FIRST NET SHOW: June 7th 1988 Concord Pavilion, Concord CA

1 Subterranean Homesick Blues

2 Absolutely Sweet MarieHOME

3 Masters Of War

4 You’re A Big Girl Now

5 Gotta Serve Somebody

6 In The Garden

7 Man Of Constant Sorrow (Traditional, Acoustic)

8 The Lakes Of Pontchartrain (Traditional, Acoustic)

9 Boots Of Spanish Leather (Acoustic)

10 Driftin’ Too Far From Shore

11 Gates Of Eden

12 Like A Rolling Stone

13 Maggie’s Farm

After the years of big bands, string sections, horns and female backing singers, it must have been quite a shock to see Dylan take the stage flanked only by a three-piece band: Chris Parker on drums, G.E. Smith on lead guitar and Kenny Aaronson on bass. They looked and sounded like a band of rock and roll gangsters from the wrong side of the tracks. Neil Young was there too, though his presence was barely audible.

The opening show started with a shock as a fairly throaty Dylan sped through his first ever live performance of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. This proved so successful an opener that it remained in the starting slot throughout 1988. It was followed by an even greater live debut in “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, a point often overlooked by commentators in their excitement over “Subterranean”. This classic Blonde On Blonde song was treated to an aggressive rendition, with Dylan’s voice exploding into action as though he had been longing to get back to stripped-down rockers.

Guitars riffing like machine guns propelled Dylan next into an ominous “Masters Of War”. After this opening hard-hitting three-song salvo, Dylan’s voice had shed all vestiges of rustiness and the subsequent “You’re a Big Girl Now” had strong, clear vocals. Dylan now allowed himself a bit of space to squeeze tremendous emotion from phrases such as “back in the rain”. There were many more fine versions of this song to come in 1988, Dylan even rewriting a verse as the shows progressed. This was hardly remarked upon at the time, as rewriting a song from Blood On The Tracks for live performance was not unusual in those days; it certainly would cause more than a ripple in fan circles in later years.

Dylan’s first address to an NET audience followed: “All right, thank you; we got Neil Young here playing tonight.” Then he swung into “Gotta Serve Somebody”, a song that allows him the pleasure of playing around with rhyming couplets without changing the import of the chorus. Despite being given a kick-ass treatment it displayed a refreshing jauntiness, with Dylan enjoying changing the emphasis and playing with the song’s title line.

A dramatic, declamatory “In The Garden” was next, just in case anyone had missed the previous song’s Christian message amidst the exuberant, playful delivery. As a song, “In The Garden” just shades the early finger-pointing of “Who Killed Davey Moore?” in subtlety; the browbeating, rhetorical questioning has the same bludgeoning effect. When Dylan is into the song, though, as he was here, it drives along with power and sweeps you up in the moment. He performed it in a challenging, ranting style to close the first electric set; setting a trend for this spot in NET sets to be occupied by a theatrically key song. A trend which was, with only a few exceptions, to last for a long time.

The shocks did not stop. The acoustic set opened with “Man Of Constant Sorrow”, a traditional song that Dylan had covered on his debut album so many years before. This alternate version was beautiful, a splendid arrangement with expressive vocals. It was a worthy beginning to the extraordinary procession of traditional songs that Dylan would cover over the years of the NET. Night after night, year after year, they have supplied many of the high points. So fully does Dylan inhabit these numbers that they often sound more like Dylan songs than some he has penned himself. This was especially obvious in some later years, when, unlike 1988, he would sometimes toss off his own most familiar material with no feeling of being engaged in his own songs at all, and then suddenly come to life when interpreting a folk standard.

Back at Concord ’88, he was about to play another: “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain”, a magnificent, timeless song of unfulfilled love (“I asked her if she would marry me, she said that never could be/For she had got a lover, and he was far off at sea”). In Dylan’s hands, both here and many times since, you live the story with and through him. The same theme of unfulfilled love shot through Dylan’s contemporary album Down In The Groove in songs such as “Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)”: “You’re not free to come along with me/ And you know I could never be your own”.

So, the new record seemed, at this moment, to be present in spirit, though I doubt that this was much comfort to the record company executives who would surely have preferred to hear Dylan sing actual tracks from Down In The Groove. Then again fans who bought that release, which was so short on quality and in length, would have preferred the inclusion on the record of a few more traditional songs like “The Lakes Of Pontchartrain”.

Dylan brought this riveting acoustic set to an end with one of his own 'traditional' sounding songs, giving us an appealing version of “Boots Of Spanish Leather”.

Somewhere along the way the audience may have noticed they had no opportunity to give the customary rousing acclaim to Dylan’s harmonica-playing. In yet another surprise, Bob never played harmonica on the 1988 tour.

The second electric set opened with another debut, “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore”. It was too much to expect this feeble work to follow comfortably in the footsteps of the marvellous songs just played. Nonetheless, the first live outing of a newish Dylan song was exciting in itself, even if it was played as though it was the “Julius And Ethel” out-take from Infidels. The song itself is such a minor one that it was held over from the impoverished Empire Burlesque album and released on its near-catastrophic successor, Knocked Out Loaded. It shows. “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” also formed the B-side of Dylan’s current single. The A-side, “Silvio”, was soon to be unveiled in concert and would feature prominently for years to come.

Another surprise followed in an electric version of the usually acoustic “Gates Of Eden”; it was slow, but punchy and dramatic with a biting delivery. The guitar parts had obviously been worked on, and formed a compelling backdrop against which Dylan revealed his vision.

“Like A Rolling Stone” was the crowd-pleasing closer; Dylan was clearly enjoying himself too, giving an open throated laugh as he sang “secrets to conceal ”. The audience’s rapture was further increased by a foot-stomping encore of “Maggie’s Farm”, preceded by Dylan thanking, with marvellous intonation, “You people for being so nice”.

And that was that: 13 songs, approximately 70 minutes of prime Dylan, classic rock ’n’ roll with an acoustic set from folk heaven, a hugely enthusiastic crowd and a patently in-high-spirits performer. What more could you want? Well, quite a lot more if you were writing for the San Francisco newspapers. With a history of antipathy towards Dylan, they launched yet another offensive.

The Examiner’s Philip Elwood, in an article entitled “Dylan Show Sinks Like A Lolling Stone”, gleefully crowed that the Concord Pavilion was “barely half full”, that Dylan “mumbled” and that nearly all the songs were “both unrecognisable and unintelligibly sung”, while “Dylan’s vocals were so poorly defined and so lacking in melody that most were at a loss to catch any lyric thread or phrase.”

Now this book is not going to claim that all of Dylan’s thousands of shows have been magical and I freely, admit to having been to shows where Mr Elwood’s comments would have been very hard to refute. However, even though my original tape was rather lo-fi, I could always tell that he was misreporting here. Most songs were played at a fast pace, but the vocals were clearly intelligible. In more recent years a soundboard recording has emerged which further underlines the point that this review is a wilful misrepresentation of Dylan’s singing that night. Mr Elwood may have been right that Neil Young’s guitar was “kept so low his playing was seldom clearly defined”; however, Neil was just a guest dropping in, his prominence or lack thereof was no great matter.

Joel Selvin of The Chronicle also accused Dylan of “mumbling” and even went to the unforgivable length of unfavourably comparing Dylan’s rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” to a live version by John Cougar Mellencamp. He also wrote, in comment s that make one doubt he actually heard, say, “You’re A Big Girl Now”:

“(Dylan) failed utterly to appear as if he cared in the slightest about what he was doing.... Dylan managed to perform the set in relative darkness.... There were ragged endings, a sloppy mix and a tentative, uncertain ensemble sound.... There were no particular highlights or dramatic moments, just a flat, uninspired, almost rote recitation of inconsequential selections.”

Selvin further complained that Dylan stuck to “an undistinguished lot of songs drawn from throughout his career”. This is 'criticism' that should surely be praise; needless to say, Dylan often gets castigated for doing the opposite. For many years after this, Dylan’s set-lists relied heavily on songs from a handful of famous albums. When asked in an interview why he played all the old 'hits', Dylan replied that when he tried to play new songs people didn’t like it.

With comments such as “He boasts one of the deepest repertoires of great songs anybody could claim but roundly ignored the cornerstones, other than the obligatory ‘Like A Rolling Stone’”, this journalist might be one of those responsible for Dylan’s frequent reliance on old material. It was such a ridiculous complaint and meant that the audiences, who wanted something new, were denied it due to Dylan’s stated perception that when he tried to play new songs “people didn’t like it”. People did like it; the more influential San Francisco journalists, alas, did not.

Dylan was also criticised for the brevity of his Concord set, an extremely odd reaction when you consider the superlative quality of those 70 minutes. It makes one wonder if the reviewers would prefer two hours of someone in third gear followed by a high energy encore to over an hour of someone in top gear throughout.

Dylan’s next stop was at Sacramento............