Bob's Newport Return, 20 Year Later (by Adam Selzer)
2002-08-03, Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI
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Got a guest post today from Adam Selzer! Adam’s previously written here about Bob shows in 1963, 1984, 1999, 2001, and 2021. He was at a few of the latter shows himself, and he was also at this one, Dylan’s much-hyped return to Newport Folk Festival, twenty years ago today. Adam tells the story:
Sometimes incredible things happen at the Newport Folk Festival, as evidenced by last week’s surprise Joni Mitchell appearance. It was her first time playing guitar in front of an audience since Atlanta, 1998, when she opened for Bob Dylan on the last night of their fall tour. I was there, but didn’t know much about Joni at the time. She wasn’t on the radio often, and, though I knew her name and all, actually trying out her music would have meant spending 17 bucks on a CD, or, as I often did with new interests, trading for a good live tape. Looking into a new artist was quite an investment in those days.
That’s part of the thrill of a concert, isn’t it? Maybe something surprising will happen, something that’ll be written about forever, even though it seemed like it would be just another night on the tour. Maybe there’ll be a rare song, a special guest, some memorable stage banter that no one could have foreseen.
And then there are shows where you know that it’s a part of history the minute it’s announced. It almost doesn’t matter what happens at the the show, or even if the show is very good; it’ll at least be a footnote in history.
Such was the nature of Dylan’s return to the Newport Folk Festival, 37 years after that fateful night when he scrambled everyone’s brain by showing up onstage with an electric guitar to sing “Maggie’s Farm.” The long-awaited return to Newport was a moment in rock and roll history.
Naturally, anyone who follows Bob would expect him to play the return like just another show, but, then again, the day it was announced, he opened his show in Manchester, England with the first ever acoustic “Maggie’s Farm,” something that seemed like it couldn’t be entirely a coincidence. His return to Newport would be history no matter what happened. I had to go.
At the time I was working as a pizza man in a town where no one seemed to know that tipping was a thing; given how badly my car got banged around I probably lost more than I made on that job. But a buddy and I cobbled together enough money for tickets and bus fair to Philly, where we met up with Dylanologist Peter Stone Brown, who packed up some dubious-looking sandwiches with a whole lot of mayo for a drive to Worcester, Massachusetts, where the tour would kick off with a club show.
“If I were a betting man,” Pete said, “I’d say he’d just play Newport like any other show. But…I’m not a betting man.”
Meanwhile, for reasons I don’t recall, Peter resisted our occasional suggestions to break into the sandwiches. It was hot and they looked increasingly dubious as the hours passed in Connecticut traffic. By the time he finally broke them out, my friend and I were afraid to go near them, but Pete kept looking in the rear view to see if we were enjoying them. What the hell. We’d been living on cold Greyhound station hot dogs that looked and tasted like human fingers. Adventure is a part of travel.
If we had been betting men, we probably would have all bet that Worcester would be the more interesting show. And word later seemed to be that it was. Certainly the setlist was more interesting, with a trainwreck of an arrangement of the rare “Never Gonna Be the Same Again” and a new arrangement of “Tombstone Blues” but outside the venue, we all thought the show was pretty mediocre (with “Standing in the Doorway” as a clear highlight). Maybe it was the hours in traffic, the talky crowd, the heat in that old vaudeville house (even Bob rolled up his sleeves), or the sun-baked mayo, but that show just didn’t land, and we were all a bit cranky in the morning. Everyone was ready for Bob to mix it up a bit. We would have been thrilled to hear he’d be switching to piano soon.
Newport itself was hot, the venue looking like every bit the fort it is. Kind of a contrast to the “peace and love” vibe. I have very little memory of the first acts onstage. Shawn Colvin, I guess. We’d set up camp about halfway back, so when Dylan came out no one noticed anything strange at first. It was a few minutes in when Pete’s friend said “Wait… is he wearing a fake beard?”
“Of course not!” I said.
But then we moved closer. And there it was: Bob was wearing a long wig under his cowboy hat and a fake beard. “He looks Amish,” I said. “Or like an orthodox Jew,” said Pete. “This is the weirdest thing he’s ever done!”
There’s really nothing like being at a concert and knowing that it’s one we’ll be talking about for a while. And the fake beard was just a part of it. The show cooked. And the setlist even seemed carefully selected. He opened with “Roving Gambler,’ an old traditional folk song (just about the last time he’d open with a song by “Trad” and “Anon,” though of course we didn’t know it at the time). “Times They Are A-Changin’” followed, the song he’d been opening with for over a year before Newport ‘65, and “Desolation Row” with the electric violin verse. It was almost like a Newport ‘65 do-over for a few songs.
Then he strapped on the electric for “Crash on the Levee” and “Positively Fourth Street,” both of which could have been post-Newport revenge songs, and “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the most welcome surprise of the day — and the song that perhaps they should have expected at Newport 65, the single where he’d gone electric months before.
From there out, it was a pretty standard show for the time. Listening to the recording now, I’ve heard better performances of some of the songs, but it does hold up as an excellent show. Recordings can’t catch the atmosphere, though, and that was what really made it special. Even in the era of corny jokes in the band intro, it felt rare for Bob to show us so much of his sense of humor.
The fake beard stayed on the whole show. At least one time Dylan took the cowboy hat off to switch guitars, and you could see he was being careful not to mess up the wig.
At the end of the show, the general sense among fans was that the fake beard must have had something to do with Masked and Anonymous, which was then in production. “There’s supposed to be some plot about Jack Fate getting out of prison,” said Pete. “Doesn’t that fort look like a jail? They could have been filming from one of the boats for all we know.” As we walked past the bus, we shouted “Jack Fate rules” at the open windows. A police officer who boarded the bus for an autograph said the fake beard was gone now. “He’s Bob again,” he confirmed.
The drive away was far more jovial than the night before. Every few minutes someone would just shout “I don’t believe he did that!” All these years later, I still can’t.
Adam is a Chicago historian, author, and tour guide whose new book out next week looks at Graceland Cemetery; more info at adamchicago.com.
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