Today’s show is a request from Chris Le Pelley. Reminder that any Annual subscriber can request a show! More info here.
I've long said "Like a Rolling Stone" occupies an unusual place in Dylan's catalog: It's the rare song whose studio version has never been bettered, or even matched in concert. Most fans can name dozens of instances where a live version of a song topped the album version, but, in this case, he delivered the perfect performance in the recording studio - and has been trying and failing to match it almost ever since.
Bob has performed "Like a Rolling Stone" 2,075 times live. It was great in 1966 when it still felt fresh, but soon grew stale. A rare crowd-pleaser delivered as such, he usually performs it close enough to the record that people can sing along, sometimes even turning the house lights on to facilitate that lighters-up audience energy. My first show, before I was a big fan, "Like a Rolling Stone" was the only song I recognized.
I'd guess that's happened to thousands of attendees over the years. I've now seen it performed 18 times. It's never been the highlight of a show I've seen. It's never been a lowlight either. It's just sort of…been.
That is, until I saw it in Springfield, Massachusetts on November 18, 2018. For the first time that I'd experienced, Bob actually tried to do something with “Like a Rolling Stone,” rather than just treat it as a casual-fan-favorite throwaway. And since today's show in summer 2019 features the same unusual arrangement of the song, which he'd sadly retire before the final (for now) fall tour, I decided to look for other "Like a Rolling Stone" arrangements that veered away from the basic Highway 61 Revisited template. I came up with six.
Dylan only played this song a couple times in 1976. And fair enough; its rearrangement was less dramatic than that he gave so many other old songs. You wouldn't want this replacing, say, "Maggie's Farm." But I do dig the scrappy yell-along choruses and Rob Stoner's assertive bass runs, which practically lead the song.
As with so many songs around this time, the female backing singers giving it a slight gospel flavor. It's funny that, in a tour this generally crowd-pleasing, the most crowd-pleasing-est song of all would get a twist. In 1981, when the actual gospel tours began incorporating older songs, he stuck with this basic template.
Before the new arrangement, I called 1988 the only Never-Ending Tour year where "Like a Rolling Stone" was really good. The band played it raw and ragged, giving it life beyond a golden oldie. (There are better ‘88 performances than the one in this video, in which Bob’s voice is especially raw and ragged, but who wants to pass up a rare chance to see the Never Ending Tour in its very first stages?)
At a show in Italy, Dylan debuted this new ballad arrangement of “Like a Rolling Stone.” He must not have liked it much - he immediately dumped it after this one performance. I’m not sure I like it much that either, but appreciate that he tried something different. The aforementioned 2018-2019 versions deliver a slower “Rolling Stone” more effectively.
Overall your typical Never-Ending Tour "Like a Rolling Stone," played a million times this way before and since. But, for at least the spring 2005 tour, there was a killer guitar solo from Stu Kimball. Not like a cool one-night thing - I'm sure there have been plenty good guitar solos on this song here and there. This solo almost seemed like part of the arrangement, and Stu would play it more or less the same way every night. It was my favorite part of Stu's tenure in the band, and elevated the song, at least for a minute or two.
(This does show you how generic "Like a Rolling Stone" usually is, that an above-average guitar solo is enough to set it apart.)
The arrangement that inspired this newsletter, and probably the most unusual "Rolling Stone" of all. Funny how it took sixty-plus years for the song to get its most dramatic makeover. It starts out relatively similar to the way he’s played it for many years, but, just before each chorus, it slips to half-time. Suddenly it’s dreamy ballad for a blissful few lines, taking its own time, no drums to anchor it. Eventually it returns to the ground, but because of that break, "Like a Rolling Stone" became a show highlight for the first time. It was the night I saw it, and it is at today's show in Hyde Park.