New Pony Records
Title for nov1679
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  • November 16, 1979 Warfield Theater San Francisco, CA
  • December 3, 1980 Paramount Theater Portland, OR
  • July 25, 1981 Earls Court London, England
  • October 17, 1987 Wembley Arena London, England
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Liner Notes

November 16th finds Bob Dylan and his band midway through the first leg of their tumultuous 1979-80 “Gospel Tour.” The tour kicked off November 1, 1979 with a crisp new album, Slow Train Coming, selling briskly and another album worth of new, unreleased, material in hand. Unknown to the fans filing into the Warfield Theater in San Francisco that first evening, Dylan was determined to make a dramatic break with his past performing career in favor of these new songs and the message they carried.

The entire autumn leg follows the pattern set that first night. Backing vocalist Regina McCrary Havis’ introductory monologue followed by six traditional spirituals performed by the three backing singers: Havis, Helena Springs, and Mona Lisa Young. Sadly, many of these sets have been edited from circulating tapes over the years, but they are presented here in their entirety, to stunning effect. Dylan then joins them onstage to perform a set dominated by songs from Slow Train Coming. There follows an interlude comprised of the then-as-yet unreleased Covenant Woman and a song performed by one of the backing singers. The second half is dominated by songs which would eventually appear on the Saved album, released seven months after this concert. Dylan and the band then return for two encores; a rollicking rave-up (still unreleased) Blessed is the Name of the Lord and a monumental Pressing On with Dylan on piano. Throughout the tour, Dylan steadfastly refused to play any of his older compositions despite constant, plaintive requests from the audience.

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It is difficult to recall the disorienting, even traumatizing, effect these concerts had within the popular press and among Dylan’s fans worldwide. As with Slow Train Coming itself, the reaction to these concerts were widely divergent. Much of the local and national press coverage was scathing, punishing Dylan for adopting a doctrine after so many years as a trailblazer, resenting his clear determination to break with his past in favor of an evangelical mission. Many Dylan fans have never reconciled themselves to Dylan’s uncompromising faith during this period. Indeed, there is a smattering of discontent to be heard on these tapes as well, particularly during performances of the unreleased songs which were totally unfamiliar to the audience. This smattering, however, is completely overshadowed by the broader audience response each evening as they warm to the songs and are won over by the passion of these performances.

This is the valedictory concert concluding an unprecedented fourteen consecutive dates Dylan played at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater to kick off his tour. The nerves and most of the kinks which were so apparent on the first few nights have been worked out. The backlash by the popular local and national press have been weathered, in part, by the rapturous response of the audience members there to hear what Dylan has to offer. As is so often the case, Dylan has disappointed those expecting to hear and see an icon of popular culture. Yet, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear — by no means solely Christian eyes and ears — Dylan delivers an extraordinary body of work.

For those accustomed to the crystalline sound of Slow Train Coming and the oddly distant Saved, this evening provides a number of performances which ought to change minds about the strength of these songs and the tremendous artistic conviction they convey. Gotta Serve Somebody and I Believe in You kick off Dylan’s set with a challenge and Dylan’s answer. Dylan performs When He Returns alone at the front of the stage with his electric guitar, accompanied by Spooner Oldham’s understated electric piano. Dylan’s vocal performance here is a revelation as he draws taut the space between audience and singer and plays out the melodic thread in an unexpectedly raw, plaintive, yet utterly self-assured manner. Slow Train becomes an epic protest song against a world which defies his comprehension.

The concert is uniformly powerful, but really hits its stride with Solid Rock, Saving Grace, Saved and What Can I Do For You, which form the spiritual homestretch of these concerts. In these four songs, Dylan alternately puts the band through quintessential rock-n-roll rave ups and astonishingly intimate confessions, the former stirring the audience to a lather, silencing them on a whisper with the latter. Here Dylan exhibits his mastery of the live performance, tearing through Solid Rock and, in a matter of seconds, undermining raucous applause as he draws the entire theater in to the gentle prayer: “If you find it in your heart, can I be forgiven?” He then reaccelerates, ripping through the double-barreled gospel stomp, Saved, then draws them all back in for the plaintive What Can I Do For You; each time, first moving their bodies, then hanging them on every note of his circuitous guitar and harp solos. The sheer audacity Dylan displays in these performances; or simple brazen faith Dylan has in his music and his message during these concerts, is a monument to the man's artistry and his determination to bring his art to bear on the full scope of his experience. The audience, believer and non-believer alike, are left dumbstruck and cheering for more.

In retrospect, the coherence of Dylan’s musical vision is clear and its execution is admirable, particularly as complements to the studio treatments of these compositions on Slow Train Coming and Saved. He has subsumed his own wandering genius within the strict and carefully choreographed structure of a small, tight band and an unwavering set list which carefully balances the rapture and prayers of his faith within the vocabulary of stripped-down gospel music. Underpinning the Christian message of his new songs, there is a revivalist fervor to the music itself as Dylan seeks to reappropriate a vital source for what has become rock-and-roll. To those willing to listen, for those who arrived at the Warfield Theater ready to hear what Dylan wanted to play, the result is nothing short of a musical and artistic revelation.

Overall, the autumn leg was, and still sounds like, a tremendous artistic success. Dylan seems more focused, more dedicated to the songs he’s performing, and less obscured by the spectacle of his stardom, than at any other time in his career. There is a freshness to these autumn performances — and to Dylan’s own faith — which slowly fades with winter. Dylan increasingly launches into monologues regarding biblical prophecy and impending cataclysm. Early on, he presents Judgment Day as a simple statement of fact, inviting the audience to acknowledge its truth. Whether provoked by accumulated public criticism, shouts from the crowd, or something else, by late November these monologues lengthen and grow more ominous. Come January 1980, a more determined, less inviting Dylan will emerge. The wonderful majesty of the unreleased songs will strangely elude capture in the recording studio during the Saved sessions in February. By the following November, little hint remains of the unique energy which suffuses these autumn concerts. Fortunately, we have the recordings.

Disc One
if i got my ticket, lord
it’s gonna rain
do lord, remember me
look up and live by faith
oh freedom
this train
gotta serve somebody
i believe in you
when you gonna wake up
when he returns
man gave names to all the animals
precious angel
slow train
Disc Two
covenant woman
ain’t no man righteous
god uses ordinary people
gonna change my way of thinking
do right to me baby
solid rock
saving grace
saved
what can i do for you
in the garden
blessed is the name
pressing on

Click this symbol to hear one-minute samples of these selected songs. These are 128kbps samples which, depending upon your connection speed, may play instaneously on high broadband, but may take several minutes to begin playing for dial up connections.

Buy These Official Releases Now
Slow Train Coming — August 20, 1979
Saved — June 20, 1980