A Deep Dive Into Bob Dylan Setlist Data
Which tours featured the most variety? The most covers? The longest shows?
Over the summer, I was reading the excellent music newsletter Can’t Get Much Higher. Writer Chris Dalla Riva often crunches music-related data, and in this issue, he was crunching thousands of concerts worth of Setlist.fm data to analyze “setlist uniqueness”—roughly, which band mixes up its setlists the most. (Answer: Phish)
It got me thinking that I’d love to see a Dylan-centric version of this idea. Not comparing him to other artists though. Comparing him to himself. Which years and tours featured the most setlist variation? Which featured the least? I have rough anecdotal guesses, but I wanted to see the hard data.
Chris was game, so over the next couple months, he pulled the raw data for every Bob Dylan setlist. Thousands of shows, tens of thousands of songs, all in one enormous Excel spreadsheet. From there, we worked together to crunch the numbers and see the most interesting trends. We looked at not only which years had the most/least variation, but which had the most/least covers — both total performed and unique songs covered —how many total songs Dylan would usually perform a night, and more. Chris explains his work in more detail than I could:
All of this data came from Setlist.fm, a setlist wiki built and maintained by fans. Given Dylan's stature, nearly every concert he's ever played is on the site, even very obscure performances, like his 1957 two-song set at his high school. After grabbing all of the data via their API, we realized there were a few tours that were missing, like the Dylan & the Dead tour, among a few others. Once we grabbed those tours, we had to do some minor cleaning, which mostly amounted to throwing out songs that were played when Dylan wasn't on stage. That happened during the Rolling Thunder Revue and some dates where Dylan played with the Heartbreakers [and The Band]. After that, we sliced and diced the data in various ways using Python.
For comparing Dylan’s setlists, year-by-year is an imperfect metric. Bob could play wild, ever-changing setlists in the spring and then totally static sets in the fall, which would leave that particular year averaging somewhere in the middle. But, given the quantity of data we’re talking about, and the way it’s organized on Setlist.fm, year-by-year seemed most doable as a basis for comparison.
One other disclaimer: You can debate either way whether the Never Ending Tour is still going in the Rough and Rowdy Ways era. For these purposes, it made it both easier and more interesting to call everything pre-1988 before the Never Ending Tour, and everything 1988-and-on a part of it.
Now, onto the findings:
Most/Least Setlist Variation, Pre-Never Ending Tour
Before we get to the Never Ending Tour, let’s compare his pre-NET tours. These are generally distinct tours per year; even Rolling Thunder 1975 and 1976, despite the same name and mostly same participants, are quite different. The main exceptions are 1965, acoustic for half the year and acoustic/electric for half, and 1987, which combines one tour backed by the Grateful Dead and one backed by the Heartbreakers.
The most variation he ever had in his career comes during the solo years, before he started touring with The Hawks in 1965. This comes with a fairly large caveat that in most cases, particularly in the early 1960s, we don’t know 90% of the setlists he played, so it’s hard to say with much confidence how much variety there really was (that’s why those years don’t appear in the graph above). We do know enough setlists by, say, 1964, to see clearly that with just him and acoustic guitar, it was fairly common to pull in different originals or covers from night to night. One night might be “Spanish Harlem Incident” and “1913 Massacre”; the next might be “Walls of Red Wing” and “The Iron Lady.”
When you get to the full-band touring years (1966-1987 here, basically), you can see how widely it ebbs and flows. Even compare the two Rolling Thunders. As magical as 1975 was, there was fairly little variation night to night (5.98%). The more rough and ramshackle second year, though, suddenly the setlists went wild (15.40%). In fact, that Rolling Thunder ’76 number marks the most setlist variation of any year he’s ever toured with a band! Never Ending Tour included.
The least amount of variation — again, by far — came in 1978 (2.08%). True, some songs came in and out, most notably when he released Street-Legal halfway through the year, but there were a lot of shows that year (over 100) with more or less the same songs for months at a time.
The gospel years also featured relatively little variation. That makes sense when he’s exclusively doing Christian material. Especially early on, he doesn’t have that much of it to draw from. But even when at the end of 1980 he opens the floodgates to potentially play anything from his back catalog, things don’t change much from night to night.
One thing that unites the gospel tours and 1978, the two lowest-variation eras, is this: Giant bands. When you’ve got ten-plus people on stage, it’s more difficult to spontaneously whip out some deep cut than when it’s just Dylan with a bassist, drummer, and second guitarist.
Most/Least Setlist Variation, Never Ending Tour
The Never Ending tour is where comparing trends really gets interesting. Because instead of comparing entirely different tours with entirely different bands/sounds/songs, which is admittedly a little apples to oranges, with this data you can track how one looong tour changes over times.
The headline is: Never Ending Tour setlists gradually (and then suddenly) got less varied. The first most-varied years of the entire NET were its first two, 1988 and 1989. It never hit that level of variety again.
Things stayed fairly steady throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s though. 1996 was a high-water mark, the third most-varied NET year. 1994 and 2007 were low points. But again, things don’t fluctuate wildly. There was generally quite a bit of song variety night to night, but every year he played so many damn shows that you still don’t get the crazy numbers of Rolling Thunder ’76 in terms of large numbers of unique songs played per show.
Then — and any fans paying attention at the time won’t need a bar graph to tell them this — variety dropped off a cliff around 2013/2014. Fans began talking about “The Set,” the songs he would play every night. The Set might change from tour to tour, the Summer 2014 Set being a bit different than the Fall 2014 Set, but little from night to night. The songs-played ratio goes from generally 5-7% for the first 25 years of the NET to 2-3%.
Surprisingly, the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour has bucked the trend. I say “surprisingly” because, of course, it features a very consistent set. Both night after night, and year after year. But both 2021 and 2023 rank well above the 2010s Set standard. Why?
2021 ranks high both because he played around with the set the first few shows, trying songs like “Love Sick” and “Simple Twist of Fate” he would soon discard, and because that year there were relatively few shows (due to the pandemic, he only resumed touring in the fall). So you get a high variety score. And 2023 ranks kinda-high because of one word: Covers. Which we’ll get to next.
The setlist data nerding-out continues for paid subscribers after the jump…