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Bob Dylan plays the Berkshires

Article updated Dec. 22, 2018; written by

Bob Dylan’s Tanglewood show, July 2, 2016, will be the seventh time he has performed in the Berkshires, but only the fifth time he has headlined a concert here. His surprise appearance as guest of Joan Baez at her Aug. 17, 1963 concert in Pittsfield, when he sang Only a Pawn in Their Game, Blowin in the Wind, and A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall, came in the midst of an epic summer – following July appearances at a pivotal Civil Rights Rally in Greenwood, MS and the Newport Folk Festival and just before the March on Washington. Local reporter Milton R. Bass wrote: “His voice is not a pretty one, his guitar playing is just plain old banging away, but there is an intensity about him, a dedication, that forces one’s attention where it belongs.”

Rolling Thunder Revue Berkshires respite

Rolling Thunder Revue posterDylan’s second Berkshires’ visit was November 7, 1975, during the first wave of the Rolling Thunder Revue. After playing two shows the day before in Springfield, he brought the troupe to Mama Frasca’s Dream Away Lodge for an all-day party and sing-along in Becket. Catching back-to-back episodes of the Rolling Thunder Revue is about as lucky as any Dylan fan can get, and listening to Vol. 5: Live 1975 of the Bootleg Series practically brings it all back home again!

Dylan at Tanglewood

When Dylan headlined his first concert in the Berkshires, at Tanglewood, July 4, 1991, the most familiar image of him was from the Grammys a few months earlier when he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award, without a word of thanks to anyone, but with characteristically cryptic remarks about defilement and redemption, after performing an accelerated version of Masters of War, at a time when the country was drunk on the patriotic glory of the Gulf War. According to the Tanglewood electrician working the show that night, Dylan was quite belligerent, threatening to blow the show off if his demands for a total backstage blackout weren’t met. My friend told me that it nearly came to fisticuffs!

The second Tanglewood show Aug. 4, 1997, came on the heels of Dylan’s bout with histoplasmosis, a respiratory infection that nearly took him out. Opening the show was BR5-49, whose multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, who has been a member of Dylan’s band since 2005, when Larry Campbell departed. He performed an abbreviated set of 13 songs, including an excellent reading of Tangled Up in Blue, plus the rarely-performed This Wheel’s On Fire, co-written with Rick Danko, but without All Along the Watchtower, which had been on nearly every setlist since 1992.

Dylan’s ball park shows in Pittsfield

Then came the two ballpark/variety shows: June 23, 2005 and Aug. 26, 2006 at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield. With the estimable Willie Nelson on the undercard in 2005, Dylan went deep into his own songbook to perform a set that included 9 songs from 1967 and earlier. Mr. Dylan is expected to go deep into the songbook again at Tanglewood, but not his own, rather the Great American Songbook, including numbers Frank Sinatra may have done at Tanglewood in 1994.

Desolation Row is first among perhaps a score of favorite Dylan songs, from Highway 61 Revisited, which was released when I was sixteen. It was the highlight of the 2006 show, as I wrote at the time: “The arrangement of Desolation Row was simply spectacular – it was a sound ballet. There was luscious acoustic work between Garnier and Freeman, laying down swinging, jazzy lines and then doubling them. Geroge Recile was all over his drum kit, making thunder and great brassy noise. And Herron pinned down every phrase of Dylan’s with hot rivets of electric mandolin; a wicked cool effect.”

Opening this Tanglewood show will be Mavis Staples, whose own history with Dylan is a long and romantic one.