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Behind the Scenes of Bob Dylan's Farm Aid Surprise
Bassist Lance Morrison explains how the shocking Dylan-Heartbreakers reunion came to be
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As you undoubtedly heard, Bob Dylan made a surprise appearance at Farm Aid this past weekend. It was the first time he’s played the festival since 1986, and the first surprise onstage appearance he’s made of any kind in years.
As if that wasn’t surprising enough, he played accompanied by two longtime members of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers: Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, both of whom he’d toured with extensively in the ‘80s (read my interview with Tench about it here). Alongside them were the rest of Campbell’s current band The Dirty Knobs: Bassist Lance Morrison, guitarist Chris Holt, and drummer Steve Ferrone (himself a latter-day Heartbreaker following Stan Lynch’s departure).
They performed three songs, all ‘60s classics: “Maggie’s Farm,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The first two of those Dylan hasn’t played in over a decade. Another surprise. And, oh yeah, one more: He played guitar on all three.
Needless to say, the Dylan world was abuzz. And I had so many questions. So I was thrilled bassist Lance Morrison took some downtime on the road—this appearance came right in the middle of a Dirty Knobs tour—to tell me all about it.
How much notice did you get that this was happening?
No more than a month. I think it was only a couple of weeks out when I got a call from management that said Bob Dylan had called Mike and asked him to put a band together for Farm Aid. And Mike was going to use the Knobs. So it was just crazy news to come out of the blue.
We had one of our dates that night had to postpone it. The routing was pretty stressful because we do a gig and then the next day we have to take a flight to Indy. We arrive and basically go right to soundcheck, then the next day is the gig, and then Sunday we wake up and fly out through New York to Connecticut and do a gig that night.
So Mike basically told Bob, "I've got a band. I don't need to put one together."
Exactly. And of course he wanted Benmont in there, Benmont's the man, but also he has a history with Bob, so it was very helpful to have him there too.
Let's go through the chronology a little bit. You fly in the day before and there's a soundcheck?
Right, yeah. We flew in Friday, we did a soundcheck that night.
How much do you know at that point? Do you know what songs? Have you rehearsed them?
We had a couple of rehearsals at Mike's place two or three weeks ago.
With Dylan or just the Knobs?
Bob showed up. That was the first time that I got to meet him and play his music, which was just amazing.
But it was a surprise appearance. Usually a show that size, you'll have like a production rehearsal or a dress rehearsal or something. It was much more casual than that. [The soundcheck] was just kind of getting up on stage and figuring out where everybody was gonna stand and going through the tunes again. Because even when you have something rehearsed, it seems like Bob’s always inspired or creative and coming up with something. I think we changed the key on “Maggie's Farm” at soundcheck. I guess he just felt more comfortable in that key.
Did you know going into those first rehearsals at Mike place a few weeks before, these are the songs?
There was kind of a general plan that we were going to do. “Maggie's Farm” was one and “Fourth Street” was another. “Like a Rolling Stone” was discussed, but nothing had been decided upon. So we were ready with a handful of songs. All of them his classic stuff from that time period.
I'm not sure why the initial handful of songs were chosen. “Maggie's Farm” works thematically. That one makes sense, certainly.
Do the one with “farm” in the name.
Exactly. It was Farm Aid. That has to be one of them.
So I went and learned all of the original arrangements. We were all told to keep it under wraps for obvious reasons. The couple of close friends that I did tell, and swore to secrecy, were pretty big Dylan fans. They're like, "Bob changes up arrangements all the time." So I went in prepared for whatever, just to be open and see what happened. But it was nice to kind of get to play those tunes in arrangements that were fairly similar to the original recordings.
Were these hours and hours of rehearsals, or does he show up, you play them once through, and he leaves?
No, we did a couple of days.
Wow, so these are pretty extensive. A couple of days for three songs, that's not messing around.
Yeah, I guess so, but also it's fairly loose. I think “Maggie's Farm” might have been the first one that we rehearsed. The arrangement is sort of the same, but it has a slightly different feel than what we ended up playing. Bob didn't want to do it like just the [original]. We'd run through it with the feel that he was wanting, different tempos and stuff like that. Even though we're in a narrow arrangement of these tunes, you're still trying to find something special, something different. We took a couple of trips sideways and played some of the songs different for a while, but then we'd always find our way back.
One of my favorite parts of the whole thing is Bob and Mike singing the “no, no more” coda to “Maggie’s Farm” on the same microphone. For all the times Bob’s sung the song before, he’s never done that. Was that rehearsed?
Yeah. That's something that Bob came up with at rehearsal one time. Each rehearsal, that little part would change or morph into whatever, and he stuck with it. That was helpful. It was kind of our cue that, okay, now we're getting to the end of the song.
Was he playing guitar from day one?
Yeah. That's one of the things that I didn't realize, that he hadn't been playing guitar recently. So when he shows up, the first thing he did was put on a guitar. They had a couple of guitars there for him. He's standing up playing guitar in rehearsal and it just seems normal to me. It's like, well, there's Bob Dylan with the guitar. Exactly the way I've always seen it.
It wasn't until after we did the show and I got back to the hotel room and the reactions were coming in that I realized how exciting it was for a lot of Dylan fans to hear him play guitar and to hear him do these tunes that he hadn't done in a while.
Fans were just going nuts. And the secrecy— my sense is there was no rumor even among the attendees. Often with these thing, word leaks out. Someone spots a name on a dressing room door or something. It really seems to have been a shock.
Our flight from Indianapolis back into New York, there was a young guy who was in the control truck where they had the sound and the lights and everything like that. When the lights went down, they had no idea what was about to happen.
The actual Farm Aid crew didn’t know?
They had no idea. He even asked me, “Who made the decision to turn off all the screens?" Because I guess all the other acts had the screens behind them with the videos going, this big production. And I said, I just think that was Bob being like, "We don't need any of that kind of stuff."
Also I don't think Bob felt like he needed an introduction or anything like that. We just went on without introduction, didn't really speak between songs, and left. When I see videos of it, it definitely sets itself apart from the other acts, just that sparseness.
Given the lack of introduction, did people in the crowd figure it out right away what was happening?
The people up close realized that it was Bob and there was a big reaction, then it kept going back into the audience. It took a while for people a little further back to catch on.
But I mean, to be honest, at that point once we hit the stage, I am so focused on Bob it's hard to know exactly what else is going on.
What are you focused on? I've talked to a bunch of musicians who've played with him. Some of them talk about looking at his hands, some of them talk about trying to see where he's at with the lyrics. What specifically are you cueing off of?
The vocal. That's the one thing I do wish— like at soundcheck and in rehearsal, Bob sometimes doesn't sing on the mic, so you don't get the full effect of the song or the arrangement. One thing that I wish, and this is just for me, is that I could hear Bob's vocal a little better come through the monitors. That was the one thing that would have been helpful. But again, on a normal show, you probably have the production dialed in a little better. It didn't really affect what I played, but it just made me have to concentrate that little bit more.
You mentioned changing the key of “Maggie's Farm” in the soundcheck. Anything else that changed there from what you guys had worked on a few weeks prior?
That was basically it. And just also getting used to the tempo that we were going to play stuff, and reacquainting because we hadn't played the stuff in a couple of weeks.
I was just re-watching the videos before we spoke, and I noticed that you and Chris [Holt, guitar] have vocal mics in front of you, even though, at least as far as I could see, you don't actually sing.
Chris did sing actually on the “no no more” part. The mic was there for me to sing too if I wanted to add in there. I didn’t. I was more just focusing on stuff and I figured that Mike and Bob and Chris had it.
One other very specific question about the performance is, it looks to me that Mike is moving to end “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and Bob decides he wants to keep guitar-soloing. There's a moment where Mike puts his arm up, and Steve starts wrapping it up, but then it seems like Bob decides he wants to keep playing. Is that what actually happened?
Right. That was where most of the time that we rehearsed, we had ended the song. But one time in rehearsal, Bob had kept going with another verse. It's just one of the things you have to always be aware of. Mike said that we were ending the song and then he saw that Bob was soloing and he's like, "Let's keep going. If Bob wants to solo, everybody should hear Bob's solo."
What happens when you walk off stage?
Everybody was excited. Bob seemed happy, smiling. We said our goodbyes and thank yous, and we got in the van to go back to the hotel room. It was kind of hard to get to sleep that night just because the responses kept coming in. I mean, obviously it's a huge deal to get to play with Bob Dylan, even a short three song set, but then when the reactions started coming in– I think part of that is because it was such a big surprise. No one was expecting it. So that kept me up an extra two or three hours.
Have you guys debriefed? You're back on the road again now, minus Benmont.
Right. Everybody's happy, not trying to get too over our skis about anything. It’s nothing but a positive thing.
This might not be a question for you, but I'll ask since I have you, do you know why Bob selected Mike?
I have no idea. Mike was thrilled and honored.
The armchair guess is that the first Farm Aid was Bob Dylan with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the first time they played together.
That's one of the things that I didn't realize. This was only the second time Bob actually played Farm Aid in person after the first one. The other time was via satellite. There were all these firsts, and all these things about Bob playing guitar and stuff that I'm glad I didn't know about before we hit the stage.
You want to approach it and honor it like any gig and not build it up too much in your brain before you go out there.
From my other conversations, it seems like sometimes Dylan is talkative and sometimes he's fairly business-like and doesn't say much. Which one did you get?
I think I got a combo. He knows Mike and he knows Benmont, so he's very comfortable around them. Obviously, I don't know if Steve Ferrone has ever worked with him before [only when Bob sat in with the Heartbreakers on a joint tour in 2003 –Ray], but Chris and I have never worked with him. So he's in a room playing these songs with at least a couple of guys that he doesn't really know, but he was always friendly and nice and never seemed annoyed by us or anything like that. He seemed like a normal person, which is always a weird thing when you're in the room with an icon, somebody that's as famous as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean or Elvis.
You know what's funny? Literally after the first rehearsal, I started questioning, “What is genius?” You're in the presence of [someone with] his whole body of work and just thinking about how much his work influenced people and the whole arc of his career, how he reinvented himself, and the way that he started playing his songs in forms that people didn't even recognize. Where does that come from? He's the only artist that I've ever played with where after the first rehearsal I'm thinking about, what does genius mean?
What about the first rehearsal put those thoughts in your head?
We'd play a song, and then he'd have some suggestions. It wasn't your standard like musical-arrangement type thing. He was speaking in terms that you had to stop and go, wait, what is he trying to get me to do? I mean, they made sense, but then they also made you go, wait, what? Just the way Bob would express what he was trying to get, it made you think outside of your normal way of going about making music.
You mentioned “Like a Rolling Stone” being in the mix, was that something you ever tried at rehearsal, or was that just something that was being discussed before you showed up?
As a band, before Bob showed up, I think we ran through it, but once Bob got there, I don't think he wanted to do it, or we just never got around to it.
Of the three songs you did on stage, is there one of the three that stands just a little above the other two for you?
“Thin Man” for me was the one that I felt arrangement-wise, even from the get-go, was the most locked in. That was the one that I felt like I didn't have to pay attention to Bob as much. Once that train started going, it was going to hit all the stops on time.
Until he decides that he doesn't want to end it where you're thinking you're going to end it!
Well, yeah, of course. But also, we're hanging on a B-minor at that point, and it's no big deal. And Mike and I started the chord changes at the same time. So I think it worked without the train wrecking too much.
That was one of my favorite parts, because it was just clearly so live and spontaneous and in the moment.
Exactly. And I bet if we had just stayed on stage and played those three songs again, there'd be moments like that that would happen the second time we played them.
Also “Positively,” when Ben played the organ part, everybody in the venue went nuts. Ben is just so good. I'm just so glad he was there, because he's such a musical glue. Just the stuff he plays is so authentic and so great. He always makes the right choice.
Everyone is assuming this is a one-off. There's no talk of anything further?
I haven't heard of anything in the works. But this wasn't in the works a month ago.