Blu-ray/DVD/CD Review: Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration

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I videotaped this concert when it aired on PBS decades ago and have been watching it periodically ever since. Every time I see it, I ask myself the same question: Why on earth has this incredible show—which has long been available on CD—never been issued on DVD?

As I discovered a while back, I wasn’t alone in my bewilderment: just look at the show’s page on Amazon, which originally touted the now-long-discontinued VHS version. (A Laserdisc was also available during prehistoric times.) There, you’ll find dozens of people asking essentially the same question. A sampling of comments:

> “It’s hard to believe this one is still in the can.”

> “I came ready to buy the DVD at any price and was shocked to find out it has never been issued.”

> “Are we ever gonna get a DVD of this concert? Hope it’s before I die.”

> “Where is the DVD??????”

> “Add my voice to those who will buy the DVD…Hello Sony! Are you listening?”

Well, finally, after more than 20 years, Sony is indeed listening, though it turns out the label wasn’t the main holdup: it apparently took all this time to cut through red tape with Japan’s public television network, NHK, which owned the only high-definition video recording of the event. The October 16, 1992 concert—held in New York at a sold-out Madison Square Garden to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album—is being released March 4 on DVD and Blu-ray.

Both editions feature remastered sound (albeit just stereo, no 5.1 mix) and excellent widescreen video, and both showcase spirited readings of 29 songs from a wide assortment of musical luminaries. Also here are several fine bonus performances, two of which weren’t on the original VHS/Laserdisc version, and about 40 minutes of previously unseen backstage video, including snippets from rehearsals and brief but noteworthy interviews with such artists as Lou Reed, Rosanne Cash and Eddie Vedder. (None of these extras are in widescreen format, unfortunately.) Those who witnessed the original concert are about to be rewarded for their long wait for a DVD or Blu-ray. Those who haven’t seen it are about to find out what all the fuss was about.

This is simply one of the best multi-artist rock concerts ever presented. One reason is the classics-packed program, which consists entirely of Dylan compositions (with one exception, which I’ll get to presently). Another is the well-chosen lineup of artists, all of whom had worked with Dylan, jumpstarted their careers with versions of his songs or simply been influenced heavily by him. Clearly, these musicians felt a debt to the man; and virtually all seem determined to say thanks by delivering knockout performances. It probably helps that the songs they offer tend to be their personal favorites.

Highlights abound. Johnny Winter’s astonishing guitar work on “Highway 61 Revisited” will make you wonder why he has never become a bigger star. George Harrison captures the spirit of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” in what turned out to be his last major concert appearance. John Mellencamp delivers a high-octane “Like a Rolling Stone” that profits from a pair of terrific backup vocalists, not to mention a guest spot by Morton Report columnist Al Kooper, who reprises his organ work on the original hit. Roger McGuinn adds the Byrds touch to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Tom Petty nails the party ambiance of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Neil Young’s guitar gives a fresh kick to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “All Along the Watchtower.” Richie Havens finds the essence of  “Just Like a Woman.” Lou Reed turns the unjustly obscure “Foot of Pride” into a punk/metal anthem. Eddie Vedder conveys the outrage of “Masters of War.” And the Band (sans Robbie Robertson) delivers a wonderful accordion-spiced “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

After these and many other fine performances, Dylan himself comes onstage to sing “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” After that, he joins McGuinn, Petty, Young, Harrison and Eric Clapton for “My Back Pages” and virtually everyone on the bill for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Then he ends the show by underscoring his folk roots with a solo “Girl from the North Country.”

As I mentioned, the program includes one non-Dylan track. Sinead O’Connor had intended to perform “I Believe in You,” an often-overlooked gem from Slow Train Coming; but the audience booed her when she came onstage, an apparent response to a Saturday Night Live appearance a few days earlier, during which she’d torn up a picture of the Pope as a protest. At the Dylan show, a visibly shaken O’Connor paused for a long time while the audience ranted; then she responded with a spontaneous and defiant a cappella reading of Bob Marley’s “War,” walked offstage and burst into tears in the arms of Kris Kristofferson.

Every time I watch this sad incident unfold, I am astonished that an audience savvy enough to appreciate Dylan could have been clueless enough to attack O’Connor for expressing her heartfelt personal opinions. These people clearly didn’t understand much of what the artist they’d come to celebrate had been singing about for the previous three decades. Moreover, they missed a sublime and revelatory performance, as you can hear on the newly updated CD edition of this release, which includes O’Connor’s rehearsal version of “I Believe in You” among its two bonus tracks. (The other is Clapton’s rehearsal of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a song he also performs in the concert video.)

The DVD/Blu-ray runs about three hours, but the show lasted a third longer. Missing here are more than half a dozen tunes, some of which were featured in the original 1992 pay-per-view live broadcast and subsequent PBS special. That’s unfortunate, because the omitted material includes some noteworthy performances—Sophie B. Hawkins’s take on “I Want You,” George Harrison’s reading of “If Not for You” and Dylan’s performance of “Song to Woody,” to name a few.

Even the full concert program, of course, barely scratches the surface of Dylan’s incredible songbook. The show includes no “Desolation Row,” no “Dear Landlord,” no “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” no “Positively 4th Street.”  Hell, there’s nothing at all from Blood on the Tracks. A few key performers are missing too. Where, for example, are Scarlett Rivera and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, not to mention Bruce Springsteen? And where, oh where, is Joan Baez? I’ve read unconfirmed reports that she performed, but she’s not on this or any other available versions of the show.

No matter. Even if you’re not quite the Dylan fan I am, the best of what this video does include will likely knock your socks off. Buy it now. Better yet, buy two copies and put one in a safe-deposit box. You won’t want to be caught empty-handed if something should happen to copy No. 1.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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