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Strumming on My Gay Guitar
2017-06-14, Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY
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About six minutes into Bob Dylan's second performance of a three night stand at Port Chester's Capitol Theatre, a huge cheer goes up from the crowd. Why? Bob picked up his guitar.
Now, if you had told someone in the '60s, '70s, '80s, or '90s that Bob Dylan simply picking up his guitar would one day be a much-anticipated occasion, they probably wouldn't have believed you. Since late 2002, however, that's become the case. Bob's weapon of choice in recent years has been the keyboard or piano, with the guitar restricted to rare cameo appearances and often going unplayed for years at a time. When he does play guitar - this 2017 performance of "To Ramona" at Port Chester was only the third time he had done so since 2012 - it's a big deal.
Part of the appeal is the visual aspect: it doesn’t get much more iconic than the image of Bob Dylan holding a guitar. The other point of interest is the way Bob plays. Rather than sticking to rhythm and letting Charlie Sexton or Stu Kimball do the heavy lifting here, Dylan takes the leads himself, blasting out odd, jagged guitar lines and strange, repetitive solos. Bob has developed a reputation as something of a wind-up artist over the years, so it's possible that this curious style of playing is simply an extension of that. However, a quick look back over Dylan's history as a lead electric guitar player suggests that there's more to it than meets the eye.
The earliest example of Bob Dylan playing electric lead guitar can be found on the studio recording of "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat" on Blonde on Blonde, where Bob solos somewhat uncertainly over the first twelve bars before handing things over to Robbie Robertson. Other isolated examples can be found throughout the first three decades of Dylan's career (including on "Saving Grace" during the '79-'80 Gospel Tour), but Bob was generally content to stick to rhythm guitar and leave the soloing to others. This all changed, however, in 1993, when Bob decided to become a full-time lead guitarist, basing his new style on a technique that had been taught to him by Lonnie Johnson in the early 1960s. In Chronicles, Dylan writes that he had been tinkering with this unconventional style since the late ‘80s, but 1993 seems to be the point where he committed to it fully.
Slowly but surely, the new approach began to reap rewards. Dylan would lock in on a particular guitar phrase (usually a handful of notes repeated over and over) and the band would catch on, following Dylan's lead. There are some great examples of this out there: the November 1993 Supper Club performance of "Ring Them Bells" featured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs; "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" at Woodstock '94; or, perhaps most famously, "Love Sick" at the 1998 Grammys. This new approach may have been unusual, but it worked.
Guitarist Bob Britt, who played on Time Out of Mind and went on to join Dylan's band in 2019, offered an insight into Bob's guitar style in a 2017 interview on the Truetone Lounge podcast. Recalling a previous audition to join the band in the late ‘90s, Britt remembers Dylan telling him, "I'm not soloing, I'm just playing little things ... just see if you can play around them."
The technique arguably worked best when Dylan had just one other guitarist to play off, like John Jackson or his successor Larry Campbell, both of whom became experts at playing around Dylan's idiosyncratic guitar lines. The dynamic shifted with the addition of Charlie Sexton alongside Campbell in 1999. Bob's frequent lead guitar contributions now seemed increasingly unnecessary, especially since he now had two world class players strumming along patiently behind him. The eventual switch to keyboards was initially a welcome change in this regard, as it gave Campbell and Sexton the space to stretch out and express themselves.
Dylan explained his reasons for cutting down on his guitar playing in a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan:
I play at sound checks and at home, but the chemistry is better when I’m at the piano. It changes the dynamics of the band if I play the guitar ... [W]hen the piano gets locked in with the steel guitar, it’s like big band orchestrated riffs. That doesn’t happen when I’m playing guitar. When I play guitar it’s a different band.
That “different band” is very much in evidence during Port Chester’s “To Ramona”, as each player subtly modifies their approach to accommodate Dylan’s guitar. And Bob seems to be enjoying himself; he played guitar again the next night, and once more in Wallingford on June 18. Then he put it back on the shelf for over a year, until it re-emerged one night in Korea, before disappearing once again. Recently, however, the guitar has made a spectacular comeback, appearing at all 39 shows on Dylan’s Fall 2019 tour, albeit only for two songs per show.
Will Bob ever resume playing guitar full-time? Probably not, as his piano playing has become central to his live sound. But, as previous surprise guitar appearances like this one at Port Chester have shown, you can never predict exactly what Bob Dylan is going to do next.