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Is it time to talk about the band? Let's talk about the band.
There are those who would say this particular lineup is Bob's best band that wasn’t literally called The Band. Depending on how you'd classify the rotating cast of characters that was Rolling Thunder '75, I might agree. So let's run 'em down, from newest to oldest additions (which is also right to left in the grainy photo above):
Charlie Sexton (1999-2002, 2009-present) - The new kid then, the old hat now. Austin guitar hotshot who, for a minute in the '80s, seemed like he might become a star in his own right: Top 20 hit at 16 years old, cover of SPIN, opened for Bowie. Here's them covering "White Light/White Heat" together. The face of a model when he wasn't doing his best Robert Smith impression. After his fifteen minutes ticked away, he settled into a successful career of session work and production. Orbited Bob's outer circle for years: they reportedly recorded something that never came out in '83, and Charlie appeared onstage with Bob a few times in the mid-'90s. The rare band member to leave and return years later - and for a much longer tenure than he had the first time 'round.
Larry Campbell (1997-2004) - "Can play anything with strings" is the line about Larry. An exaggeration, of course - but then again I just thought of stringed instruments at random and the first five I came up with he can play (#6 was the harp, an instrument I don't think he can handle…yet). Long discography before Bob, even longer one after. Best known for his long association with Levon Helm, producing Levon's final two albums and overseeing the Midnight Ramble concerts. Has released several excellent Americana albums with his wife Teresa Williams.
David Kemper (1996-2001) - Best known for playing with the Jerry Garcia Band from 1983-1994, which is where Bob got onto him (I wonder, could he have saved Dylan & The Dead?). A ridiculously long discography of session appearances since the early '70s, from Linda Ronstadt to Dutch prog band Focus, of which he was a proper member for a few years. First met Bob in '78 playing in T-Bone Burnett's band, then again when Bob would hang out backstage at Garcia Band shows. A few years after Jerry's death, their sound engineer sent Bob a live recording he was working on. Bob called the guy and said, "Do you know Kemper's number?"
Tony Garnier (1989-present) - Bob's longest-serving band member and de facto band leader. Recently begun his fourth decade on the job. Worked with Tom Waits, Robert Gordon, and Buster Poindexter before joining Bob's band, and to this day pops up in other artists' album credits every now and again. His brief stint in the Saturday Night Live band overlapped with first Never Ending Tour guitarist G.E. Smith, but he just missed Bob's current drummer Matt Chamberlain. Resolutely unflashy, though he used to do cool upright bass twirls during "Summer Days."
I don't know that anything in those bios is particularly exciting. A C-list star from the '80s, a couple anonymous session musicians, and a guy who played bass on one Tom Waits song. Hardly some pulse-quickening collaboration like Neil Young or Tom Petty hopping aboard in the few years before Tony. But this unassuming lineup made some of the best live music of Bob's career.
It wasn't just "right place, right time" either. Far from it. In 2000, Bob's band took as central role as any band has throughout the entire Never-Ending Tour. I didn't see any of these shows myself, but by the time I started following Dylan a few years later the stories of Larry and Charlie's extended solos on "Summer Days" were already legendary. Their backing vocals frequently stole the show, as on the never-bettered "Blowin' on the Wind"s or any number of the gospel covers of this period.
Even when they "just" backed Dylan, well out of the spotlight, they shined. When I was first learning to play guitar, I spent month's working on Larry's 2004 acoustic arrangement of "Girl from the North Country" (thanks DylanChords.info). They could rock as hard as latter-day Bob has rocked, and, on a dime, strip it all back for intimate acoustic sets.
Take this evening's "Dear Landlord." None of them had ever played the song except Tony, back in in 1992. With Bob, you can hear it - his vocals tentative and a little garbled. Not a great performance. But with this band, it doesn't matter. The four band is locked in, creating a swampy groove that builds and ebbs whether Bob's keeping pace or not.
It wouldn't last. Kemper was the first to leave the band, in November 2001, following not long after by Larry and Charlie But in a 2008 Uncut interview, Kemper looked back fondly on this lineup:
I think things really changed at the time I joined the band - not because of me. He found Larry, and things took off, and Charlie was what we needed to have a great band. And it was a really great band. And I'm sorry to not be in it today. I miss Bob and I miss that band.