Whenever Dylan played with The Band, magic happened. Sometimes it was rough and ragged magic — Robbie Robertson one famously said, “Dylan wanted us to play the songs, he didn’t want us to learn them” — but the roughness and raggedness, the energy exploding on the extreme edges of control, were essential parts of the magic.
Dylan played with The Band at the Isle Of Wight concert in 1969 and a remixed and remastered recording of the concert has just been released as part of the deluxe edition of the new Dylan box set Another Self Portrait. It’s absolutely astonishing.
It’s new evidence that The Band was the greatest back-up group of all time. When Dylan wants to rock out, as on “Highway 61”, The Band rocks him into the stratosphere. When he wants to be tender, as on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, The Band cradles him in sweet but never saccharine lyricism.
Dylan’s intellectualism could get a bit precious at times, but The Band always took him back to the roadhouses where the music he really loved was born. When Levon Helm adds his Arkansas howl to “Highway 61”, Dylan isn’t just referencing the legendary road anymore, he’s singing a song in a joint by the side of it. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” is transformed from something dangerously close to a country ballad pastiche into a late-night bandstand salute to fucking.
But there is something deeper going on here. Dylan’s acoustic set shows us an artist striving for something new in his art — for a naked emotional commitment to his material which would transcend the hipster cool of Blonde On Blonde, the intellectual sang-froid of John Wesley Harding.
When he embraced a country idiom at the end of the latter album, and then made Nashville Skyline, he was moving in that direction, but he wore the country idiom like a mask. It wasn’t what he was really after. He got what he was after in his vocal for Lay, Lady, Lay in this concert — something beyond the crooner’s mellifluous tone and a country-music languor, something closer to what Sinatra had mastered, the ability to sing without a mask, as Dylan once described Sinatra’s gift.
This concert is the key to Self Portrait and its expanded version Another Self Portrait. It shows us what Dylan was searching for in the grab-bag of songs he recorded not long after the Isle Of Wight concert. Shedding one more layer of skin, he was looking for what lay behind the “protest” songs, the hipster songs, the pastiche songs. He wanted to perform music that smelled of beer joints, vibrated with genuine heartache, conversed on equal and intimate terms with the ghosts of the American past.
He found a bit of all that with The Band in this concert, every song of which is amazing on one level or another. It is simply, for all its raggedness, one of the greatest live rock recordings of all time.