Bob Dylan's Biggest Setlist Surprises - Part 1

Stuck Inside of Hazel with 10,000 Men Again

Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Bob Dylan shows of yesteryear. Subscribe here:

A few months back, a subscriber gave me a good idea for a piece (thanks Richard!): Surprise premieres. The example he cited was one he witnessed himself - "Blind Willie McTell," first performed on August 5, 1997 in Montreal, six years after it first surfaced on the original Bootleg Series box set and a further eight years after it was first recorded for Infidels

I'm a sucker for a setlist surprise. So I decided to figure out what were, objectively, the most surprising songs to ever appear in a Dylan setlist. The rules I came up with were:

  1. Bob’s never played it live before

  2. The song is a decade old or more

  3. Original songs only

This framework does eliminate a few songs most fans would consider big live surprises - #1 takes out the return of "Romance in Durango," #2 takes out "Highlands," #3 takes out a host of covers - but it works well enough. When I went through, I discovered thirty-nine different Dylan songs that fit all three criteria.

I've ranked them below, ordered by how long it took Bob to finally play the songs live - from a few he waited 10 years to play all the way up to one where he waited 42 years (!). And I've asked two questions: Was the first performance worth the wait and, after this long-delayed debut, did he continue playing the song?

Note: Because Substack will only allow you to embed so many videos per post, I've broken this into three installments. This and the last will be free, the middle one tomorrow - edit: up now - will be for paid subscribers only. I'll include a download of the full batch at the end.

10,000 Men

Time since first release: 10 years
First time played: Nov 12, 2000 in South Kingston, RI
Was it worth the wait? Given that I can't imagine anyone was waiting that impatiently to hear one of Dylan's least essential songs, I'm gonna say yes! He brings more enthusiasm and heart to it than he did on Under the Red Sky. “10,000 Men” is not suddenly revealed as a secret classic, but, for basically a throwaway song, it's more fun live than you might expect. Definite "Silvio" energy.
Did it stick around? Nope! This was a one-time only performance. Spoiler alert: That will be the case for a number of these songs. If he's waited over a decade to play something, he may not have been that fond of it in the first place.

Dark Eyes

Time since first release: 10 years
First time played: December 10, 1995 in Boston, MA*
Was it worth the wait? Oh hell yeah. This is one of the most famous first-timers on this entire list, and one of the best. When Dylan toured with Patti Smith in December 1995, to help welcome her back onto the music scene, he asked her to pick a song for them to sing together. She chose wisely. Bob sounds a little tentative on this first go, but Patti carries him just fine. When I hear “Dark Eyes” in my head, Patti&Bob is the version I hear.
Did it stick around? Only for the length of their short tour together. It became a nightly stable in December 1995, but has not been heard since. Not from Bob, at least; Patti has performed it solo on occasion. Interestingly, for some artists their duet arrangement seems to have become the default, as at least one recent cover mirrors it, Dawn Landes & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy.
* Note: He did try it once in 1986, but bailed after only a few words, so I'm not counting that.

I Want You

Time since first release: 10 years
First time played: May 11, 1976 in San Antonio, TX
Was it worth the wait? This is the first of the three Rolling Thunder ‘76 songs in this "10 years later" section. If you do the math (1976 - 10), you'll realize that means we're talking Blonde on Blonde. And Blonde on Blonde songs sound goddamn great with that spikey barbed-wire energy of ‘76 Rolling Thunder! This one's not as dramatic a rearrangement as some, following the album version pretty closely, but he sings - and harmonicas - the hell out of it.
Did it stick around? Oh yeah. He's played it 214 times and counting (though that count stopped a while ago - he hasn't played it since 2005).

One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

Time since first release: 10 years
First time played: May 19, 1976 in Wichita, KS
Was it worth the wait? Well, not every Blonde on Blonde song sounds great in ‘76. "One of Us Must Know" reaches for that band's fiery greatness, but falls short. Too slow, too plodding, too reliant on mushy group vocals. Maybe that's why they didn't do it again for another two years.
Did it stick around? Not in '76, but it became a highlight of the 1978 big-band tour. I thought it had been played more often since, but it's only reappeared twice, both in 1997.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again

Time since first release: 10 years
First time played: April 28, 1976 in Pensacola, FL
Was it worth the wait? The reason for this song's debut is obvious: He was playing Pensacola! … Or, wait, maybe Pensacola is not the relevant city here. The day after he played Pensacola, he played two shows in Mobile. I guess he wanted to make sure it was tight for the song's hometown crowd, but I can't help feeling Mobile should have gotten the true first crack at it. I don't think "Stuck Inside" is anyone's favorite track off Hard Rain, but it still sounds great, even in this first attempt. 
Did it stick around? I believe it's the most-played song of this entire run, and one of his most-played songs ever (though not in a decade, which surprised me to discover).

Joey

Time since first release: 11 years
First time played: July 4, 1987 in Foxboro, MA
Was it worth the wait? Endless credit to the Grateful Dead for talking Dylan into busting out a bunch of never-played old songs. This is the first of those on this list and it will not be the last. I'm generally a Dylan & the Dead champion, but this “Joey” feels a little listless. Not on Bob's part, who's giving it his all vocally ("his all" is, admittedly, extremely nasal at this point). But the Dead's backing feels like a creature void of form. Except Brent Mydland. Every time his keyboards sparkle to the surface, you wish he’d been given more to do.
Did it stick around? Yes. Desire's least-loved song is its second-most-played (after "One More Cup of Coffee").

Blind Willie McTell

Time since first release: 8 years - but 14 years since Bob actually recorded it, which is what I’m counting for our purposes (partly because it’s the song that inspired this whole list!)
First time played: August 5, 1997 in Montreal, Canada
Was it worth the wait? The band arrangement is aces, the banjo in particular. Unfortunately, Bob is in extra-froggy voice here. His careful delivery of the lyrics makes up for that somewhat, but he'd do the song more justice at many subsequent shows.
Did it stick around? Not only has he performed this more than any other "new" song on the first Bootleg Series box set, he's performed this more than any of the songs he actually put on Infidels! Seems that even he now agrees he shouldn't have left it off the album.

My Back Pages

Time since first release: 14 years
First time played: July 4, 1978 in Paris, France
Was it worth the wait? Yes! Phenomenal. And here's the thing: Bob isn't even there. In the second hand of the 1978 tour, post-Budokan, they used a sax-driven instrumental “My Back Pages” as a warm up number. Bob wouldn't wander on stage 'til the end (the crowd's roar on the tape makes it quite clear when). It's a great device and the song works even without the words. 
Did it stick around? Bob wouldn't actually sing it on stage for another decade, but it's since become a fairly regular part of the pre-Set Never-Ending Tour.

You Angel You

Time since first release: 16 years
First time played: January 14, 1990 in State College, PA
Was it worth the wait? Oof. I like the band's jaunty arrangement, but Bob garbles just about every lyric (the ones he remembers at least). The early '90s were not the time for “You Angel You.”
Did it stick around? Nope. This was the first performance. The second occurred a few weeks later. And that was it.

Handy Dandy

First time played: June 27, 2008 in Vigo, Spain
Time since first release: 18 years
Was it worth the wait? Of all the songs to bust out randomly in 2008, a period where random bust-outs were becoming increasingly rare, Under the Red Sky’s "Handy Dandy" was a truly bizarre choice. I can't decide if it works or not. On the one hand, he sings it delicately and the band sounds gorgeous. On the other, is "delicate" and "gorgeous" really the right vibe for this goofy novelty song?
Did it stick around? "Handy Dandy" has become the crowd-pleasing final encore at every show of the last decade. Sometimes he has to play it two or three times just to avert a riot. The people just cannot get enough "Handy Dandy"! (Kidding, of course. He never played it again.)

Hazel 

First time played: November 17, 1994 in New York, NY
Time since first release: 20 years
Was it worth the wait? All the rest of these songs were debuted during regular, run-of-the-mill concerts. "Hazel" is the exception. Two decades on from Planet Waves, Bob busted it out for his MTV Unplugged special. This was clearly not a spur-of-the-moment decision; it's a beautiful, organ-driven acoustic arrangement and a terrific vocal. Nevertheless, it didn't make the final broadcast or live album.
[Correction: A reader pointed out this was actually first played at the Last Waltz. Someone remind BobDylan.com and Setlist.fm, from which I drew these “first played” dates!]
Did it stick around? Not in the '90s. After MTV Unplugged, he shelved it again for another decade, before performing it a few times in 2004-05.

The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

First time played: July 10, 1987 in Philadelphia, PA
Time since first release: 20 years
Was it worth the wait? Another old song the Dead pulled out of him on their joint tour, and not the last. Better than "Joey," but still a bit aimless. The Dead on this one sound tight (by Dead standards), while Bob meanders, perhaps trying to keep up with all the words. Things thankfully pick up the further along it goes. Bob grows in confidence and Jerry begins adding nifty guitar licks behind him.
Did it stick around? After a few performances in '87-88, he shelved it until 2000, when he performed it a number of times. If you've read my gushing about Bob’s performances in 2000, it will not surprise you to learn I think they were all superior to this one.

The Wicked Messenger

First time played: July 12, 1987 in East Rutherford, NJ
Time since first release: 20 years
Was it worth the wait? Another John Wesley Harding song the Dead convinced Bob to play. This is maybe the worst of the Dylan/Dead debuts. How can such a killer guitar riff be played so listlessly? This has been the hardest song thus far to even make it through. 4 minutes that feel like 40.
Did it stick around? Yes, thank God. Bob performed it many other times. Every one I've heard has been better than this.

That’s it for Part 1! Part 2 is here for paid subscribers only. Then the third and final part the day after will be free again.