Jim Keltner: "I'm there because Bob Dylan wants me to be there"

Part 2: BobFest, Time Out of Mind, Willie, Joining the Never Ending Tour & More

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

Today my conversation continues with drummer Jim Keltner about the many times he’s recorded and toured with Bob Dylan. If you missed Part 1, which covers their early ‘70s sessions, touring for Dylan’s three gospel years, the Traveling Wilburys, and more, catch up here.

And, if you don’t already, subscribe to get future newsletters delivered straight to your inbox:

Moving forward to your next Dylan gig, how did you get involved with the 30th anniversary, “BobFest”?

It might've been Bob that asked me to do it. It was either Bob or George. Or both. Let’s see. [Jim flipping through datebook] On the 7th [of October], we had a rehearsal with Tom Petty. On the 12th, we had a rehearsal with Sophie B. and the O'Jays, and Johnny Winter. On the 13th, we rehearsed with Clapton and Stevie Wonder, Sinéad, Bob, and the band. Then the 14th we rehearsed with Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, George Harrison, and Lou Reed. Then on the 15th, we rehearsed with Neil Young.

That's quite a week.

Yes. Then on the 16th was the gig. On the next day, I started an album with Willie at the Power Station.

Does anyone on that list jump out at you, that you particularly remember?

I remember rehearsing with Neil and then the delight of rehearsing with Stevie. Stevie Wonder was like from another planet. And Clapton. I always loved Eric.

What is it about those three?

Imagine what it would be like, you're at this big deal thing honoring Bob Dylan, and then suddenly there's everybody, the biggest artists of the day. You're playing Bob's music with them. To see them all come together for Bob, that's what knocked me out.

That was the beginning of us playing with Neil Young. Me and [Steve] Cropper and Duck Dunn [both also in the BobFest house band]. We went on tour with Neil [the following year] and the band was half of the MGs. Cropper and Duck. It was unbelievable to be playing with those guys live.

Neil is another artist that's very much like Bob. There are just a few of them. Neil is definitely one. Neil, he just wants you to interpret his music. He wants you to listen to him and get with him. That's what we did.

Playing with Duck Dunn on bass was like a dream. Then Cropper's rhythm was unreal. There was a little tension there once in a while. I mean in the music, because Cropper is so strong with his groove and Neil really likes to swim. I was in heaven. I was being able to be as expressive as I wanted to be and float in and out of this incredibly pocketed thing and [then] into the deep part of the water and swim with Neil. It was a great tour. It came together because of BobFest.

One more session we have to hit on, Time out of Mind, one of the great latter-day Dylan albums. Both Bob and Daniel Lanois have talked about the tension between them. Were you one of Bob’s people he called in to help?

Yes, Bob called me, or somebody called me from Bob's camp. I was definitely there for Bob. Bob and Lanois were not seeing eye-to-eye on everything. There was a tension there. I've got to say, Bob is not alone in being like this, but I think there are some people who feed off of tension. I'm one of those people, in a way. When there's tension, there's more the reason for things to change. I didn't have any problem with Lanois at all. It was actually more fun for me in a sick kind of way.

What I always loved about that record is the voice was so big. There were a lot of musicians playing all at the same time and, the way it was mixed, so that the music was all in the back, almost blurry in a way, and with the voice really big up in the front, I've always marveled at that.

I remember that Bob asked a question one night when we were all standing around. He said, "What do you like? Do you like the bits or do you like the overall thing?" What he was referring to was there were so many individual pieces to the music. That's what I think Bob meant about the bits. There were little things musically that were really cool. I said, "I like the bits." Later when the record came out, I knew what had happened. He got the bits that we were referring to. The little musical bits all became like this wall, this background for this huge voice so that the lyrics stood out beautifully and the voice sounded incredible.

Eric Clapton, not long ago we were playing together, and he said one of his favorite songs ever is “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.”

David Bowie covered that one too.

Oh, yes. That record is a very, very much loved record by a lot of artists because it's just great. I mean the music is killer. The way it was mixed, his voice so big like I said, it's incredible. It's one of my favorite things.

The way the record sounded when it came out, when I first heard it, I thought, "Wow, Bob got what he was looking for.” Only it didn't happen until later. In the mix, they made it work.

The last tour you did with Bob seemed pretty spontaneous. In 2002, George Receli, Bob's drummer, came down with an injury and you pinch-hit for a few weeks there.

Right. He got a serious carpal tunnel problem. So when they called me, I was like, "You mean you want me to come and no rehearsals?" Bob wanted me to be in Milan tomorrow. I said, "Wow, I don't know if I can do that. I don't think I can get there that soon." I made it the day after. My first gig was April 21st in [Zurich] with them. George, a great drummer and really good friend, stayed so that I could-- Let's see, what happened? Maybe he played at the sound check.

It looks like for the first show you were at, he played half the show and you played half the show. Then subsequently you just took over.

Right, that's what it was. He played half the show, so that I could get a feel for what they were doing volume wise, just the vibe of the whole thing. Then I finished it. That's right.

Even still, it's not like he's playing the same songs you're going to play. You're just thrown on stage to play other stuff.

Yes, exactly. There again, that's the faith Bob had in me. The trust Bob had in me that I could do the thing that he really loved, which is to just play the music. Just fit in with the music somehow. Don't worry about trying to find a part to play and all that other kind of stuff. Don't worry whether or not you're totally accurate with everything. That doesn't matter. Bob is a real champion of that kind of thinking and so that's why it was easy for me.

Had you ever had to do something like that before with anyone where you had literally no rehearsal?

No. No way. Like I said, that's Dylan. That was incredible, man, now that I think about it. I wish I could remember details. We played two gigs in Paris. I can see myself sitting behind Bob at the drums. I remember that it came off good. Tony was playing, his band members, they all-- Was Charlie Sexton on that gig?

He was.

Okay, those guys all took real good care of me. They would give me signs.

You were cueing off them to some degree?

Oh, yes. They were helping me out for sure.

In typical Bob fashion, you're also not playing the same show every night. Every night, there's new songs you're being thrown into. It's not like you get through the first show and smooth sailing after that.

Yes, that's right. With Bob, you didn't know a lot of times. That's the way it should be really, if you think about it. There's nothing wrong with having a real good, well-rehearsed show. But I think real artistry is a little more than that. I think that putting the little element of danger or tension or whatever you want to call it into the situation is a good thing in some cases.

Again, that's that fearless thing. If you're not fearless, you're going to be afraid. A lot of the musicians I know, we can smell fear. I know that sounds funny but that comes from being in a studio with artists, making records where everything is on the line. Time is money, people's careers are being shaped or created. There's a lot of responsibility there. If you sense that somebody is afraid or reticent in some way, then you put that other hat on. The fun ones, the really, really fun ones, like Bob, Willie, Neil, Clapton, [they’ve] got that fearless kind of thing. That really makes it fun for the musicians.

The playback is what I'm in the game for. I love hearing the playback to see, "Did we do good? Okay. Well, let's try it again" or "That's fantastic, we'll never be able to do it that good again."

Is that how it works at a Dylan session, typically? You'll do a take or two, then everyone goes into the control room?

Yes. They're all a little bit different. With Bob, he'll be a little more conventional. The most unconventional is Neil. With Neil, there's what’s called a rundown of the song, and then the first take. Before the rundown, you were just messing about. I have played with Neil Young on records where the messing about is the take! You don't even get to the rundown. That can be a little shocking.

Your most recent time playing with Dylan to date comes full circle, because we've talked about Willie Nelson a lot. The last thing on my list is you performing with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson at the same time, which you did a couple of times. You recorded “Heartland” with them in the '90s and then a decade later, there was this TV special where Bob came out and they do “You Win Again,” May 2004.

That's a great pairing. In this [Willie] interview, the interviewer had asked me - and this is an official documentary and I'm on camera and everything - the guy asked me, "Did you play on ‘Heartland’?" I said, "You know what, I'm not sure. I don't know if there's any drums on that." When I got home I listened and sure enough, there's the drums. I'm going, “Oh no. I'm a freaking idiot.” If you've been playing for 50 years making records, there's certain things just pass through and you just can't remember.

With “Heartland,” and it's too late to say it on the Willie interview but I can certainly say it on this interview, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan are two of the most distinctive voices in the music business. Wouldn't you say?


You know immediately when they're singing and to hear them sing together is beautiful. I love how they sound on “Heartland” together. I don't think they did enough of that. I wish they'd do it again. They're both here, man. They're both on this planet, still commanding all the attention they've ever commanded. Somebody needs to-- I'll tell [Dylan manager] Jeff Kramer that. I'll call him. In fact, I'm going to call him as soon as we're done.

You're in a very small group of musicians who Bob calls back again and again, over decades. Why do you think he keeps calling you?

I think it's because of our track record together. The very first time meeting him, playing on - it wasn't a gigantic hit, but it certainly was one of his memorable songs - “Watching The River Flow.” Then, “Knockin' on Heaven's Door” was iconic. Then the gospel years. I think with that kind of track record, he's always going to be thinking of me like that.

One of my favorite times with Bob was during the Wilburys. He was so funny. I wish that people like you and other people who are big fans of his, I wish they could know or see that side of Bob, but you're never going to have that without special times like that. He used to crack me up like. I told him one time, I said, "Man, you're like a Lenny Bruce throwback." He's just way more personable than what people get to see.

Wonder if that was before or after you recorded a song about Lenny Bruce with Bob

Me and my wife, we used to go see Lenny Bruce when we were just going together. Before we got married, we'd go see him clubs in LA. People from our generation were huge Lenny Bruce fans.

He was playing that on his last tour. He brought it back and was playing it.

He did? He played “Lenny Bruce”?

Yeah, on the last tour, with Matt Chamberlain. It was like a slow thing, really cool.

Oh, fantastic. It's too bad that they got stopped in their tracks because this band will really be a good band.

Yeah, and Bob Britt, who worked with you on Time Out of Mind too.

Oh, he's got him?

Yeah, he and Matt joined just for the last three months and then COVID hit and it stopped.

That's great. He's thinking all the time.

Bob Britt would be another one who pops up again and again. Time Out of Mind then, 25 years later, now he's in the touring band. I spoke with Duke Robillard a couple of weeks ago. Same thing with him. He did a couple of sessions and then decades later toured with him.

From what I understand, Duke came in on Time Out of Mind because of Bob. The ones that I know for certain are myself, Jim Dickinson, and Duke Robillard, other than his core band, that were called in by Bob that had nothing to do with Lanois.

For me, I felt as long as I'm there for Bob, I'm there for Bob and that's it. I know why I'm there and I know what I'm going to do, which is I'm going to feel Bob out. I can feel it through the playbacks, through whatever he might say, but I'm there because Bob Dylan wants me to be there.

Thanks to Jim for taking the time to talk! Thanks also to Michael Simmons, James Adams, and Dag Braathen for their help. Here are a couple shows from Jim’s 2002 stint in the Never Ending Tour band:

2002-04-21, Hallenstadion, Zurich, Switzerland
2002-04-30, Le Zenith, Paris, France


For more live-Dylan newsletters delivered to your inbox every week, subscribe here:

Check out the full archive of newsletters here.