It Takes a Toad to Cry
1990-01-12, Toad's Place, New Haven, CT
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In 1990, Rolling Stone called this concert "an awe-inspiring performance, as close to a comprehensive retrospective as Dylan is ever likely to offer onstage."
21 years later, they'd amended that slightly: "the single weirdest show in Dylan’s career."
Strictly speaking, Dylan's weirdest show ever - which it almost indisputably is - can still be "awe-inspiring." A 15-car pileup can inspire plenty of awe, and at times this feels like the musical equivalent. But first, some context.
This early-January club show was billed as a warm-up to Bob’s upcoming South American tour. It was billed as his first club show in 25 years, and was likely inspired by the Stones, who had done the same thing at the same 700-cap venue six months prior, warming up for their Steel Wheels tour.
Any other year, the "warm-up" distinction would have been meaningless though. I saw a "warm-up" club show Dylan did in Worcester, MA in 2008. It was good, but not materially different from the tour that followed. The Toad's Place show not only differed from the tour that followed; it differed from any show on any tour he's ever done.
For one, the length. The recording I have hits four hours and two minutes - and that's not including set breaks. That makes it, believe it or not, longer than any show Bruce Springsteen had ever played at that point (Bruce finally topped it by a few minutes in 2012). Dylan and his crack band played four sets, starting at 8:45 and not hitting the final note of "Like a Rolling Stone" until 2:20 in the morning.
The setlist is also easily the most bonkers he's ever played. Songs both transcendent ("Tight Connection to My Heart") and absurd ("Wiggle Wiggle") get their live debuts. He eschews many usual suspects for old chestnuts not played in ages ("I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine). He plays covers he'd never played before ("Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Been All Around This World," "Paid the Price,") and covers he'd never play again (including "Everybody's Movin'," "In the Pines," and, speaking of Springsteen, "Dancing in the Dark").
As if to counter the obscure song choices, he acts shockingly ingratiating (about the least-Dylanesq move imaginable). He takes requests. He encourages sing-alongs from the rowdy audience. When someone yells for "Joey," he at first demurs, telling the audience "it'll take all night." Then he plays it anyway. He even gives ‘em a "don't forget to tip your waitresses" at one point.
This all adds up to one of the most notable shows of his career. It does not, unfortunately, add up to one of the best. That looseness cuts both ways, with him happily playing songs he clearly doesn't know, whether written by himself or others (including the aforementioned Bruce cover, easily one of the worst single performances of Bob's entire career). His own "Political World” gets a particularly inauspicious debut in the first set (perhaps even he knew it was bad, since he brings it back for a much tighter reading in set four). Two songs later, he promptly begins incoherently yelping sounds that vaguely approximate the words of "Tears of Rage." It makes for a rough listen. You know your dumb friend who busts out a bad Dylan impression every time you bring him up? It's still less ridiculous than the vocals Bob himself delivers here.
But occasionally, performances transcend. In between that garbage "Political World" and the even-worse "Tears of Rage," he delivers a subtle and stunning "Where Teardrops Fall." By the fourth set, when you'd think he'd be flagging, he begins delivering performances worthy of the occasion. He covered "Peggy-O" many times in the 1990s, but rarely better than he did at 1am here. His "When Did You Leave Heaven?" cover six songs later is equally moving, frog-voice and all.
That more recent Rolling Stone article I quoted was a list of the ten best Dylan bootlegs ever. Where performance quality is concerned, Toad's Place belongs nowhere near such a list. Play this for someone you're trying to get into live Dylan and you will lose them forever. But the novelty value of the setlist and length makes this a bracing surprise once you've heard a hundred superior Dylan performances and can appreciate this evening’s off-the-wall energy. It's a pretty cold warm-up show overall, but for brief moments the heat will flicker on high.