Bob Dylan's Biggest Non-Newport Folk Festival Performances: Concert for Bangladesh, More
Fans and promoters at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island will spend the entire weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of the occasion when Bob Dylan first took the stage with an electric guitar, thrilling some of the audience and alienating just as many, who felt betrayed by the folk icon taking a more rock 'n' roll approach to his genre. Given 50 years to think about it, and excellent albums such as Highway 61 Revisited as a result, the folks at Newport are feeling a bit more generous about what is now considered one of the most iconic live appearances of all time. It certainly goes down as the most momentous concert in Dylan's career, but don't think that he hasn't played a few other "big" shows in a career that stretches nearly 60 years. Here are a few other big live moments for The Bard:
The March On Washington (1963)
If there was one driving force in entertainment behind the Civil Rights movement, it should have been the music industry. After all, although sports and film were still relatively segregated at the time, people of all colors had been enjoying blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll from black performers for decades. That truth was on display during the monumental March on Washington in the form of Marian Anderson's "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands" and Mahalia Jackson's thrilling "How I Got Over," the second best performance to bless the podium on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day. Many a folk performer was in tow as well. Regardless of race, folk was the predominant genre behind social movement during the '60s, and acts such as Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary took to the podium to perform. Dylan played his tracks "When The Ship Comes In" and "Only A Pawn In Their Game," but his biggest hit at the time, "Blowin' In The Wind," was performers by the latter group, who had covered it with massive success on the pop charts. None of the musicians stood a chance however as the headliner, Martin Luther King, delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech, one of the greatest moments ever caught on tape or film.
Free Trade Hall, Manchester (1966)
Dylan didn't take any hints from the fans that booed his performance at the Newport Folk Festival the year prior, and he set out with The Band for a European tour during 1966 with both acoustic and electric guitars in tow. He split his gigs into two sets, opening with acoustic and closing with electric songs. The audiences abroad greeted him with the same disdain as American folk fans had and the media joined in. The most famous incident came during a show at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester (although it was mistakenly labeled as "Royal Albert Hall" on future releases). One fan shouted from the audience that Dylan was "Judas," to which Dylan replied nonsensically "I don't believe you! You're a liar" before telling The Band (more sensibly) to "play it f*ckin' loud!" and tearing into "Like A Rolling Stone." Although the concert in question was of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, it became a metaphor for Dylan's defiance of expectations. One group of individuals in attendance was enthralled by the set: The Beatles. George Harrison called the hecklers "idiots."
The Johnny Cash Show (1969)
It's easy to look at Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and see two figures divided frequently by political viewpoints, lyrical approach and even genre. In reality, the pair were among each other's biggest fans. When Dylan had first been signed to a record deal with Columbia, many considered the deal a mistake and the relatively low sales of his debut Bob Dylan seemed to confirm their feelings. Producer John Hammond was convinced he could make Dylan's act work, but a more relevant supporter was Cash, then a Columbia signee, and much bigger in stature than Dylan. The folk singer would remain close with Cash for many years, including starring as the inaugural music guest on The Johnny Cash Show when it hit the air from Ryman Auditorium in Nashville during 1969. Cash frequently grumbled about the clean-cut guests ABC forced him to host, but he put his foot down for outspoken folkies such as Dylan and Pete Seeger, while also hosting a number of his country buddies.
The Concert for Bangladesh (1971)
Dylan never forgets a good word, apparently. Harrison was the most vocal of The Beatles (a rare occasion) when it came to lambasting critics of Dylan's electric phase, and Dylan perhaps repaid the favor by appearing at Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. The two concerts were hosted at Madison Square Garden during 1971 in order to raise both funds and awareness for the Indian Ocean nation, which had just been wrecked by a cyclone, and was dealing with war from Pakistan. It was the first who's-who charity concert in history—featuring nearly every Beatle, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and others—yet Dylan's performance is seen by many as the highlight. Much of the reason was that he had hardly made any concert performances in the five year period between 1966-'71, and Harrison wasn't even sure he would follow through. But he did, playing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Blowin' In The Wind," "Just Like A Woman" and other tracks. The context for his performance was enough to drive the crowd nuts. Dylan would later take part in other huge charity concerts, such as Live Aid.
Woodstock '94 (1994)
Bob Dylan was one of several huge names that declined to play the original Woodstock during 1969, and the reason is debated to this day. Formally, he told organizers that his child was sick. Less formally was his distaste for the hippie movement. Apparently he saw the movement as a trend and not worth its salt for enacting actual change in the world...similar to the huge crowds of drunk kids that show up at every music festival nowadays. Dylan happened to live near Woodstock and the huge crowds of "druggies" only made his outlook more Cartman-esque. And of course, this was during the period where he hardly played live at all (although he would fly out to the Isle of Wight Festival just two weeks later). Whatever the reason for missing the first, Dylan decided to jump onboard with the second chapter of Woodstock 25 years later, although he probably found the scene a bit less in touch with his music. Although Nine Inch Nails might stand for everything that Dylan's early music doesn't, the Bard might have at least approached the honest cynicism.