Diving Deep into Dylan's Worst Year

1991-05-09, Northeastern University, Boston, MA

Over at the Dylan message board Expecting Rain, one user has taken on an unenviable task: Listening to every single show Bob played in 1991.

I say unenviable because 1991 is probably the consensus pick for Dylan’s worst touring year. Certainly worst of the Never Ending Tour at least (I know some misguided 1978 haters still exist and can only feel sorry for them). So listening to every 1991 show seems to be an exercise in true masochism. I reached out that thread’s author, Jake Fredel, to see how it was going - and to see if I needed to stage an intervention. Turns out he’s enjoying the exercise, and finding a lot to love in a sometimes unlovable year.

So I wanted to syndicate one of his show reviews here - I picked at random the show 30 years ago today in Boston - and additionally have him give an update on how he’s holding up, 32 shows in. If he’s descended into madness, he hides it well. Here’s Jake:

My Journey with 1991

This year, as I have been writing about extensively on the Expecting Rain forum, I have taken on the task of listening to every circulating 1991 show on the year’s 30th anniversary. Actually, my 1991 project is only part of a larger chronological journey through the Never-Ending Tour. I started listening to every 1988 and 1989 show a couple years ago, in mostly chronological order, but I really started in earnest last year, with the goal of listening to every 1990 show in real time over the course of 2020.

You probably want to know why I would do this. At first, it was just a whim. I had listened to a lot of shows from Bob’s recent tours, often downloading every single show with a recording in circulation, so I wondered what it would be like to do the same with the early years of NET - rather than just listening to highlights from each year. Then, when Covid-19 hit, I found that my next Bob concert had been canceled and it seemed that there would be no NET shows in 2020. This is what inspired me to “follow” the 1990 tour in real time as if Bob was currently on the road and I was following the tour from stop to stop. Now, having made it through all of 1990, I’ve shifted my sights to 1991.

Often described as “Bob’s worst year,” 1991 featured a whopping 101 shows with a widely reviled new band often referred to as the “Undesirables” and shows where Bob was often thought to be either drunk, sick, despondent, or some combination of the three. The first tour leg of the year - the 1991 Fastbreak Tour, with stops in Europe, the US, and Mexico - was mostly what I had heard it would be. The band was under-rehearsed, with Bob sounding quite the worse for wear. 

After a few energetic performances in Glasgow, Dublin and Belfast, the tour took a nosedive with an interminable nine-show run in London. There were great performances scattered throughout the run (which I extracted and combined into a best-of compilation), but overall, Bob sounded bored and disinterested. The shambolic performance at the Grammys that followed the band’s return to the States is infamous for Bob’s drunken, confrontational appearance, but the London run featured none of this drama or chaos. It was just night after night of the same songs performed with the same droning sense of boredom.

Once I finally made it to the end of this tour leg, I was ready for a break. But as April inched closer, I started getting excited to hear what Bob and the band had in store for their spring tour of the US. The band at the beginning of the year consisted of John “JJ” Jackson on guitar, Tony Garnier on bass, 1978 tour veteran Ian Wallace on drums, and César Diaz on second guitar - although April saw Diaz leave the band, leaving Jackson to handle lead guitar duties alone. What would this new lineup sound like? The esteemed Dylan researcher Olof Bjorner said this about the tour: “César Diaz has now left the band, which is consequently sounding thinner and rougher than ever. Add to this Dylan's listless and toneless singing mumbled and garbled lyrics and it adds up to one of the worst tours ever in his career. Chaotic!"

With this in mind, my expectations for the tour were very low. However, I have often been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve heard so far. The first conclusion that I’ve come to is that Bjorner was selling the band short. At no point do they sound thin or rough. If anything, they sound tighter and more powerful than they did earlier in the year. Jackson drives the band like a madman possessed by rock ‘n’ roll, doing his best to inject some raucous energy into the songs even in those moments when Bob’s focus begins to wane, and the rhythm section is with him every step of the way. As for Bob, his voice has become smoother and more versatile this year, although he often doesn’t seem to know how to use it. When he’s on, he’s capable of some of the best NET performances to date, but when he’s not on, everything quickly falls into depressing disarray.

The first few shows of the tour were the most consistent, with strong performances and good quality recordings in circulation. “New Morning” was given its live debut at the tour opener in New Orleans and became the standard set opener, although the initially relaxed arrangement gradually evolved into an uptempo march that is difficult for Bob to keep up with. (For a sense of what the original arrangement was like, I recommend the April 20th show in Pelham, Alabama.) And despite there being few setlist changes from night to night, Bob’s performances have been becoming increasingly erratic as the tour progresses. With that in mind, let’s check out the show at Northeastern University in Boston, which took place exactly 30 years ago today…

The Boston Show

This show at Boston's Northeastern University is the only one I had heard from this tour before starting this project, so this is a special one for me. When I first listened to this show, I was somewhat dismayed at the shortage of coherent performances here, especially the opening “New Morning,” which I had been expecting to be a highlight (I was listening to one show from each leg of the Never-Ending Tour to create a patchwork compilation covering the first 30 years of the tour). We’ll see what I think of it now, after listening to over 30 shows from 1991 over the course of the past few months.

The first thing to note is that the sound quality on the circulating recording is very good. Almost too good, you might say. You can clearly hear Bob’s vocals on the opening “New Morning,” including how he continually struggles to pronounce the word “morning” in the chorus (i.e. “On that new… On that new… with you”). In fact, he struggles to sing any complete line in the song, which flies by in a brief three minutes anyway. Then he eschews the intro to “Lay Lady Lay,” just bursts into it without warning. Almost always the low point of any given show on this tour, Bob’s delivery on this song is never particularly appealing, but here he at least gets points for pronouncing all of the words clearly. There are worse performances out there.

As Bob noted in an interview with a local newspaper during his stop in Mexico back in March, this band’s virtue is in their simplicity, which is apparent on the “All Along the Watchtower” that follows. There’s something attractive about the way Jackson starts out with sharply strummed chords and gradually leads the band into a full force gale by the end of the song. It’s the perfect merger of the stark John Wesley Harding original and the fiery Jimi Hendrix cover that made the song famous. The band’s crisp adeptness can be heard again on “The Man In Me,” where the drums crack, the bass thumps steadily and Jackson’s guitar can be economical, funky or full of texture depending on the moment. As for the vocal, it’s not one of Bob’s best, but it’s not bad either.

A frequent highlight on this tour, “Gotta Serve Somebody” serves up the funk and gives Bob a chance to snarl, smirk and toss out one-off new lines like “You might be here, you might be there, you might be walking around in your underwear.” You can’t make this stuff up! Then Jackson steps up and plays a solo that threatens to burn the place down. The audience seems to get off on this, as well the raucous “Wiggle Wiggle” that follows.

As we move into the acoustic set, we get a first for the tour: a one-off “She Belongs To Me” with Bob on electric piano (one of his first times ever using the instrument in an acoustic set, I think). Jackson and Tony provide some quiet backing (Ian sits this one out) while Bob noodles softly on the piano. His singing is low and sensitive, a perfect example of how good he can be when the inspiration strikes him. “She Belongs To Me” segues seamlessly into “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a vibrant performance which I ended up choosing to represent this show on my 30-year NET compilation. Years later, it still holds up!

Ian returns for the next song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” another one-off for this tour leg. It’s not at the same level of quality as the previous two songs, but it’s a valiant effort. When the song finishes, Bob asks the audience, “Some of you have heard that song before, right?” Maybe he assumed that the college audience was too young to have heard a song that he wrote 30 years ago. But he should have known that most of the folks there were probably more familiar with “Hard Rain” than “Wiggle Wiggle.” Same goes for “It Ain’t Me Babe,” which has improved significantly since first replacing “Bob Dylan’s Dream” a week ago. Overall, this is a very strong acoustic set, even above-average for the tour.

The “Everything Is Broken” that follows is strong too, with Jackson getting very close to the Oh Mercy vibe. “Man in the Long Black Coat” is spooky and atmospheric. Bob stumbles in a few spots but also achieves some moments of real beauty, as well as a closing harmonica solo that’s right on the mark. You can’t complain about performances like these. Up next is “Highway 61 Revisited,” which Bob introduces as “a song about a road - some people write songs about ‘em, some people don’t.” This one chugs along with a fair amount of blunt force, but never really gets off the ground.

Then we get off the road and head “Under the Red Sky.” This was a consistent highlight on this tour and it is here as well. It’s one song where Bob rarely forgets the lyrics, even during his forays on the electric piano, which he doesn’t use here until the outro. Not sure why this one didn’t stand out to me when I was putting together my NET compilation. It’s definitely a solid performance from start to finish, but the next song reminded me why I was initially turned off by this show (and 1991 in general). In another one-off performance, Bob pulls out “In the Garden” (inanely introduced as an “anti-religion song”) and is sorely underprepared for it. He did a better job with this song when he was drunk out of his gourd back in Glasgow. Sloppy performances like this are what give 1991 a bad reputation, even though it usually only lasts for a few songs out of any given show.

Except for a few mistimed entries in “Like A Rolling Stone,” the rest of the show finishes out in fine style, with a meditative “Blowin’ in the Wind” and a jubilant “Maggie’s Farm” to send everyone home in high spirits. Listening again with my head fully in 1991 mode, it now seems that about 75% of this show finds Bob in good form, with only a few songs falling into the crash and burn category. The question is, can you separate the wheat from the chaff and still enjoy the wheat? Or do a few rotten apples ruin the whole bunch? All platitudes aside, my 1991 journey has put me firmly in the first camp. There’s plenty of good stuff to be found in these 1991 shows - just sit back, clear your head, and enjoy the ride.

Thanks Jake! Follow his continued 1991 exploits over at Expecting Rain. Here’s the Boston show so you can listen for yourself:

1991-05-09, Northeastern University, Boston, MA