Ray Padgett’s Top 10 Live Bob Dylan Tracks

In anticipation of Ray Padgett’s book of interviews with Bob Dylan collaborators, Pledging my Time (buy here), we asked the author for his top 10 live Bob Dylan tracks.

Ray Padgett: That Dylan is a great songwriter is by this point a given (it’s hard to argue against the first songwriter to win the Nobel). But many including myself argue that Dylan is a great performer too, on album but especially on the concert stage. He tours constantly, year after year, reinventing songs new and old on a nightly basis. Sometimes he’ll pull out an unexpected cover, sometimes he’ll play a song he never put on an album, and sometimes – extremely often, in fact – he’ll play a song you thought you knew an entirely different way.

Unfortunately, little of that work has gotten an official live release. But here, from throughout his six-decades-and-counting career, are ten performances that have.

[Note: these choices are in chronological order of live performance.]


10. “No More Auction Block” (Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, 1991)

If the melody of this traditional slave song sounds familiar, it’s because Dylan borrowed it for his own “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He’d continue to do that throughout his career (just compare the riff on his recent “False Prophet” with that of Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 B-side “If Lovin’ Is Believing”). Note that his label eventually released this entire 1962 concert at Greenwich Village folk club The Gaslight Cafe as a live album, but for whatever reason it’s not on streaming.


9. “Mama, You Been On My Mind” (Live 1964, Concert At Philharmonic Hall, The Bootleg Series Volume 6, 2004)

The first Dylan concert recording I ever heard, Live 1964, was released on March 30, 2004, just a few weeks after I’d seen the man in concert for the first time myself. It chronicles a Halloween show near the end of his folk era. He was still playing solo with acoustic guitar – “going electric” at Newport wouldn’t come for another eight months – but largely eschewing the political material for songs of love and laughter. It was also near the end of his time regularly dueting with Joan Baez, one of the few people who ever figured out how to sing with him. On this song, you can hear how hard he is to follow, as he drags out the opening notes of the verse and makes Baez guess when he’s going to move.


8. “One Too Many Mornings” (Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, The Bootleg Series Volume 4, 1998)

“Like a Rolling Stone” off this famous live recording is the more obvious choice – that’s the song he roars through after a heckler yells “Judas” – but with “One Too Many Mornings” you can hear him reinventing an old song into something new. That reinvention keeps people like me so interested in his live performances. As he says before a different sonic reinvention earlier in the set, “It used to go like that, and now it goes like this.”


7. “Isis” (Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Review, The Bootleg Series Volume 5, 2002)

As seen in the recent Martin Scorsese documentary for Netflix, Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue brought a circus atmosphere to small venues around New England and the East Coast in 1975. Performers at various dates includes Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and many others. The high point of Dylan’s set many nights came in the incendiary song “Isis.” It wouldn’t be released until the following January, on the album Desire, but this live version tops the album cut.


6. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (Bob Dylan At Budokan, 1978)

Though it didn’t hit “Judas” levels of animosity, many Dylan fans weren’t thrilled with Dylan’s 1978 tour – the biggest of his career thus far – and subsequent live album At Budokan, with its garish sax solos and backing singers and eyeliner. Personally, I love it. This flute-and-violin-heavy arrangement of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” will tell you immediately whether you’re in or out on the Bob-goes-Vegas sound.


5. “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” (Trouble No More 1979-1981, The Bootleg Series Volume 13, 2017)

As you might guess from the title, this song comes from Bob’s Christian period. It never made an album though, avoiding official release until the 2017 gospel box set Trouble No More. The backing singers (one of whom I’ve interviewed) shine.


4. “John Brown” (MTV Unplugged, 1995)

Another song left off an album, “John Brown” tells the story of an injured soldier who comes back from the war to his mother. Despite its obscurity, Dylan revisited it many times, including when he taped MTV Unplugged in 1995. A decade earlier, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch recalled Bob playing it on tour with them: “It’s pouring out of him like sweat. It feels effortless, but it’s killing me. Every line ripped me to shreds… Just thinking about it now can choke me up. That was the moment I was never the same on the tour again.”


3. “Mutineer” (Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon, 2004)

When Warren Zevon announced he was dying in 2002, Dylan began playing his songs in concert. Not just once or twice, but every night. And not just one song either, but three: “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” “Boom Boom Mancini,” and “Mutineer,” a recording of which was included on the posthumous tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich. Zevon’s label boss Danny Goldberg later recalled seeing an ailing Warren a few days after Dylan started covering his songs: “He looked at me and said, ‘You know, it’s almost worth it.'”


2. “High Water (For Charley Patton)” (Tell Tale Signs, Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006, The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, 2008)

Once Bob went electric in 1965, he never went back. On a track like this, you can see why he chooses to play with a band rather than strumming solo for the rest of his career. The musicians kick hard, and elevate Dylan’s vocals to new heights.


1. “It Takes a Train to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (Wynton Marsalis Septet United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas, 2018)

“Band” doesn’t always mean “rock band.” Dylan’s own backing groups often incorporate jazz touches, but here he fronts an actual jazz band, the Wynton Marsalis Septet. This “It Takes a Train to Laugh” takes a song that Dylan played back at Newport ’65, one of the three that got him booed for rocking too hard, and un-electrifies it almost 50 years later.


ABOUT RAY PADGETT

Ray Padgett writes the Flagging Down the Double E’s newsletter all about Bob Dylan in concert, and is currently crowdfunding the book Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members (out 2023). He has written two previous books. Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time (Sterling Publishing) came out in 2017. His entry in the 33 1/3 series, I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (Bloomsbury), came out in 2020.

He also runs Cover Me, the largest blog devoted to cover songs on the web, and write a second newsletter on Tom Waits songs. His writing has appeared in The New YorkerSPINThe AV ClubVice, and MOJO. You can find more information about his work here.

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