Bob Dylan's Hidden Triumph: the 1969 Isle of Wight Concert on 'Another Self Portrait'

by Jon Friedman
August 30, 2013 3:30 PM
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Predictably, "Another Self Portrait," Bob Dylan's newest installment in his well received Bootleg Series, is creating waves among Dylan Nation.

The new compilation features beautifully sung and performed country-esque songs, wildly obscure covers and workouts on cuts that made it on to such period pieces as New Morning. In tone and content, the selections are consistent with Dylan's Self Portrait double-album, which came out in 1970 to a chorus of vitriol by critics that rock and roll hadn't seen before (or since, to be precise).

As I have noted, my theory is that the issue wasn't solely or even primarily the music, which had a high quality. It was that fans and critics (same thing, for Dylan, back then) felt betrayed that their Spokesman for a Generation didn't respond to the May 4, 1970 Kent State Massacre with a song that spoke for his audience (like Neil Young chose to do by rush-recording a terrific song called "Ohio"). Instead, Dylan offered such songs as covers of Blue Moon and The Boxer.

There is an additional disc in the deluxe package of Self-Portrait, too. It is a re-mastered version of the full concert performed on Aug. 31, 1969 by Bob Dylan and The Band. It is wonderful.

Oddly, more critics haven't discussed this disc (maybe they can't afford the deluxe package?). Bob Dylan and The Band started playing in 1965 and continued to perform and record  Dylan's semi-regularly until The Band's final concert, The Last Waltz on Thanksgiving night in 1976.

At the Isle of Wight, Dylan played his first paying concert in more than three years. In May 1966, he completed a world tour by playing incendiary rock and roll on stage -- and getting booed widely and wildly for his trouble. No wonder Dylan wanted to take a break from his fans. By his standpoint, he plays one of the best rock and roll shows ever -- and they boo him.

For the Isle of Wight, all was forgiven. The fans received Dylan as a conquering hero. They were thrilled that he had chosen to come out of retirement at their festival, as he bypassed the ballyhooed Woodstock concert only two weeks earlier. (To many people, it is still a mystery why Dylan preferred to schlep all the way to England to play a show, instead of staying home and performing only a few miles from his house).

Dylan was introducing a whole new kind of show in England. Dressed all in white in what Eric Clapton later called his Hank Williams suit, Dylan played a kind of country-rock show. Gone were the hard-rocking styles of 1966. The songs from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline were simple love songs, bereft of hidden leanings and mysteries.

The Band, as always, brought out the best in Dylan's performance. They provided a steady low-rocking sound (except on such selections as The Mighty Quinn) that made it easy for Dylan to project his vocals. He looked and sounded nervous about making his big comeback and it helped him to have The Band by his side.

The biggest surprise to the audience was that Dylan maintained his country crooner's voice from Nashville Skyline a few months earlier. It is rather startling -- even today -- to listen to Dylan's incarnation. But he makes it work because it is clear that he believes so strongly in what he is doing, just as he put himself across originally as a folk singer, then as a pop star.

Dylan makes it easy for us to appreciate this musical bridge, from 1966 to Tour '74 when he did a proper nationwide tour with The Band -- the biggest of its kind to date. The Isle of Wight concert is a fascinating performance by a committed artist.

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  • john kruth | September 3, 2013 11:01 PMReply

    "The songs from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline were simple love songs, bereft of hidden leanings and mysteries." uh, perhaps that's the case with nashville skyline my friend but with jwh that is hardly the case - every song is a parable or myth until the final tracks - down along the cove and i'll be your baby tonight which turns the corner, pointing to nashville skyline... go back and listen to that amazing album again

  • John O'Sullivan | September 3, 2013 3:31 PMReply

    I was at the gig and really enjoyed it. However, due to poor organisation & a crapped out sound system Dylan's set was delayed by some 2 hours. Everyone was tired & a bit pissed off! Expectations were far too high - Melody Maker had a front page spread promising a 'supergroup' jam with Clapton & assorted Beatles. Dylan accepted the deal so as he could visit the birthplace of poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson!

  • Nicolas Martin | August 31, 2013 9:33 PMReply

    To WHALESPOON: You're right, the show is really not amazing. However, the mixing for this new release is excellent and if you like to hear stuff from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline live, it's really nice. – Jon Friedman here suggested that it didn't get many reviews because the journalists couldn't afford it. I think the point is more that they knew now many listeners could afford it and it's no real use to write about a 100$ deluxe package. However, you may find the thing much cheaper in online mp3-stores.

  • whalespoon | August 31, 2013 11:39 AMReply

    I haven't heard the remastered Isle of Wight show, so maybe there is something there that is not evident in the tracks released on the original SP and that have appeared on the various bootlegs over the years. However, it doesn't seem to me to have been all that great a show. Dylan was obviously rusty--he apparently forgot some of the words to "Like a Rolling Stone" is one fault that easily comes too mind. (It was such a poor performance that I think Bob had it included on the original SP to cheese people off, if that was actually his initial intent for the album as he has stated in the past.) In comparison to The Band's support on either the "Royal Albert Hall" Bootleg Series or the "Before the Flood" album (or even the Tribute to Woody Guthrie recordings from '69), the Band's usually impeccable playing is lackluster in my opinion. The only song in the set which seems to work in that setting is "Minstrel Boy." But the rest is way under the usual high standard...

  • David | August 31, 2013 6:00 AMReply

    It is impossible for anyone who wasn't around at that time to imagine just how anticipated Bob's appearance at the Isle of Wight was at the time. I was lucky enough to be there. We might have enjoyed all the other musicians which included Richie Havens and I still remember how much I loved the Band playing "loving you is sweeter than ever" but we weren't ready for the Bob we got. It certainly was quite a while before most of us got to enjoy Self Portrait but he was way ahead of the game and those of us who got to love Americana (dreadful name but ...) were being introduced to that music in 1970. We had all missed Bob singing Hank Williams songs in his hotel room in the movie "Don't Look Back". Another Self Portrait is a triumph that we can appreciate straight away.

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