A Look At Bob Dylan In The '90s by Ian Low

The sixties saw Bob Dylan at his utmost peak of his creative powers, churning out album after album of brilliant material and equally breathtaking performances. The trilogy of records released during the mid-sixties set a new level of artistic excellence and consistency hardly found these days. I am, of course, referring to Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

The '70s saw a completely different aspect of Dylan, one which was surprisingly erratic and unfocused, alternating between astonishing masterpieces like Blood On The Tracks and absolute embarrassments like Self-Portrait. At the end of the decade, Dylan just about confounded everyone by turning to Christianity for another trilogy of Gospel-influenced albums.

But, if the '70s was a period of confusion for Dylan fans, the '80s simply irritated them. Most of his work released during this period have been generally lackluster and lacking in spirit. It seems like he was sleepwalking through his studio session, and in live concerts as well. Brilliant songs like "Blind Willie McTell" and "Series Of Dreams" were shockingly left off his official albums and he turned to doing numerous covers for a number of irrelevant records.

Thankfully, towards the end of the decade, Dylan suddenly surprised everyone again by returning to form with a pair of outstanding albums, Oh Mercy and Under The Red Sky. They may lack the importance and quality of his '60s work, but nevertheless, they showed that the old master still has it when it matters most. Although several critics panned the latter album, there was, however, sufficient evidence that Dylan was slowly, but steadily returning to form.

In '91, Columbia released a 3-CD boxed set of rare and unreleased Dylan tracks, appropriately titled The Bootleg Series Vols 1 - 3 to much critical acclaim. Suddenly, Dylan became hip again with a younger generation that has been fed with an overabundance of MTV videos. His live performances were still in a shambles however, but occasionally he would turn in a performance that would still turn heads. Notable examples during this period are found on the bootlegs, San Jose Revisited and Belgrad '91. Not vintage Dylan, but better than he has been for quite some time.

The biggest concert event in '92 was unquestionably Dylan's 30th anniversary concert in Madison Square Garden. Organised by Columbia, it united a rock alumni that included Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young among others. It was an event on the scale of Live Aid, with live telecasts throughout the world and worldwide media attention given to it. In the end, everyone just realised what an important songwriter he is as the songs simply stood out more than the galaxy of stars that had assembled for the night. This was just the beginning of the revival ...

For his next two studio albums, Dylan would turn to doing something that he has failed so far - recording covers. This time however, he decided to abandon a backing band and resorted to playing acoustic and doing it solo as well. The first of these, Good As I Have Been To You, showed some of the finest guitar playing of Dylan's entire career. The mood was decidedly folk and blues, and the songs were a mix of familiar blues standards like "Sittin' On Top Of The World" and eclectic folk traditionals like "Froggie Went A-Courtin'". The album wasn't a classic, but it kept up the Dylan tradition of doing the unexpected. And, it was certainly better than Self-Portrait and Down In The Groove.

The following record, World Gone Wrong restored Dylan's status as a bona fide rock genius. His selection of covers this time was simply obscure. Yet the performance he gives is truly outstanding. This is the voice of a folk troubadour that has lived through the songs that he sings, and these are songs that are very close to his heart. The album deservedly picked up a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in the following year's Grammy Awards ceremony.

With Dylan going on a Far East Tour at the beginning of 1994, I was fortunately to catch him in concert as he made a stopover in Singapore. His performances had significantly improved from the zombie shows he used to give just a couple of years ago. His songs now include longer solos and his phrasing is now more distinct and clear, as if he wants the audience to know he can sing again. His band is an altogether more tighter outfit, featuring young but vibrant members like drummer Winston Watson.

The 2nd Woodstock concert only reaffirmed his legendary status one of rock's greatest. His performance was energetic, powerful and eventually stunning. He followed that up with a series of well-received and acclaimed performances throughout America, culminating in the MTV Unplugged show. On it, he defied critics' expectations and gave such an emotional rendition of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" that even the young and hip MTV crowd could do nothing but gave a continuous standing ovation to the old master.

That completed, he continued his streak of excellent concert performances throughout the rest of 1995 and 1996. It is, as if, he had a mission to accomplish. Dylan was showing the whole world that at over fifty, he is still a vital performer in the land of rock and roll. The only he could complete this triumph would be a new release of songs in the second half of the decade, something that has not happened since 1990's Under The Red Sky.

There have been rumors of a new Dylan release of new songs recorded with Oh Mercy's Daniel Lanois, and reports out so far have been very positive. But only time will tell if Dylan would resort to his eccentric ways like in the past and abruptly scrapped the tapes. In the meantime, we can only hope that the tide that Dylan is riding on will continue to rise ...

Ian Low
27 May 1997

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