Perhaps this record should be called "The Secret Renaissance
of Bob Dylan
". It was released in 1995, without much publicity
. It came relatively late in the MTV
Unplugged series, after even such unworthies as Rod Stewart
had put out Unplugged
records; and at a time when Dylan's career was going on pretty much underneath
of popular music
Dylan has been working on what he calls The Never-Ending Tour since 1988. This record is currently the only legally available chronicle of 14 years of excellent live performances. I have seen the Never-Ending Tour 4 times, most recently in November of 2001 at Madison Square Garden, and in my opinion, Dylan is playing some of the best shows of his life. Admittedly, his voice is pretty much wrecked, but he still has his impeccable phrasing. The band is top-notch, and Dylan's instrumental skills are better than they've ever been, both his harmonica and guitar playing. The Unplugged record was made when Dylan was still able to hit many more of his high notes than he is today. It could also be known as "The Last Gasp of Dylan's Voice."
The record, by the way, is not entirely unplugged. There is very obviously an electric organ on it.
The opening track is "Tombstone Blues", played fairly close to the original version and rocking HARD for a bunch of guys with acoustic guitars. "Shooting Star" is an achingly beautiful ballad with several extra instrumental verses from the 1989 album version. The third track, "All Along The Watchtower" comes at you hard and fast, echoing the "Before the Flood" version, and contains an incredible instrumental coda where the song slows down to dirge speed, and Dylan positively hammers out the chords while the organ floats overhead....it's very indescribable, like all the best Dylan moments are....I would say he found the soul of the song there, at the very end, and tellingly, the 2000 version I heard uses the same rhythm and speed all the way through.
This is followed by a beautiful "The Times They Are A-Changin'", with some excellent dobro work by Bucky Baxter. Other standouts are "Desolation Row", which has been given a lazy Tex-Mex shuffle beat that has really gotten the hippies dancing every time I've heard him play it, and a fiery take on "Dignity". The first official release of his anti-war anthem "John Brown" is also on this record.
Unfortunately, the record loses some steam towards the end, as Dylan does very perfunctory run-throughs of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and "Like a Rolling Stone", sounding as if he wants to go home, before recovering with a decent trip through "With God On Our Side".
1. Tombstone Blues
2. Shooting Star
3. All Along The Watchtower
4. The Times They Are A-Changin'
5. John Brown
6. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
7. Desolation Row
9. Knockin' On Heaven's Door
10. Like A Rolling Stone
11. With God On Our Side
Bob Dylan--Vocals, Guitar, and Harmonica
John Jackson--Lead Guitar
Bucky Baxter--Pedal Steel and Dobro