patti Smith, just returning to public life after the death of her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, to open these shows. It was a short enough tour and close enough to home that she could take the gig, even with small children. He asked her what song of his she would like to sing each night, and she chose “Dark Eyes.”

Bob, for his part, delivered diverse sets full of energy and emotion. He told the audience before the show on December 11 that he couldn’t sleep the night before, because he was “so excited to play New York City.” It shows. “All Along The Watchtower” and “Jokerman” vibrate with urgency; an acoustic “Masters of War” quivers with rage, despite the restrained instrumentation; and “Tangled Up In Blue” is goosebump-inducing. The latest version of the NET band is playing at their peak as well, and as always, is essential to Dylan’s success, but none of it would matter if he wasn’t fully invested. Someone in the audience tosses a black bra onstage after “Rainy Day Women,” and Bob proudly shows it off.

Irving Plaza | December 8, 1997

The day after Bob received honors from the Kennedy Center, he performed this benefit concert for Hale House (a charity for abandoned babies which later shut down in the wake of scandal) at Irving Plaza as part of his winter small club tour. The energy of this show is completely off the charts; Dylan is in peak Nineties form, the band on point, and the crowd over the moon to be watching Bob in such a small venue. This show absolutely cooks, and “Cold Irons Bound” (from that year’s release, Time Out Of Mind) is especially insane. “Cocaine Blues” is (truly) an enjoyable moment, but given the beneficiaries of the evening, it’s tough to decide whether its inclusion in the setlist (it had been consistent on that winter’s club tour) was meant to be sarcastic or just forgetful. But “Tangled Up In Blue,” in the middle of the acoustic set, would’ve given you flashbacks to seeing Dylan in the Sixties or Seventies even if you weren’t alive yet. This is the year that Larry Campbell joined the band, who many consider to be the best of Dylan’s NET (Never-Ending Tour) sidemen.

The Theater at Madison Square Garden| January 16-21, 1998

Five nights were spent at the Theater at MSG as part of a double bill with Van Morrison in 1998. The two were co-headliners, taking turns opening and closing each night. Still revving off the strength of his performances in 1997, Dylan continues with what are regarded as some of the best shows of his career, with the January 20 performance called out repeatedly as the highlight of the stand. Larry Campbell’s presence definitely dragged Bob out of some of the overindulgence of the previous years, and the songs are tight, focused, and keep him on his toes. Dylan continued to showcase 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, and many of those songs are the unquestioned highlights: “Cold Irons Bound,” “Million Miles” and “Not Dark Yet” are at the top of that list.

While Van Morrison never came out to sing with Bob, Dylan often came out to duet with Van Morrison, and did so during this run, dueling on Morrison’s "More and More."

Tramps | July 26, 1999

900 lucky people secured tickets to this show, announced a week earlier to take place the night before a gig at the Garden (on a co-headlining tour with Paul Simon). Tickets were supposed to go on sale on a Wednesday at noon, but so many people were lined up on 21st Street by Tuesday night that the club started selling the tickets around 1:30am on Wednesday. In addition to the intimate setting, the show also featured a setlist unlike any other on the current tour (on a tour that already had diverse sets every night). There were songs from the Sixties, songs from Empire Burlesque and Shot of Love, Grateful Dead covers, songs he had never played in New York City before. By all reports, Dylan was in fine fettle, and the whole band was on their toes, grinning ear to ear. “Boots of Spanish Leather” is incredible, “Visions of Johanna” is surreal, the crowd yelping appropriately in ecstasy, not mindless yelling, the kind of crowd response that adds to the experience. “Ballad of A Thin Man” is as biting and acerbic as it should be, while “Tombstone Blues” makes you feel like you’re an extra in Don’t Look Back. And on top of everything else, Elvis Costello walks out for “I Shall Be Released” at the very end.

Madison Square Garden | November 19, 2001

Doing anything in New York City immediately after September 11 had layers of extra meaning infused in it, and seeing Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden definitely did. There would be layers of extra meanings in the songs as well: in “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” in “Things Have Changed,” and in the encore during “Blowin’ In The Wind,” a song written during another time when the world went crazy. But the notable moment of the night was during “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”: as the song starts, the crowd cheers in approval in a way they hadn’t for the other tunes, and there’s an excited murmur until Dylan reaches the last verse, and the last two lines of the song: “I’m going back to New York City; I do believe I’ve had enough.” Now, a New York crowd will always cheer for those songs, but tonight it was in excitement and release and appreciation: “Tom Thumb” wasn’t on any of the set lists on the tour before New York, or after it; Bob sang that one for us.

Hammerstein Ballroom | August 12, 2003

Beginning in 2002, every Dylan concert began with an extended intro: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the Sixties counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the Seventies and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the Eighties, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late Nineties. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!” That intro was spoken at Hammerstein, the first of a three-night stand in 2003. Coming out of what was regarded as a dismal show in New Jersey, Dylan righted course with a strong start to the set, only to turn things up to 11 when Nils Lofgren comes out halfway through. Bob already has a crackerjack band (even after the departure of Charlie Sexton at the end of 2002), but it’s rare that he can bring out a guest who can outplay Dylan’s band. The excitement onstage is palpable; Lofgren remained onstage for the rest of the set, as Bob extended songs just to see where Nils would take them. A fan would describe the band’s rendition of “Highway 61” as “supersonic,” which is apt; “Like A Rolling Stone” feels almost fresh, and “All Along The Watchtower” in the encore is absolutely fierce. Which goes back to the point of the intro: Thinking about being a fan of Bob Dylan in the Sixties, Seventies or even the Eighties and 20 years later, you’re still watching the guy deliver onstage. No one was that visionary, not even Bob himself.

Terminal 5 | November 22-24, 2010

You probably didn’t go see Dylan at one of the three shows he played at Terminal 5 in 2010 because you probably thought it would be crowded, uncomfortable, horrible sound, and not at all worth walking all the way over to Tenth Avenue. You also probably thought, “I’ve seen Bob recently, I don’t need to throw myself into this mess.” That would have been a tactical error, because they were incredibly solid shows. Larry Campbell departed back in 2004, but Charlie Sexton came back to into the fold in 2009, and the band was still amazingly tight and can turn on a dime. Bob opened with a song from Slow Train Coming, and continued to mix strong versions of greatest hits in with more selective cuts (anywhere from Oh Mercy to The Basement Tapes to Modern Times), and mixed up the set lists enough across the engagement that you would have gotten a lot of variety if you were a masochist and went to all three nights. These days, Bob sings less than he chants, and no, he can’t sing like he could when he was 30. Sometimes the rasp succeeds better than others, but he can still sell the songs, just like he did in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” where that song will never fail to get the crowd’s attention and those two closing lines will always feel like he wrote them just for us, because he did.

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