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Winter Dance Party
1999-02-07, Boutwell Auditorium, Birmingham, AL
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A special guest post today from Adam Selzer! I first encountered Adam in the old online forums (RIP DylanPool) and then got to know him in person at Chicago shows (we sung happy birthday to Merle Haggard once outside his bus). Today he’s a prominent historian of the macabre, writing books about murders and ghosts and giving underbelly-of-history type tours all around Chicago. Find him at http://adamchicago.com.
In hindsight, it all makes sense. It seemed like an odd pairing when Dylan announced a tour with Brian Setzer Orchestra in late 1998 - Setzer was at the height of his popularity, riding the swing revival that swept the nation when it dawned on the post-alternative public that if you heard one ska album from 1997, you’d pretty much heard that all. He could have sold any of the venues out alone. And Dylan generally picked touring mates of his own generation, or at least people known as songwriters. Touring with a dance band seemed like a left turn.
A few people figured out the clues and noticed what was happening right away: Dylan, a few months after talking about Buddy Holly during his Grammy acceptance speech, was doing a tribute tour to Holly’s Winter Dance Party, in which Holly, the Big Bopper, Richie Valens and others had toured small markets in a freezing, stinking bus, until Holly and co. fatefully decided to charter a plane out of Iowa. Dylan saw the tour himself at the Duluth Armory. Now, teaming up with dance band for the 40th anniversary of the tour, Dylan chartered a winter course through towns like Carbondale, Illinois. He covered Holly’s “Not Fade Away” nightly.
Of course, being Dylan, he never said that he was doing a tribute to the Winter Dance Party, so reporters and fans were mostly left to wonder what in the world was going on.
I caught the Feb 7 show in Birmingham, AL, where Dylan’s countrified set certainly didn’t help explain things. But despite common reports from the tour that most people left during Dylan’s set, I didn’t see anyone leaving. Setzer’s opening set was a blast, playing tracks from his great recent album, The Dirty Boogie, and reviving “Stray Cat Strut” from the ‘80s. I did hear people around me wondering how the hell anyone could top Setzer’s set, but Dylan’s show that night was consistently great, with multi-instrumentalist Bucky Baxter closing out his tenure in the Never Ending Tour band in style, and Dylan giving his all vocally. Listening back now, the show lives up to my memories and then some: the set opens with a strong “Serve Somebody” and a wailing “Million Miles” setting the bait before reeling the crowd in with “Make You Feel My Love,” which was a hit for Garth Brooks at the time (and, as such, a great way to win an Alabama crowd over). Elsewhere in the set were covers of “My Blue Eyed Jane” (one of just a couple performances) and Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin.”
But I think what I most remember that night was the final encore, the cover that explained the whole tour, Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (in something more like the Grateful Dead’s arrangement, but whatever). Bob was having a blast on that song, standing at the microphone, smirking as though he was really enjoying the fact that we still hadn’t figured out his secret.