A Blast From The Past: MTV Unplugged In New York // Bob Dylan

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Many know that you needn’t expect anything less than utter brilliance from Bob Dylan. He is a definite future figurehead for millions across the world (accompanying the likes of Cobain and Hendrix) without any musically educated objection. 

Unplugged has been an MTV pinnacle for many years, and all of the world’s most famous artists have had a stab at it, but it is not a new concept for Dylan. This type of album is often focused on reinventing an artist’s music; but he had been doing that for more than 30 years anyway. This fact of course in no way takes away from the impact of the record, a strong statement as many of Dylan’s albums tend to be.

 The expectations for this album were immediately set high, performing only a month after Nirvana’s simply stunning Unplugged triumph (one of the most unexpectedly brilliant musical events of the era) , even for Dylan, it’s daunting shoes to fill as the first listeners anticipated this performance. Straight off the back of a new Greatest Hits album, with typical, almost obvious choices, Bob’s classics were fresh in people’s minds. However, the chosen set list for this album is on another level. He really delved into the true greats of his repertoire; you can’t help but sing along. Most tracks are chosen from albums at the beginning of his career, the only fairly modern songs are ‘Dignity’ and ‘Shooting Star’, selected from the Oh Mercy (1989) sessions. However ‘Dignity’ was first heard on Greatest Hit, Vol. III.

The performance is well supported by no less than a musical entourage, including the gentle drumming of Winston Watson and Tony Garnier on bass, making everything sound more epic and distinctive than Dylan is already able to do by himself. He of course adopts an acoustic guitar, his haunting vocals and clearly, what Bob Dylan live album would be complete without the harmonica? It welcomingly makes frequent appearances throughout the tracklist.

It all begins with ‘Tombstone Blues’, extracted from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, an upbeat start with the classic folk and country genre that so many of Dylan’s classics adopt.  A gentle bobbing of the head and tapping of feet is practically mandatory. Ironically, the album it was lifted from was his first entirely electric album, yet still sounds excellent in this setting. He makes it work. Bob’s typical raspy voice comes through, his accent never concealed; even from the first song we know this is will be nothing less than his usual exceptionalness.

Elsewhere – among classic after classic – ‘Shooting Star’ is full of longing, whoever it was written about, you can hear them in Bob’s voice as he sings “seen a shooting star tonight/ and I thought of you”.  Arguably seen as one of Bob’s best of that time, as such a simple style of song translates beautifully both in the original album it came from, and on the Unplugged stage, and it’s quite a breath-taking addition.

‘All Along the Watchtower’, a song that always comes to mind when someone mentions Dylan, is lengthened to an impacting ending longer than the original, a method he was experimenting with in recent tours in that period. Despite the difference in ending, it is instantly recognisable and it isn’t difficult to see why this is, and probably always will be, his most well-known track. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ harbours the same style as it always has and no modern listener is likely to see any problem with this unplugged rendition. However, listeners of the era argued that this version contained something that seemed wrong and without resonance.  Many speculate why the effect surfaced, some pointing the finger at its licensing for Coopers and Lybrand advertisements – which was a well known brand at the time of this record’s release – hearing it over and over on television tainted the song, an unfortunate fact that was all too apparent when the song kicked in at the original live recording.  

There are continuous reminders in this album of Bob’s changing attitudes, his bitterness seeming to subside. ‘Dignity’ from Oh Mercy was recent, and we see that his later work is a lot more about the exploration of truth, rather than being as judgemental as he previously came across – in many ways, this album represented him as a changed man. Even songs from his early ‘I’m going to be purposely ironically bitter’ days seemed less so – ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is laid back, and he seems more curious, no longer blaming others as it sometimes sounded in the past. It’s as if he asks himself “how does it feel to be on your own / like a rolling stone?” Only he can answer that, the live audience, and the listeners even today, are left wondering. One song previous is ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, and again the emotion in Dylan’s voice is unmistakeable; wrenching as if the words scratch his throat. Even with the musicians surrounding him, he seems alone, singing the song to himself, and baring all he has to everyone listening.

Everything comes to an end as ‘With God on Our Side’ from The Times They Are A-Changin’ begins – Bob is never one to go astray from religious references in his songs and this is no exception. It’s also an obvious nod to his folk music roots, a fitting ending as that style of music is something he will always be remembered for. The lyrics are rich and personal, like Dylan is giving us a biography just before he closes the album: “Oh my name it ain’t nothin’, my age it means less / The country I come from is called the Midwest / I was taught and brought up there, all the laws to abide/ And that land that I live in has God on its side”. A younger man when he first wrote it, it’s impossible not to see Dylan as an older and wiser man here, and singing from his youth makes everyone feel nostalgic.

This performance, this album, has to be one of Bob Dylan’s most personal experiences to hand over to the world and privilege of that fact can be felt after every listen. No matter if the track list is unusual, unexpected and without some atypical choices, why look into it? All this event does is confirm Bob’s inevitable ascent into legend status, destined to be looked on in nothing but a positive light, for many years to come. Over 70 years old and still making music today – he’s an admirable and commendable figure even now as he was then.

Dylan used his platform of fame to spread a message, and as he once said when asked how lyrics come to him, he said “they just came out through me” – confirming that when he creates something as he did here with Unplugged, all that can be done is for it to be appreciated, and to take something from it.

Avid Dylan fans aren’t likely to be openly expressional when showing inward emotion – but if Dylan did it for this live record, a little bit of misty eyes may have been a repercussion of this emotive album. Yes, a blast from the past, but still just as great as it once was, listening is definitely recommended – as everyone can learn something from the mind of Bob Dylan.

Words by Hannah Campbell

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