The Night Bob Dylan Joined The Paul James Band
And the many nights Paul James joined the Bob Dylan band
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Update October 2022: This interview will be included along with 50+ others in my forthcoming book ‘Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members.’ Preorder and more info available now at Indiegogo!
Paul James has sat in with Bob Dylan so many times he can’t remember them all. He’d just show up to a Dylan show and, often as not, get called onstage. He never knew it would happen in advance, and never had time to prepare. (Well, except for those two nights he was actually auditioning to join Bob’s band full-time…but we’ll get to that.)
Their relationship started, though, not with him sitting in with Bob, but with Bob sitting in with him. In 1986, Dylan was filming the movie Hearts of Fire around Paul’s home base of Toronto. Paul gigged constantly then, shlepping all around Canada. And at one night’s show at a bar in Toronto, he gained a very unexpected new guitar player.
I recently asked Paul about that, as well as about some of the other times he’s played with Dylan. The occasion: Paul is putting on his third-ever Dylan tribute gig this Wednesday. It’s in Toronto, as part of the Canadian National Exhibition. So we also talked about what it’s like to play Bob songs after you’ve played with the man himself. If you live around Toronto, you should definitely check it out.
Here’s Paul telling his stories. Since there were so many different Dylan run-ins, I grouped them roughly chronologically.
1986 - The Paul James Band gets a new guitar player for one night only
I started using a wireless guitar in 1982. I was one of the first guys to be using that, because I had to learn how to be an entertainer in the early days. On a rainy Tuesday night in Chelmsford, there wouldn't be a lot of people there. You scratch your head and think, "How am I going to get those three drunks in the corner to pay attention?" With my wireless guitar, I could wander over to the bar, order a drink and play with one hand, then play slide guitar with a beer bottle.
So one night I'm doing my shtick at the Nags Head North. I spin over to the bar while playing and I order a drink. Then this guy steps up to me. His face is about a foot away from my face. It's Bob Dylan. I go, “I won’t tell anybody you're here.” He said, “I won’t if you won’t.” “I'd really liked to meet you.” “Well, meet me at the bar after your set." Everyone just thinks I'm talking to some guy at the bar.
I went back to the stage and realized there's still half an hour to go on my set. "Oh, shit." In my brain, he's going to be recognized and he'll leave. But, as fate would have it, I go to the bar after this set and he's there. He's wearing a big beret and he's got a poncho on. We go backstage. I have my acoustic guitar. I played some Robert Johnson stuff. He went, "Oh, do that again." He was a big Robert Johnson fan. Now everybody knows who Robert Johnson is; in 1986, not as many people did.
Then he said, "I'd like to sit in with your band." I said, "Wow, that's fantastic. We know a lot of your songs." "I don't want to do any of my songs." "Oh?" "I'll just play backup guitar for you." I went, "Okay…” Like, what?
I said, “Well, we're going to go on now. Do you want to come up with us?" He says, "Why don't you do one or two songs, and then introduce me as a hitchhiker from Vancouver." So I did. I mean, people didn't know. No one was expecting anything. We were supposed to do a one-hour set, and I got so lost in the time, we played an hour over.
Did people recognize him at a certain point?
Well, no one said anything, but I had the feeling that people did. It's one of those things where no one said anything, but then, later on, "Oh, I was at that show.” “I was at that show." All these people were at that show.
Way more than would fit in the room
Right. So then we all piled into my van. He was with a lady, and I had my band with me. I don't know if there were seatbelt laws then, but we were all crammed in there. We drove back to my place. We sat and drank and smoked and laughed all night. We were sitting on the floor with two acoustic guitars. He would initiate stuff, some sort of chord changes, and I would play along with them. They weren't really songs or anything; we didn't do any singing. We'd just do different chord changes. I love doing that, and we just laughed.
Bob was saying, "I can't understand how come you haven't made it big yet." He says, "You know what it is: There's nothing happening here." If you think of Canadians— Neil Young was a Canadian, but he couldn't make it here. He had to go to the States. Joni Mitchell, same thing. Even Gordon Lightfoot, though he was managed by the same guy as Bob, [Albert] Grossman. Canada is a dead-end street. It's better now. Back then in the '80s, you would go around and play and play and play and play until you played yourself out.
Bob was talking to Steve Eid, who ran I club I played at called The Upper Lip. I remember they were saying, "You should move to California. Just do the same thing as you do here, play all the clubs and you'll get snapped up in no time." They decided Venice Beach was the place that I should go.
I never did. I had one kid crawling on the floor, and then I had another one coming. And it's hard to just get up and leave. It's easy to go somewhere in Canada, but there was all the implications of getting visas and all that jazz. I'm paranoid to do anything illegal in the States just because, who knows what's going to happen?
Anyway, we finished playing at about ten o'clock in the morning, and we were all tired by then. It was just an amazing, incredible night. It just came out of the blue.
Bob said, "Where else are you playing?" I said, "I'm playing at the Diamond and I'm playing the El Mocambo in the next week or so. I'm doing three gigs with Bo Diddley as well.” Bob showed up to one of the Bo Diddley gigs and he showed up to the El Mocambo with his daughter Anna. He didn't get up [onstage], he just came to see the show. It was pretty incredible. Bob Dylan at another Paul James show and he was at another one. I couldn't believe it. I had to touch myself to see if this was really happening.
Is he doing the incognito thing in the crowd?
Oh yes, always.
It really helped me out because, see, after the Nags Head North, there was a picture in the paper. “Bob Dylan sat in with Toronto’s own Paul James” — it was this big deal. People were coming to shows to see if Bob was going to show up.
Everyone thought he'd come to the Diamond because that was the big club. He didn't come there. He showed up in all the places you wouldn’t expect. One of the Bo Diddley gigs we were playing for the Ontario Police. They had their own place where the officers and their wives would go. Bob comes to that one. That was the first time.
When he came to the Bo Diddley show, we were chatting. He was going, "Dude, we could get a recording studio or something like that real quick." I was like, "Okay!" I figured he'd do it. I should've taken the bull by the horns. Like, "Oh, I know a place we can go right now." I just didn't have it together.
Like I said, he came to a couple of other shows while he was in town. And then he was gone. It was like, "The post office has been stolen, and the mailbox is locked.”
Years later he wanted me to record with him again. He wanted me to get an accordion player and I did. It was the guy from Los Lobos [David Hidalgo, for Together Through Life]. Mike Campbell ended up getting the [guitarist] gig. That was really close. It was like, ai-yi-yi.
1990 - Paul plays “Hot Tamales” for Bob
At another Dylan show, I’m getting on the guest list. But [a friend of mine] calls me and says, "Hey, Paul, would you do this benefit for these quadriplegic people?" I said, "When is it?" He tells me the date. I said, "Oh, Bob's going to be in town, and I'll probably get on the guest list and go and see the show, and maybe I'll see him or something." This was when he was playing the Hummingbird Center or the O'Keefe Centre. All these places change names so often.
My friend says, "Here's the problem. I told them that maybe you do it, this benefit thing. They put posters up all over the place saying you're going to play there." I said, "You're kidding. Aw jeez, I'll do it."
I went and did it. It was an early gig. Then I got home and I listened to my messages. It said I'm on the guest list for the Bob show. I figured, "Okay, maybe it's still going on." So I whip downtown and park. I run up to the will call. "Is my name on the list there?" "No, sorry."
I start walking away. Somebody comes running out of the blue and says, "Are you Paul James? You're on the guest list. Come on in." I didn't have a backstage pass. It was just admission. I went in. Ronnie Hawkins was singing with them.
The show ends. I go up to the front of the stage to see if I can get in there. No. So I go around the back, and I see Ronnie Hawkins there. I wave at him and he says, "Oh, it's Paul James. Let him in" I go in, see Ronnie. Ronnie says, "You're looking to see Bob?" I said, "Yeah, I thought I might say hello." He said, "Elvis has left the building."
What happens when he finishes the show, he gets right onto the bus. He’s on the road before people get out of their seats.
I go to leave. I'm walking to my van, and then this girl comes out of nowhere and says, "Are you Paul James?" "Yeah." "You want to see Bob?" "Yeah." "Follow me."
I followed her car down the highway. We get to a hotel a little ways out. The parking lot is like a football field. All the cars are parked up close to where the hotel is. Meanwhile, at the very back, there's this bus under the trees. She drives over there. There’s Bob, and he's laughing. He says, "Did you bring a guitar with you?" I said, "I got one in my van." He said, "Play ‘Hot Tamales’ for me." It's a Robert Johnson song. I recorded on my first album, and he had that. So I did.
We sat and we talked and played a little bit. That's when he was wearing the hoodies. He had these nice bicycles that he was biking around the city on, with his hoodie on.
1991 - Paul opens for Bob
The next time he's coming to town, it was at Canada's Wonderland [an amusement park containing the Kingswood Theatre venue]. Three or four days before the show, I get a call. They want me to open the show. They want me to play solo acoustic, do the Robert Johnson stuff and all that jazz.
Before the show, I'm sitting in my dressing room and a knock was on the door. I open it up and there's Bob. He's got a hoodie on and he's got a baseball cap. He comes in. "What kind of guitar you got?" I go, "I got a National Steel Body, I got this…" We just talked about nothing. Then he says, "Okay, have a good show." And he's gone.
1999 (I think) - One of Paul’s most memorable sit-ins
[Note: This video actually comes from a different sit-in a couple years later. The good stories and the good videos don’t always overlap perfectly! ]
The thing that's funny is I never know that I'm getting up, ever.
For this show, I got on the guest list and I got a backstage pass. I went backstage. I saw Bob and he said, "Oh, you got in. Hey, how are you?"
You're basically having no interaction between all these? He vanishes and he's gone.
That's right. Everything was like a strobe effect.
So I'm backstage, and he's happy that I'm there. He said, "Okay, enjoy the show." Then he goes on. I figure, okay, well, I'm not going to see him anymore.
The view from backstage wasn't very good. You got the side angle, and the sound wasn't as nice as in the front. My girlfriend, who hadn’t been given a backstage pass, was in the front. But there was all this beer backstage. So I filled up two beers and I went out front with my girlfriend. We’d watch the show, and then I’d go backstage and get two more beers. I'd be going back and forth five or six times.
Once when I'm coming out with two more beers, this guy says, "You Paul James?" I go, "Uh-oh, I'm busted. I shouldn't be doing this." I said, "Yes?" He says, "Bob wants you on stage right now." I said, "What?" I ask, “Does he have a guitar up there?” “Yep.” “He's got an amp?” “Yes, he got it all set up.”
Then I hear [Bob say] over the speakers, "I got a friend here tonight. His name is Paul James, maybe you've seen him around." He talks so funny. "I just saw him out there a minute ago."
[“I have an old friend here. Tried to get him in my band a long time ago. He had his own thing to do, but he’s here backstage and we’re gonna try to get him out and play. His name is Paul James, if you can see him around. I don’t know, I just saw him out there a minute ago. Hey Paul, come on up here!”]
2008 - Paul auditions live on stage
In 2008, I'm going to one of his shows again. He's playing in Hamilton, not Toronto, at Copps Coliseum. These big guys come over to me and say, "You Paul James?" "Yes." "Here's your tickets. At the encore, we're going to come and get you and bring you backstage." I said, "Okay, Great." Sure enough, at the end of it, when the band leaves the stage before the encore, they show up, they take me down there, and they bring me backstage. It's almost like an X on the floor, "Stand right here and just wait there." "Okay." I waited.
Bob finished the encore. He came out, and sauntered over by himself. "Hey, how are you?" Then we started talking. He says, "Hey, was that you playing with Mink?" They had just put a DVD out of my performance with Mink DeVille at Montreux in 1982.
Bob had seen the DVD?
Yes. He was a fan of Mink DeVille. I didn't realize that. He asked me, "How did you do that stuff with the two guitar solos going on at the same time?" I said, "Oh well, it was Willie [DeVille]'s band, so he was soloing. If he'd go up, I'd go down. We could mesh together.” It was this song called “Lipstick Traces” that I guess he was referring to.
It was interesting because, if you look at stuff that he's doing with Eric Clapton later on, they got that same two-guitar solo thing going on. Eric could be playing a solo while Bob was playing a solo. I think it was on “Not Dark Yet.”
Anyway, for me it’s like second nature to do that. So he says, "Do you think you could play guitar for me?" I went, "Well, yeah." He said, "You'd be playing the lead, not the rhythm. Because I have two guitar players." "Yeah, sure." He said, "Okay, well, let me think about that for now” or whatever. I was like, "Oh God."
I started listening to a lot of Bob's stuff. I go to Bill Pagel’s website where he’s got all the setlists of shows. I started looking there to see what songs he was playing. In the last 10 years now, his setlists don't vary that much, but back then, it was almost like a different show every night. On a tour, he'd do something like 100 songs. He'd do 17 or 18 a show, but it'd be different ones each night. If you ever had to sit in, it'd be almost impossible to guess what songs you're going to do. And he does everything in different keys than he recorded them in, and he does different arrangements for all the songs.
Anyway, so then I got a call from his manager Jeff Rosen. He said, "Can you come down to California tomorrow?" They wanted me to come down right away and join the band for that tour. We were going to rehearse for two or three days and hit the road.
Now, I do all my own business. I had all these gigs that I was going to play, so I had signed these union contracts and stuff. If you don't show up, you can get sued. I said, "I'll have to get out of a whole bunch of stuff, but I think I can do it." I was so responsible, you know? I just couldn't get it together fast enough.
Then Jeff called me back, he says, "Okay, forget about it. Maybe what we'll do is we'll get you to jump in when we come through." Sure enough, Bob was coming to town. They weren't playing Toronto; they were playing London [Ontario] and Oshawa. The night before the first show, Jeff Rosen calls me and says, "Are you still going to those two shows?" I said yes. He says, "Bob wants you to bring your guitar." "Okay, what's he got on mind?" "He's going to pull his two guitar players off the stage, and you’re going to do the first five songs both nights."
I said, "Do you know what songs he's going to do?" Because like I was saying, he was doing 100 songs, and I don't know every one of his songs. Plus the arrangements were different and the keys were different. To get out there and be the only guitar player, I was thinking, I just want to do as good a job as I possibly can. I'd like to listen to the song, know the arrangement a bit. Jeff says, "He'll tell you when you get there." I start looking through Bill Pagel's site. What songs has he been doing? And every night is a different show. It's like, aw shit.
There was a soundcheck. That's when I found out what songs we were going to do. We didn't run down any full song or anything. We did a verse or two max of each song in its new arrangement with its new key, and that's it. I think about a half hour. We went backstage, and I was going, "Oh God.” Everything was in A flat, C sharp.
Oh, because Bob's playing piano mostly at this point. He's using piano keys probably.
Yeah, there was no A, C, G, D.
We did “Stuck Inside of Mobile,” and I had to start it. It was funny because he gave me three solos in the song. There really aren’t any solos in that song originally.
I was looking at the setlists and you played practically totally different songs both nights. So it's not like by night two you know the routine.
Yes, that’s exactly right. I think he did “The Levee's Gonna Break” both times. That was the only one he repeated.
I was so nervous. I don't get nervous when I go on stage, but I was hoping to remember all the changes and stuff. Because they weren't like three-chord songs. They were all like “Spirit on the Water.” He was throwing solos at me for all of them, too.
Something like “Tangled up in Blue,” it was a totally different arrangement. I guess he was just waiting for me to start and he went like [plays riff] on the harmonica. I do the song now and I do that same riff. I remembered it later, the exact thing that he did. I made up a harmonica solo at the beginning based on that riff he played.
Anyway, so then after the second show, [road manager] Jeff Kramer comes over and says, "You're going to play with Bob. You got the gig." Then they're gone. I'm sitting there going, "Oh my God, I'm going to play with Bob Dylan!"
Then I start thinking. In a way, I understood exactly the dilemma that Larry Campbell had in your interview. You don't have a life anymore. You're dedicating your life to playing guitar for Bob Dylan. You have to be on call at all times. I'd have to leave home. I had a new girlfriend and it was like, I may as well forget about having a relationship. To me, it was the gig that you hope and fear to get.
Then near the end of the tour [it was technically a few months later, not that same tour], Charlie Sexton sits in. In Austin, which is where he's from. He had been in the band already before, and I think he wanted back in. I think he wanted back in badly.
For me to be in the band, being from Canada and the distance between everybody and all that, I think that just made it difficult. And I think that the fact that Charlie wanted in, and he already knew all stuff because he was there already, Bob went for it.
Anyway, it was interesting. Simple twist of fate.
He's an older guy now, and he's busy. I know that doing these shows is a lot. But him getting me up so many times, it was always humorous and fun. I never knew. I never, ever knew.
2022 - Paul’s Dylan tribute shows
Some clubs, every year they'd do a Bob Dylan tribute show on his birthday. Everyone would do three Bob Dylan songs or whatever. Most everyone had to have a cheat sheet just to know the words, because learning a Bob song is a little bit different than learning, 'I'm going to Kansas City / Kansas City here I come.' It's like 'Early one morning the sun was shining” and then there's nine verses of that and you're not even halfway through.
When they do these tribute shows, I'd always get the call. People have always liked the way I did Dylan stuff, and it rang true to me. It's like putting on a shirt. If it fits well and people say it looks good on you, then you like the shirt. People liked the way I did the songs so they stayed in my repertoire.
So I knew a lot of the songs already. When I was playing solo, I included stuff like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Don’t Think Twice” and “I Shall Be Free.” These are all songs that I'd lived with. They were part of my DNA. My versions of his songs are closer to the original recordings than his.
The first time I thought of doing my own tribute show was when my friend John Hammond did an album of all Tom Waits songs [2001’s Wicked Grin]. At that time, I contacted Bob and told him I was thinking of doing something like that. He asked me to record “It's All Over Now Baby Blue,” and I did. I did my own version, kind of a Spanish-y take on it.
So I thought about it for thirty years. And then I finally did the show in 2020. It was the best night I ever had. And then Covid came the following week. But we finally were able to do a second show in fall of 2021, and now this will be the third. To me it's really fun because it's different, like flexing a different muscle than my own shows. It's like if you're an actor, you're in Twelfth Night and then Romeo and Juliet and then Macbeth.
I would never try and clone Bob. I get told I look like him a bit, with the hair and all that jazz, but that wasn't something I was trying to do. That's something that just is.
Thanks Paul! In addition doing to the Dylan show on Wednesday, Paul is putting on a number of his own shows at CNE in Toronto with The Paul James Band. Find more info at his Facebook page.
Update October 2022:
Subscribe to get more Dylan-in-concert newsletters delivered straight to your inbox! The second half of my interview with Bob’s ‘90s drummer Winston Watson coming soon. Then: Peter, Paul, & Mary’s Noel Paul Stookey.