Bob Dylan did three Gospel Tours, one in 1979 and two in 1980. The 1979 tour took place in November and early-December, and featured 26 shows in just six cities (almost half the shows took place in San Francisco at the Fox Warfield Theatre). The second tour picked up after Christmas, on January 11, 1980, and ran through February 9. This was 24 shows on a very strange itinerary stretching from the Pacific Northwest then down and across the country to West Virginia (it seems no one had ever seen a map). The third tour, in April and May, covered 27 shows starting in Toronto and then heading into the northeastern United States and ending in the midwest.
Of the shows from these tours that I’ve listened to this week, the best is, without any question, the April 20, 1980 show from Toronto at Massey Hall (the fourth show in that venue, and the fourth of the third tour). This one was professionally recorded by Dylan’s tour, possibly for a documentary that was never produced. The sound recording on the bootleg (The Born Again Music) is exceptional and, unlike a lot of Dylan bootlegs, it includes the entire show, not just the Dylan performance. It would not shock me to find that this would be eventually get an official Bootleg Series release – the quality is that strong.
The shows at this point were pretty consistent in their format. They opened with Terry Young playing piano and Dylan’s back-up singers (Clydie King, Gwen Evans, Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Regina Havis, and Mona Lisa Young) singing six or seven gospel songs. This Toronto show opens with one of them telling a long story about a woman with no ticket who is gonna ride that train with Jesus. It has the feeling of a gospel revival. I like this opening, but Rebecca just said that it got annoying. The crowd is initially enthusiastic, but the applause does calm down to “polite” by about the seventh song before Dylan comes on stage. Rebecca seems typical in this regard.
The crowd at the April 20th show seemed pretty happy with the music that they were served, although that isn’t always the case with other audiences. At the first Toronto show some wag with a bootleg of The Royal Albert Hall yelled “Judas!” at him after “Precious Angel”, and “I don’t believe you!”. Instead of telling his band to “play it fucking loud”, Dylan simply responded: “That’s all right, I wanted to say it anyway”. (Someone at the same show calls out for “If Dogs Run Free”, might be the only time that ever happened). It seems that not everyone read the music press, and knew what was going to happen.
For his part, Dylan generally performed close to the entirety of Slow Train Coming and Saved. At this show he doesn’t do “Covenant Woman”, but he did it the night before. A couple of new religious songs are worked out, including “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Nobody” and “Cover Down, Break Through” (which had its debut at the first Toronto show). He played none of his non-religious music on the tour with the exception of the Pittsburgh show on 16 May, where the band played a fragment of “Lay Lady Lay” and Dylan told the crowd that they would play it if the audience could sing it.
Here’s the thing, though, these were really strong shows. Just listening to Dylan sing “When He Returns” at this moment and he is pouring himself into it. For the first time in years Dylan seems to genuinely care about what he is singing on stage. They’re not just words that he’s written, but words that he believes with all of his being. I think you might have to go back to 1963 or 1964 to hear him sing so much likes he really, really means it.
It’s quite the paradox. These are some of Dylan’s strongest vocal performances, but he isn’t playing the material that most people (including, truth be told, me) would want to hear in such strong versions. Dylan does what he wants. You can go with it, or you can forget about it. I’m obviously going with it.
This show also features Dylan’s longest speech since Arizona, and he actually discusses that show. Here’s the video of that (followed by a great version of “Solid Rock”):
And here’s the text if you want to follow along:
Man asked me on the street today, he said, “Well, if you believe all those things,” he said, “I just can’t seem to love my enemy.” That’s a tough thing to do, you know? That’s an impossible thing to do actually. Cause the natural mind, you know, can’t comprehend that. So if you’re in the natural mind you just can’t comprehend loving your enemy. That seems like a foolish thing to do, and it is. However, the supernatural mind can comprehend that. So when Jesus says “love thy neighbor as thyself,” he wasn’t exactly saying “roll over and play dead.” Actually, I wanna tell you a story here. We were playing in…about four months ago someplace, it was a college campus, I forget exactly where, Arizona, I think it was. Is that where it was? Where you there? All right. Anyway, I read the Bible a lot, you know, I mean it just happens I do and…So it says certain things in the Bible that I wasn’t really aware of until just recently. And, you know, at universities, you know, it’s like…they have a higher learning people there. They teach them different…like philosophies, so people they study all these different philosophies like Plato and who else now? Who? Jimmy Reed. Well, I can’t remember all their names. Nietzsche and those people like that. Anyway, in the Bible it has specific…it tells you specific things and in the Book of Daniel, and in the Book of Revelation, which just might apply to these times here. And it says certain wars are gonna, soon about gonna happen. I can’t say exactly when, you know, but say, pretty soon anyway and…So, at that time, you know, it mentions a country to the furthermost north and it has its symbol: the bear. It’s also is spelt R O S H in the Bible, now, this is written quite a few years ago, so it can’t really but apply to one country that I know. Unless you know another country that it can apply to. Maybe you do, I don’t. But then there’s another country called, I can’t remember what the name of it is, but it’s in the eastern part of the world and it’s got an army of 200 million foot soldiers. Now there’s only one country that that could actually be. So anyway, I was telling this story to these people. I shouldn’t have been telling it to them, I just got carried away. And…I mentioned to them, “Well, you all watch now because Russia is gonna come down and attack the Middle East.” It says this in the Bible. And I been reading all kinds of books my whole life, magazines, books, whatever I could get my hands on, anywhere, and I never found any truth in any of them, if you wanna know the truth. But these things in the Bible they seem to uplift me and tell me the truth. So I said this country is gonna come down and attack, and all these people, there must have been 50,000…[voice of band member): “If there was one.”] If there was one, that’s right. No, I don’t know, there wasn’t 50,000, there was, I don’t know, maybe 3,000, they all just booed. You know, like they usually do, they just booed. I said Russia’s gonna attack the Middle East and they all went “boo”. They couldn’t hear that, they didn’t believe it. And a month, a month later Russia moved their troops into, I think, Afghanistan, it was, and the whole situation changed, you know. I’m not saying this to tell you, you know, that they was wrong and I was right or anything like that. But these things that is mentioned in the Bible I pay mighty close attention to. So it does say that, talking about this man here called Anti-Christ. Now we’ve had a lot of previews of what the Anti-Christ could be like. We had that Jim Jones, he’s like a preview. We had Adolf Hitler, a preview. Anyway, the Anti-Christ is gonna be a little bit different than that. He’s gonna bring peace to the world for a certain length of time. But he will eventually be defeated to. Supernaturally defeated. And God will intervene. But you’re still gonna have to be aware of these things. You need something strong to hang on to. I don’t know what you got to hang on to, but I got something called a solid rock to hang on to that was manifested in the flesh, and justified in the spirit, and seen by angels, preached on in the world.
So, there’s that.
I’m sure that most of this show – perhaps all of it – is available on YouTube. I’ll leave you with this heartfelt version of “I Believe in You”, whose lyrics,
And they, they look at me and frown
They’d like to drive me from this town
They don’t want me around
’Cause I believe in you
Seem to summarize the relation of Dylan and his fans through this entire period.