1990-02-08, Hammersmith Odeon, London, England
Today’s show is a request from Jon Dixon. Reminder that any annual subscriber can request a show for me to tackle.
In early 1990, Bob's so-called "Fastbreak" tour took him to three continents in under a month: North America (starting with the (in)famous Toad's Place show), South America, and Europe (residencies in Paris and London). For at least the European shows, he brought a piano onstage with him every night…and never touched it.
Until, that is, the last night in London, 32 years ago today, where he finally played it on exactly one song: "Disease of Conceit." That’s the video above (you can see why his drummer then complained to me about the low lighting!)
Nowadays, of course, the piano is Bob's primary instrument. Has been since the early 2000s. At this point, it's possible he's played the piano on stage for more total shows in his life than he's played guitar - and if not, it's probably getting close.
The piano was Bob's first instrument, way back from those Jewish summer camp days Louis Kemp told me about. And it's been an important instrument for him in the studio all along. No less a pianist than Benmont Tench told me about that:
In the studio one time, we'd been learning “I’ll Remember You” off of Empire Burlesque. He was showing it to me on the piano, and I couldn't get the voices and the feel of exactly what he was doing. That's never been my strong suit. I just finally said, "Bob, why don't you play piano on this?" For a minute he said, "No, you can get it,” then he realized he should play piano. He should always play piano if he wrote it on piano, because he's a very cool piano player.
But, before he made the permanent switch around 2002, he didn't tickle the ivories too often on stage. I’m guessing this is partly practical: most recording studios have a piano sitting around, but you have to do some advance planning to have one onstage.
So, inspired by this “Disease of Conceit,” I decided to investigate Bob's on-stage piano playing over the decades. Here's what I found (please add whatever I missed in the comments!)
Dylan's first concert piano performance (not counting his childhood in Minnesota) came in Austin, TX in 1965, his first show backed by Levon and the Hawks. The piano song of choice at this and some subsequent shows? "Maggie's Farm," according to Clinton Heylin's A Life in Stolen Moments.
Unfortunately no recording exists, though a photo from a Burlington VT show a few weeks later indicates he was still playing it:
The earliest "Maggie's Farm" recording I could find on that first Hawks tour comes from another week after that, in Hartford on October 30. Unfortunately, from the strumming up top before the band kicks in, I'm guessing he's back on guitar like he was at Newport. So there’s no recording of Bob’s piano “Maggie’s Farm” in concert.
This next one's much easier; it's probably his most-viewed piano performance. Every night of the 1966 tour, Dylan played "Ballad of a Thin Man" on piano. Interestingly, on a few nights Olof's Files lists "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" having Bob on piano rather than the usual guitar. Anyone know if that's right?
The 1974 reunion tour with The Band-Formerly-Known-As-The-Hawks offered a 1966 reprise in some ways. One of them was “Ballad of a Thin Man” once again as Bob’s nightly piano song.
1975 is an interesting year because Bob played piano onstage a ton…everywhere other than at his own shows!
It starts at his very first ‘75 appearance, the SNACK benefit show in San Francisco, where Bob plays piano backing up Levon Helm singing "Ain't That a Lot of Love." You can't really hear it on the recording though.
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