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Dylan's 21st Century Gospel
2003-04-29, The Trap, Nashville, TN
Today’s show comes by request of James P. Any Annual paid subscriber can request a show for me to tackle.
Hearing “Saving Grace” during this reader-requested 2003 Nashville show caught me by surprise. I’d forgotten that Saved song ever escaped Dylan’s gospel era. But it did – and, during about two years in 2002-3, a lot of other songs from the Christian period did too. He’d been playing a bunch of religious bluegrass covers for a couple years (I wrote about them here) and, belatedly, began to throw his own spiritual material into the sets more.
So, inspired by this Nashville show, I decided to look at which religious-era songs he’s played during the 21st century. I’m basically talking about songs from Dylan’s gospel years: Anything off Slow Train Coming or Saved and some of Shot of Love (he’s played “Lenny Bruce” a bunch, but it’s a stretch to call that “religious material” – unless you want to compare cutting off babies’ heads with the Judgement of Solomon).
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Let’s get the obvious two songs out of the way first: He’s played “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Every Grain of Sand” a lot. He’s still playing them both every night! In the Never Ending Tour era, neither ever left the set for too long. Both are, by far, the religious-era songs he’s played the most in the 21st century.
Outside of those two, though, the primary era for Bob’s gospel material resurfacing in the 21st century was in 2002-03. In 2002 alone, Dylan broke out three separate songs fans probably thought they’d never hear again.
The first teaser though came in in 2001 when Bob busted out the first “In the Garden” in five years. But it wasn’t as rare as some we’ll get to; in the first half of the ‘90s it made regular appearances, and during the post-gospel ‘80s too. The surprise probably was that he gave it as long a break as he did – and even more surprising that, after one further performance in 2002, he never played it again.
Here’s that final “In the Garden” – from, as it happens, a show a week and a half before today’s (hopefully all these YouTube embeds are cued to the right place when you click play):
In April 2002, Dylan was clearly feeling the gospel material. Because a few days after “In the Garden,” he played the first “I Believe in You” in four years. It stuck around too, getting played on and off through the end of the 2010s. It often proved a vocal highlight of the night. Here’s its first time back:
Also in April 2002, he pulled out another gospel song that didn’t stick around long: “Solid Rock.” This one’s much rarer: The 19 times he played it in 2002 are the only times he has played it outside the ‘79-81 gospel tours. Its very first time back, in Stockholm on April 5, was named the best version of the Never Ending Tour in that informal poll I did. It rocks harder than anything else here, a real barnburner that could have been swapped in more for a “Highway 61” or “Honest with Me.”
Finally, one more 2002 gospel-era surprise, though this one he saved until October: “In the Summertime.” I realize calling this a religious song could be debatable, but you at least can make the argument, what with the references to sin and glory and “unto eternity.” Like “Solid Rock,” 2002 was the only year he ever played it outside the gospel tours. It popped up eight times in Fall 2002, then was banished again forever – unto eternity, I suppose. A shame as this might be the best of this entire set. Guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton add killer harmonies, just as they did on all those bluegrass-gospel covers. Larry called Fall 2002 his favorite tour in his seven years with Dylan.
Only two more to hit. One – the one that inspired this newsletter – returned in 2003. And the other, the only one of the six that didn’t return in that two-year stretch in the early 2000s, not until 2009.
Dylan played “Saving Grace” a dozen times in 2003, a dozen more in 2004, and then it quickly petered out, other than one surprise appearance in 2012. Campbell shines again, not on harmonies this time but on the pedal steel which transforms the song into a weepy country ballad. Here’s the Nashville performance that inspired this newsletter, 20 years ago today:
Finally, the outlier of the bunch, the gospel tune that did not return in that 2001-2003 window: “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” In 2009, Dylan began using the Slow Train Coming track as a regular concert opener. It appeared often, and always in that first position, for the next couple years. Unfortunately, that timing means it doesn’t quite hits the performance heights of the others – 2009 was not a particularly strong year for Dylan’s singing, and the first song of the night was (and still is) usually the roughest of the lot. Still, a fun dark and bluesy rocker to kick things off, even if you get the voice fans at the time dubbed “the wolfman.”