Saturday, July 18, 2009

EBDS Special Post #4: The Isle of Wight Festival, 1969

Special note: this post also encompasses Bob Dylan Songs #136, #141, #145, and #146. Four songs knocked off the massive mountain that is Self Portrait. Hooray!

PS: This sucker is LONG. Just a heads up.

And there we were, all in one place...a generation, lost in space...

...and freakin' Bob Dylan passed up our massive festival of peace and love to perform on a tiny ass island in freakin' GREAT BRITAIN two weeks later!

We've heard about why Bob Dylan chose to perform his first live show in three years, his first appearance in front of a concert audience since his self-imposed hiatus, and yet the very fact that Dylan stepped on that stage in Wootton with The Band is something of a mystery. Wikipedia tells us that Dylan was swayed by playing in the area of England where Lord Alfred Tennyson penned his immortal prose, and as a man of artistic and pretentious leanings, that seems easy to believe. Dylan's also made no secret of his disdain of the hippie community and his reticence to perform at a show basically in his backyard (in fact, it's been intimated that the site was chosen with Dylan in mind), and that almost certainly played a part in the proceedings as well. But that still only begins to tell the tale of Dylan's Isle of Wight '69 concert, a part of his mighty career that has been almost pushed into the shadows, a massive bit of history rendered practically obscure today.

About 150,000 people were there on that night in August when Dylan stepped back on the stage, performed a rather perfunctory set (the bootleg length comes out to less than one hour - remember, he was headlining this baby), and immediately retreated once again for five more years. That retreat might seem obvious in retrospect, given how the performance was received and is regarded these days (along with Dylan, perhaps, still in "family first" mode and only doing this performance with the strict agreement that it'd be a one-off), but anecdotal evidence suggests that Dylan was pleased with his performance after the show. Not everybody in that audience shared his opinion - there was booing when Dylan ended his set so early, and as I've stated, reviews of the show even immediately after were mixed at best. Still, there had been plans of an official live release (which is why Self Portrait has a few tracks from the show - might as well flesh that baby out with some stuff from the vaults), and it's hard to imagine The Band would've said no to a full-scale tour afterwards, even in the Nashville Skyline style of that particular show. It certainly would've been interesting to see how Dylan would've handled the rest of his catalog in that format.

Instead, no tour ever materialized, Dylan moved away from the country format for good, and we have only a fascinating one-off to make us wonder what might have been. So, forty years after the fact, I think it's worth popping on the show, giving it a thorough listening, and finding out for certain just what the 1969 Isle of Wight show was all about. Who knows, maybe a few of those myths and legends might be proven false...or absolutely true. All comments are made more or less in real time - I haven't heard this concert in years, and am listening more or less blind for a fuller experience. Here goes nothing...


0:00 - Applause. You can't really tell how big the crowd is.

0:22 - The song immediately kicks off, much more up-tempo than usual. Dylan's country voice is right there, even more jarring than on Nashville Skyline, by dint of Dylan singing a non-country song. For whatever reason, the song starts with the 2nd verse - either that's just how Bob wanted it, or the tape had a cut there. Either way, a weird beginning to the show.

0:53 - Not that I'm some sort of voice coach, but Dylan's pitch is just all over the place. That's not surprising, given that it's hard to unlearn years of singing songs in a particular way, but worth noting.

1:29 - An off-mic shout leads into a Robertson solo. The Band have acquitted themselves nicely to this style (no big surprise), with Helm's drumming and the Manuel/Hudson combo standing out in particular. All the same, does anybody really think of "She Belongs To Me" as the type of song suitable for a good ol' down home jamboree?

2:15 - Levon Helm's shouting always puts a smile on my face.

2:18 - An indicator of the kind of mood the gang's in tonight - somebody yells "one more time!" and Dylan/Helm repeat the "for Halloween buy her a trumpet" refrain. A very showmanlike move, wouldn't you say?

2:37 - Amidst audience applause, various Band members say "nice to be here", then Dylan steps up with his only bit of interaction with the crowd - "Thank you very much. Nice to be here. Sure is." It's no "I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask" or "this song's dedicated to the Taj Mahal", I can tell you that much.


0:09 - A smattering of appreciative applause as Dylan sings the first lines. What are you people doing? This is a collection of trite cliches! Stop applauding!

0:37 - Interesting - Dylan repeats "I threw it all away" at the end of the chorus and the band plays a quick little extra bar of music. The tapers give an odd little chuckle at this.

1:28 - No repeat of the above moment after the 2nd chorus. Even more interesting.

1:50 - Dylan's being really experimental with his vocal patterns in the middle eight, messing around with the tempo of his singing and sort of playing around with what key he's in.

2:16 - It should be mentioned that this song is being played at a slower tempo than on the album, allowing for a more dramatic performance all around. Robertson's guitar is being deployed all over the place, most notably in the final ending sequence, where the more gentle acoustic (or mandolin?) being played is replaced by some choice soloing. It sounds pretty darn good, all in all.


0:13 - After a quiet acoustic strumming from Bob (who, I think, had an acoustic all performance long, which is another noteworthy fact in and of itself), the song kicks to life in skronky bar-band fashion. For those of you that ever heard the Woody Guthrie tribute performance, that's basically how this song sounds - it would have fit in perfectly next to "Grand Coulee Dam".

0:41 - A nice little touch - after Dylan sings an iteration of the "I ain't gonna work with Maggie's (x) no more" line, Helm and Danko join in with "no more, no more" refrains. It would've sounded terrible in any other arrangement, but here it works really great. One wishes this had shown up on Self Portrait instead of...well, we'll get to that later.

2:08 - Dylan forgets a line in the "Maggie's ma" verse. Unfortunately, we'll get to THAT later as well.

2:27 - Here's where the song really roars to life - Hudson's organ plays with circus-like intensity, and Robertson matches him step for step. I have to say, The Band can really bring it when they want to.

3:16 - This is one of my favorite performances of the whole show, and one reason to me why this iteration of Dylan would've made for a great tour. We all loved those Woody Guthrie tribute performances, right? How much different are those than what Dylan's doing here? If the '68 Dylan/Band duo would've been great out on tour, wouldn't this version have done just as well?

4:00 - Dylan tunes up the acoustic for a short solo set.


0:00 - Eric Clapton had some very nice things to say about this show, saying that it was fantastic and "you'd have to be a musician to understand it"; I'm not sure if that's true, but Clapton was a noted fan of this era, so who knows. One thing's for sure - this performance gives a lot of truth to that statement.

0:20 - I just adore the way Dylan sings "wild mountain thyme" here. This is by far Dylan's best vocal performance of the show; hell, I'd say it's one of his best vocal performances of the 60s. He does this song absolute justice.

1:20 - This performance is proof positive, if you ever needed it, that Dylan has great respect for his predecessors. We all know how much Dylan revered ancient folk music, but never really got to hear it before (unless you count him ripping off all those melodies, of course). Well, here he is, performing an old English folk tune, singing it as respectfully as he can, turning in a gorgeous rendition.

2:33 - Very appreciative applause. Dylan threw them a bone, and they loved it.


0:52 - Dylan plays around with the arrangement here - holding a note or two longer than usual, throwing in a few odd chords after the "you say you're looking for someone" part. Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't quite sound right. Sometimes experimentation doesn't always work for the best.

2:06 - One of the main criticisms of this show is that Dylan's just mailing it in, that he sounds sleepy at times and downright lazy and preoccupied at others. While I think that's more a by-product of Dylan's country style and something that a) isn't really that bad and b) would've been worked out with more performances in this vein, I suppose it's this performance that could lend that criticism credence; it's a little disappointing to hear Dylan flatten out his delivery after the last track. He's not singing badly, by any means - but there's no real spark here.

2:13 - Dylan, almost like he forgot the chords, plays some weird bit of business on the acoustic. What was that about?

3:05 - A funny ending, as Dylan sings "it ain't me you're looking...for" and stretches that last word out. Maybe I'm wrong, but it kinda sounds like a vaudeville moment, something you might hear at the end of a barbershop quartet performance. I'm thinking of Bugs Bunny singing "good evening, friends" by way of reference.


0:05 - More applause for this song - but how strange is it that this song made the setlist? Don't get me wrong, I like the song just fine, but it's sort of like when "Spanish Harlem Incident" showed up at the Philharmonic Hall show. An idiosyncratic choice, to say the least; then again, would you expect anything less?

1:10 - It's kind of gratifying to hear Dylan bringing a manner of vocal tics to this performance, as though he's trying to make this version of the song truly his. If you get my meaning.

2:19 - And as this song ends, without any hesitation Bob leads right into...


0:00 - ...which gets the most recognition applause so far.

1:10 - Dylan more or less plays this song the same way he would when he'd air it out on Tour '74, playing the song up-tempo and letting the words cascade so quickly that they almost trip over each other. Whether you like that is entirely up to you; I'm still marveling over Country Dylan having these words coming out of his mouth.

2:05 - A quick word about Dylan's sartorial splendor - for this show he came out wearing a cream suit (not unlike the Armani beauties the '96 Liverpool side sported before the FA Cup, for those readers across the pond), with a thin beard and short hair. A pretty cool ensemble, to be sure, but probably not what anybody was expecting or hoping for. No wonder so many think of this show as a letdown - from the moment he walked out, he was setting everybody up for that.

3:03 - The song ends here. I'll repeat - "Mr. Tambourine Man" ends here. The Band now comes back out for the rest of the set.


0:21 - Dylan plays this song slowed down, giving Robertson another venue to spin off some laid-back guitar work. We get several feedback squalls - I wonder if the, um, unique microphone setup had anything to do with that?

2:10 - In lieu of talking about a fine, but otherwise unmemorable performance, I'd like to point out just how remarkably eclectic Dylan's setlist was this night. Sure, we got a smattering of the big hits, but take a look - five songs from his last two albums (compared to six from the Electric Trilogy - and one of those was "Mr. Tambourine Man"!), nothing from before 1964, a Basement Tapes song nobody's heard yet, a folk cover, "Minstrel Boy" (!), more songs from Another Side than Blonde on Blonde, and so on. For a one-off show, Dylan was not afraid to dig into his catalog and play what he wanted to, rather than what he felt should be played. Contrast that with just about every other tour since (including Tour '74, which basically took the opposite tack of this show). Perhaps knowing it was just the one show gave Dylan the sense of freedom to experiment this way.


0:12 - One of the big disappointments of the concert; the gentle, light-hearted version on the album is replaced with something more leaden and ham-handed. I can't really put my finger on why - Helm does a good job replicating the quick-step drum arrangement, and the organ's out in fine force. But for whatever reason, what sounded joyous on record sounds thudding here. Maybe it's the chorus that hurts it; everyone opts for too much noise, instead of a lighter touch, and the song suffers for it.

2:10 - Case in point - the middle eight. Dylan almost howls his way through the lines, and the Band, all banged-out bar chords and lumbering rhythm, gives the song no sympathy at all. It's kinda hard to hear. The burst of feedback at 2:19 is no help, either.

3:21 - The song finally staggers to a close. Not a good outing; the '74 versions, while nothing like the single, are polished enough to actually sound better.


0:05 - Already a surprise - Robertson cranks out wicked solos to replace the police whistle from the original version. The Band's coming out swinging here, that's for sure.

1:12 - This is where the "bar band" style fits in best; Dylan somehow manages to adopt his croon into something more vicious, Helm & Co. roar out the last line of every verse with gusto, and the group cranks out a particular acidic brand of rock here. This is about as much fun as this concert got.

2:31 - Hudson's organ really gets a chance to shine here. A few more hip-swingers like this, and we'd have a lot less complaints about this show.


0:05 - About as mellow an arrangement as we ever got for this song; none of the slow-boiling energy of the 1966 version, none of the quiet longing of the album version. Dylan draws out the "thousand miles behind" line in a way he never would again. Not much to say about this version - it's not bad, but not great.

2:00 - While we're here, I'd like to mention that 3 of the 4 Beatles were actually in the audience; Paul, who was definitely persona non grata after the Get Back debacle, was not there. Harrison waxed rhapsodic about the performance; John's more measured quote has entered legend - "he gave a reasonable, if slightly flat performance; still, people were acting like they were expecting Jesus, or Godot, to appear". I think that's still the prevalent view regarding this show - the expectations were way too high to ever be met, and Dylan going the country route wasn't going to help matters. Again, it's worth wondering if a full tour of this type of show would have helped matters, or if Dylan hadn't chosen such a massive venue to try this style of music. Alas, we'll never know.


0:00 - If you're still reading this, congrats.

0:01 - The song starts mid-line, which is probably just a terrible edit. It sounds like somebody might be playing an accordian; perhaps it's actually an organ with a different tone. Either way, it sounds really good in the context of the song.

0:58 - Robertson plays a type of solo here that sounds like the rippling notes he'd use for the Tour '74 "LARS" solo, and will do the same later. Kind of interesting.

1:35 - Just a note from the video - look at how Dylan's playing his guitar. Is he even making contact with the strings?

2:00 - Aside from the group stirring to life during the choruses, this is a rather lugubrious reading of this song. Considering how late it was when Dylan stepped on stage (it went from August 31st to September 1st as the show progressed), couldn't he have whipped out a few quicker numbers? It's not like The Band wouldn't have been suitable for it...


0:01 - Yes, the peak moment of the show, when Bob busts out his big hit (and why it didn't close, I'll never understand). So how does this version stack up to what everybody had to have been thinking about - either the 1966 version or the original? Read on?

0:34 - Bob blows the "you used to laugh about" line. Not a good sign.

0:48 - The backup vocals sound out of place; strange, since they sounded fine in '74, but they definitely do here. The arrangement sounds close to the single version, although the mid-tempo trot is definitely different, and The Band sound like they've only had perfunctory rehearsal (which they may very well have had). The "bar band" thing works for fun rockers, not for majestic pieces of work like this one.

2:04 - Another blown line. Jesus, Bob, it's "LIKE A ROLLING STONE", for Pete's sake!

3:05 - And now we skip the "you never turn around to see the frowns" verse. I mean, is he TRYING to annoy the crowd at this point? At least he doesn't blow any more lines here.

3:47 - Here's an odd moment - Dylan sings the word "refuse" and sounds almost exactly like Van Morrison. Hmm.

4:53 - And that's it. Not a total travesty, but certainly not worthy of inclusion on any album, even one like Self Portrait. You'd have thought rehearsals would've made the performance less ramshackle and allowed Bob to remember all the lines, but apparently not. I feel vaguely dirty.

4:56 - This was the end of the first set, right? That, at least, would make some sense.


0:14 - Well, if Bob & Co. wanted to wash the bad taste out of everyone's mouth, they do a darn good job with this version. The backup versions now sound more fun than misplaced, the mid-tempo arrangement suits the song perfectly, and Dylan's country vocal is maybe what the song should have had all along. The perfect song for all the hippies in the audience to discreetly light up a doob.

1:25 - Dylan and Helm sound like they've having way too much fun with the "bring that bottle over here" line. That put a smile on my face.

2:46 - As the song wraps up, it's worth wondering how more Nashville Skyline songs would've been received. Would the reputation of this show have dipped further? Or would more people have appreciated hearing the songs in a live context that would've allowed them to stand out? It's interesting to ponder.


0:01 - Everybody comes charging out, guns blazing. I've gone on record saying this version is my favorite "Mighty Quinn" out there, and I stand by it. The low-key original has a lot to go for it, but what it has is nothing compared to the high-octane performance here.

1:27 - Dylan's "whoa, guitar!" shout before another pointed Robertson solo might be the most emotion he summons throughout the whole show, other than the whole of "Wild Mountain Thyme". By the way, if you never hear this show, I urge you to at least seek that track out. It is a beauty.

2:26 - It really is great that a spot of prime real estate was given to a Basement Tapes track, of all things. Not only is the version fun as heck, but it's a sly wink to the more in-tune cognoscenti in the audience. You have to love that. Of the four songs from this show on Self Portrait, this might be the one I'm most glad made the cut.


0:01 - Some really great harmonies on the choruses, I should point out.

0:35 - You wonder who the "Lucky" is that Bob's singing about here; not only is the song called "Minstrel Boy" (like a singer, you know?), but he mentions a "Mighty Mockingbird" and even goes into first person at the end ("...but I'm still on that road"). Was this song written to deliberately tease us poor souls?

2:44 - This is a pretty good song, make no mistake. It has a sweet chord progression, a fantastically sung chorus, and some really interesting lyrics about loneliness and burdens. And somehow, it makes sense that it's on the grab bag that is Self Portrait - the song really wouldn't have fit anywhere else. Too bad it had to be a jewel in a dung heap.


0:01 - A definite crowd-pleasing way to end the show; the song cuts off at 1:01 on every version, so I can't really say much more than that. Everybody has a grand ol' time singing the lyrics, the Band rides shotgun behind that now-famous riff, and that's pretty much that.


Talk about a work in progress. You could see that Dylan and The Band hadn't quite figured out what would work and what wouldn't; there was too much emphasis on slow songs, not enough thought into what older songs would work in the country vein, and moments that were outright painful. On the other hand, when things clicked, they really clicked - Dylan proved he could adopt that croon in a different environment, the raucous rockers were energetic and fun, and some of the arrangements were quite inspired. This could have been the start of a very special chapter in Bob's career. Instead, we just have the first chapter of a book never written. Such is life.

Thanks for reading, if you made it to the end. Coming up next - the weird, wild, and not particularly wonderful world of Self Portrait. We'll soon see what stern stuff I'm made of, won't we?

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chrishockenhull said...

Good to read your piece, The IOW 69always interested me oddly!. So much so that I tracked promotor Ray Foulk down and stayed with him whilst he gave me the full story of Dylan and the festival and made my 3rd edition of my magazine 'Fourth Time Around' an IOW special in 1986. The full story is in there if you can track a copy down (Oddly one went expensively on ebay last week!) There are some IOW clips on Youtube for those who have not seen this performance at all. Also the tapes are not totally complete but near as they omit odd comments Dylan supposedly said. Good article to reawake my interest in what I think was Dylan's most photographed appearance.

Anonymous said...

I obtained a bootleg of this show in the mid-70's and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. I continue to wait for an "official" release, but a note of caution: the Self-Portrait versions are mixed poorly and you lose the whole vibe. The fact that film of the concert has recently turned up in piecemeal form is intriguing and one wishes that a complete video document of the IOW would somehow come to pass.

Purperpolletje said...

To my knowledge the Isle of Wightfestival with Dylan on the bill was actually in 1970....

Anonymous said...

I adore this show. Sure it has its flaws, and Bob hits the bum notes and flubs some of the most obvious lyrics, and the Band sound pretty rag tag here and there, but it is just so much fun. I've played it endlessly. Even back when all we had was a pretty lo-fi jigsaw puzzle of a recorded document of this show to trade around, I still listened to it many more times that most other more well regarded live boots. I really think this should be one of the official Bootleg Series releases someday. Soon.

Pete said...

Song and dance man -- he sang, we danced. Lennon had it right, pretty much.

Unknown said...

one of the few live documents from my favorite period of dylan (though it's hard to beat the live performances of 1966). as bob has always said, he's a live artist/performer first, and i wish there was more from this time. oh well.

i really like the concert as a whole. i had a really terrible sounding tape of it back in the 90s, and recently found a much cleaner version on the internet.

anyhow, love this one, especially I threw it all away, Wild Mountain Thyme, To Ramona, Quinn, and Minstrely Boy

Jack Gander said...

A quick, pedantic little note about Quinn... I can't help feeling it was less a sly wink to the cognoscenti, more a performance of a #1 single from the previous year, courtesy of Manfred Mann. Not that it matters, of course. And I do enjoy your blog.

Moose said...

Posting after the official release of this show and curious how you feel about it now. Quinn highway 61 and mountain thyme sre right on highlights for me