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2006-08-30, Frontier Field, Rochester, NY
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"Cat's in the Well" is, by even the most generous standards, not much of a song. It consists mostly of silly Mother Goose-isms tossed together, all wolves dragging big bushy tails and horses going bumpety-bump. Every now and then, Bob tosses in some half-assed “topical” line to make it all seem profound. For instance: "The cat's in the well and grief is showing its face / The world's being slaughtered and it's such a bloody disgrace." Then it’s right back to the horses going bumpety-bump.
But, for whatever reason, Bob seems to really like "Cat's in the Well." In spring of 2004, when I first saw Dylan, he played the same three-song encore at just about every show. The second two songs were hits: "Like a Rolling Stone" and "All Along the Watchtower." The first song? You guessed it: "Cat's in the Well."
Now, it probably seems like I have a special animosity for "Cat's in the Well." I don't! “Cat's in the Well” is fine. Every time I saw it performed, it was fine. In today’s show, it’s fine. It’s the sort of song where “it’s fine” is about the strongest opinion one can muster. I mean, if you want to hate on a truly terrible animal-themed Dylan song, "If Dogs Run Free" is right there. It’s just an odd song to play that often. A song basically no one thinks is top-tier Dylan has at times appeared to be one of the man’s own personal favorites.
At today's 2006 show in Rochester, it opens the show. The Frontier Field minor-league stadium seats 13,500. Was a single one of those 13,500 hoping for "Cat's in the Well" to kick things off?
If you look at the most-performed songs over Dylan's career, it's a pretty predictable list. "Watchtower," "Highway 61," "Rolling Stone," etc. "Things Have Changed" has now cracked the top ten after opening just about every show in recent years, topping older hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Rainy Day Women,” which I guess is mildly interesting. But still. It’s basically the songs you'd expect.
Filtering that most-performed songs list to just the Never-Ending Tour doesn't make it much more interesting. The songs that Bob plays year in and year out are generally unsurprising. For all the deserved talk about Bob’s wild setlists, the songs he plays for years on end are generally the songs you’d expect him to play for years on end.
But I wanted to find other “Cat’s in the Wells.” The not-a-hits and not-a-fan-favorites that Bob has taken an inexplicable liking to. The songs he's spent at least a year or two performing often, despite no one besides him much caring. Not new songs off whatever album he’s ostensibly promoting - older songs most people had forgotten about, and maybe never cared about in the first place.
So I looked at the most-performed songs of individual years of the Never-Ending Tour (thanks to setlist.fm's great statistics functions). I wanted to see what songs got performed a ton that don’t fit either the molds of “hit” or “new.” Not just obscure songs he dug out occasionally - that would be a long list. Obscure and, if possible, unloved deep cuts that he played often, which I defined as being among the top ten most-often performed songs of a given year.
To unearth these oft-played oddities, I started with 1988 and continued through the mid-2010s, stopping before the recent era of the little-changing Sets. The Sets certainly feature rare and random deep-cuts ("Waiting for You," "Lenny Bruce"), but, when such songs got a bunch of plays, it's because he decided to play them once, when creating the setlist for the whole tour, rather than deciding to play them over and over again. I’m more interested in years where every single night he's writing out a setlist and every single night he's saying, "Fuck yeah, gonna hit ‘em with some ‘Cat's in the Well’ tonight!"
As soon as I clicked 1988, I immediately realized the most obvious example of this phenomenon: "Silvio"! Superfans don't love "Silvio." Casual fans don't know "Silvio." The only strong feeling anyone has ever had about "Silvio" is "Why does Bob play 'Silvio' so much?"
To be fair, “Silvio” was a new song at the time, so it didn’t fit my rubric as of 1988. But I mention it now because it will remain in that most-played list for years (it was, for instance, Bob’s #1 most-played song of 1997). Like "Cat's," “Silvio” is an uptempo blues-rock song that he can basically coast through vocally.
1989's most-played songs are pretty predictable, other than “Silvio.” And, look, let's just plug in "other than 'Silvio'" as a given for the next decade so I don't have to keep repeating it.
The next top-ten surprise comes in 1991 with "New Morning," a song he'd never played before and has barely played since. A beautiful song that he used the year to repeatedly butcher. "New Morning" soundtracked perhaps Dylan's worst-ever performance in Stuttgart that year. You might have thought he’d give it a rest after that. Not a chance. (To be fair, I doubt he remembered much about that Stuttgart performance the next morning…). This YouTube uploader chose a very peaceful image to accompany a very unpeaceful performance:
1993's most-played surprises were “I and I” and “Watching the River Flow.” “Watching” also ranked high in 2006 and 2007, though it’s kind of borderline for our purposes. It debuted on a greatest hits album, but that doesn't actually make something a greatest hit, unless you're Tom Petty.
"Mama, You Been on My Mind" made the top-ten in 1994, then "Down in the Flood" in 1995 and 1996. I'll give "Seeing the Real You at Last" at #11 in '95 an honorable mention, as that feels closest to the "Silvio"/"Cat's" model of mediocre blues-rock songs that are probably no one’s favorites and no one’s least favorites either. "Country Pie" in 2000 could be described that way too, though I love that song and particularly love its many 2000 performances.
Then, in the year 2001, a tragedy struck from which our society has yet to fully recover: Bob played "If Dogs Run Free" a whole lot.
Nevertheless, we try to pick up the pieces and move on as best we can. “Cat’s” makes the top ten in 2004, and stuck around quite a bit thereafter. Pickings for the why-is-Bob-playing-this-so-much sweepstakes get slimmer after that. "Down Along the Cove" made the top ten in 2005. "Simple Twist of Fate" did in 2011 and 2012. And then we’re up to the standard-Set years, which I’m not counting.
You might have noticed my system broke down a bit along the way. Those songs in the last few paragraphs are not entirely off-the-wall. Some of these could plausibly be someone's absolute favorite Dylan song (“Simple Twist of Fate” really feels like a reach in this rubric - anything off Blood on the Tracks would be). Some of these could plausibly be someone’s least favorite (cough cough). They don’t all hit the true level of WTF-ness as "Cat's in the Well."
Which I guess is the conclusion from my little data dive: There were fewer "Cat's in the Well"s than I'd expected. Bob often picks rare songs to play but plays each song, you know, rarely. Few are the entirely-off-the-wall songs he just hammers on again and again for a year or more, like "Cat's in the Well." In the entire Never-Ending Tour, he's only ever picked a couple songs that random to play that often. So we end where we began. May the lord have mercy on us all.
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