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Some years back, Dylan superfan Marcel Levesque set out to analytically determine the Never Ending Tour show with the "rarest" setlist. His methodology: He put a point value on every song in a show, based on how many times it has ever been played, added them all up, and divided that by the total number of songs in a show. Like golf, the show with the lowest number wins. He didn't do this with every Never Ending Tour show (he'd probably still be at it), but with every one that seemed an obvious contender.
The winner: September 23, 1995, at The Edge in Fort Lauderdale.
But wait! That doesn’t really count as a regular show. It was set up as a private rehearsal in front of an invite-only audience (similar to Toad's Place five years prior, which would also surely rank high under this system). Moreover, it was Dylan's first show since Jerry Garcia's death the month prior, and Dylan used the show as a wake of sorts, with a lot of one-off Dead covers.
So, for the purposes of finding the rarest normal show, forget that. In Marcel's analysis, what came in as the regular, random, run-of-the-mill tour stop with the rarest set list?
July 29, 1989 at Kingswood Music Theatre in Maple, Ontario.
This information will immediately set a certain kind of fan salivating. But let me dry those mouths up front. Levesque, as it happens, lives in Toronto, and attended that show. His review? "The worst Dylan show I've ever attended."
Guess the set list isn't everything.
About that set list. Three of its fifteen songs are ones Bob has played less than ten times ever: Shot of Love deep cut "Trouble" to open plus two covers: Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" and Ernest Tubb's "Hey La La." Having 20% of the show be such obscurities alone might have pushed this atop Marcel’s ranking, but adding not-that-rare-but-still-rare-enough songs "Tears of Rage" and "Gates of Eden" surely clinched it.
The jam band world has a term I don't see used around Dylan much: a "bust out." The concept being that Phish or the Dead or whoever "busted out" a song that hadn't been played in X number of shows. Yes, they count exactly; some even used to make banners: "125 shows since a 'Dark Star' or whatever.
Side note: As not a big jam band guy, I Googled to make sure I was remembering the term correctly. The first relevant thing that pops up is a lengthy Phish fan forum thread trying to precisely define what qualifies. They never reach a consensus, and it soon devolves into discussion of a topless girl seen at a recent show. That’s a different type of "bust out."
I've never seen Dylan fans count "bust out"s to a Deadhead's letter of precision (nor do I have much evidence of the other type of bust out at a Dylan show - unless you count the '80s when Bob left his shirts a little too unbuttoned), but we certainly fetishize rarity.
Or we did, at least. That method of Dylanology has gotten a little harder in recent years as Dylan's setlists became static. Some tours he'll still surprise with an obscure song the first night - but then he’ll play it every night until it's as un-rare as a Donald Trump steak. There's a rather obvious upside there: He learns to play a rare song well.
One night in 2013, he "busted out" 2002's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood soundtrack song "Waiting for You," a song even hardcore fans had all but forgotten (to be fair, it is somewhat forgettable). Then he proceeded to play it for over 150 concerts in a row. It was a lot less surprising by show 150. But it probably sounded better than it did on night one too.
Back to this '89 show. In what august chamber did he perform this set full of cool rarities? An amusement park. Canada's Wonderland, specifically. To be fair, it was in a theater at the amusement park - I don't think the crowd was getting soaked by Splash Mountain mid-song - but still. The ticket notes that if you want to hit the rides before Bob, a separate park admission fee is required. A day of fun and sun at the amusement park followed by a show from 1989-era Dylan - now that's a real roller coaster! (oof sorry)
Though the performance doesn't meet the promise of the setlist, I still enjoyed it more than I expected after reading Marcel's review. True, Bob in 1989 isn't going to win any awards for nuanced vocal delivery. What's that line about how Tom Waits sounds like he swallowed a pack of razor blades? Bob sounds like he already did that, and is now in the process of burping them all back up. But his raggedy band matches that energy. The early Never Ending Tour shows are the closest Bob has ever come to fronting a garage band on the road. And if the bootleg sounds like it was recorded in an actual garage, so much the better.
Marcel came around too. In his book Confessions of a Dylanomaniac (a fun self-published Dylan-memoir-slash-travelogue), he writes “in retrospect, it was a Class A setlist, and the performances were not as bad as I’d thought, though we were in the danger zone with ‘tightrope’ Bob at this time.” Still, not exactly a ringing endorsement. A cool setlist can get you far, but rarity isn't everything.