I first heard Bob Dylan consciously probably around 1994. My earliest memory is likely seeing a grainy copy of Girl From The North Country from Hard To Handle in the late ’80s.
The next really significant memory is MTV Unplugged. It was my first taste of that ever morphing voice. That’s where I first heard Bucky Baxter. That dobro on Desolation Row.
Bucky Baxter. What a name. Friends called him Buckwheat, but Dylan fans knew him as the Mayor of Bloomfield, West Virginia – one of Dylan’s band-intro put-ons, every night on the NET.
The 1992-1996 band (Winston Watson, JJ Jackson, Bucky Baxter, Tony Garnier) doesn’t get nearly enough praise for the way they lit a flame under Dylan. It was during their tenure that he really came back fighting, predating the resurgence with Time out of Mind and no doubt influencing it. He found his voice again. Listen to the Willie Nelson birthday show of ’93 and many of the live shows in that year. A personal favourite of mine is Alabama 93, which served up a beautiful Born in Time, Jim Jones, Hard Times Come Again No More and You’re A Big Girl Now. ’93 was the the year of World Gone Wrong and it was also the year Dylan came back from the cold.
The 92-96 band were what the Plugz could have been for Dylan in 84. They were fresh, raw, unadulterated, a shot in the arm for Dylan. He wanted to really rock out and he never rocked as hard as he did with Bucky, Winston and JJ. They didn’t roll, they didn’t rumble, but they really, really rocked out. They were a sum of their parts band. Together they made something special. Bucky could run a pedal steel true as country or like it was a hammond organ or some other ethereal chime. JJ could rip out some really fine acoustic fingerpicking (those blue-jazzy lines in Hazel from Unplugged). He could knock out some wonderful runs, and he could go chromatic and dazzle, his tone was usually dry without effect and often bluesy. He always had that big beaming smile. Bucky on the other hand, grooving at the back behind Bob, always had a slight look of mischief a dash of the contrarian about him. I often wondered how impressed he was with what was going down.
Winston was all passion. Real, heart on sleeves, pumped full with honesty and determination and goodness. Hair in perpetual fizz and fuzz, jumping up and down and around as he laid into the kit like a lion tearing open a bison. With sticks flying backstage at the close of a song, snare and tom impact full bodied, hard, solid, booming, the skin snapping back, and Ooooh Jokerman! He brought Dylan something colossal, a force of nature, but a gentle, gentle man. Dylan wanted to plug into that energy. Winston was the shot in the arm Dylan needed, he wanted that energy and for those handful of years its raw power did something to Dylan, but it also did something to Bucky and Tony and JJ. Winston ‘made’ Jokerman, he owned it, it was his, Bucky’s wailing lap steel and Bob going for the vocal more than he ever had.
Something happened to Bob’s voice in 94, was it was the Great Music Experience, getting vocal coaching for that performance? Like any amount of catalysts, his touring band were part of whatever was happening. Listen to I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met) from Krakow, Poland. The bootleg is known as Inside The Rain. Unforeseen events have a way of bringing the best out of Bob. There’s a line where Dylan’s voice leaps a whole octave and his voice is golden, rich pure, streams of pentatonic wailing right back down from the mountain to the soil, splash the rain hits the amps, the stage, the fingers on the guitar, the raindrop drums pounding, you’ll know exactly what I mean if you go listen. Transcendental. Couldn’t have happened without that band, without Bucky, Winston, JJ and Tony.
Then there’s Silvio, silver and gold, a song I’d rather not hear if I’m being honest, but JJ who by 96 had taken it to the histrionic psychedelic edges. He and Dylan’s guitar duelling, tripping over each other orgiastically, staccato lines, interweaving, playing off each other. Dylan never played better lead than when he played with those guys. JJ would play off Dylan’s parts here and there and take them further. I often wonder how he would fit in the band now with Charlie and Bob Britt. I think certainly he and Charlie could have weaved magic in ways Charlie had with Larry. But they’re different players doing different things and yes the 92-96 band was a whole other type of music than what came after. I think it was the first new sounds Bob had made in a long time.
Bucky had been around here and there since 89, teaching Dylan pedal steel but not getting the call to go on the road til 92. Think of those versions of Down in the Flood that would often open a show in 95. Think of Queen Jane Approximately, the mandolin on It Ain’t Me Babe from Woodstock, the slow dirge Baby Blue. Bucky could pick up anything. He played fiddle, he played clarinet, he picked up an accordion on tour and just started to play it like he was going for a walk. He played lap steel, pedal steel, dobro, you name it.
That band had their own unique sound. They made music that wasn’t really derivative of any one style and for someone like Bob Dylan with his back catalogue to take that risk was quite something.
With this band there weren’t really stock licks or replicating of styles of music which came later in the Larry/Charlie and beyond. This band weren’t the post-modern outfit that Love And Theft birthed. This combo sounded like these songs were new and fresh and direct true and they made for something unique and I think that’s what Bob loved about how Winston brought that energy to the songs. Bob Dylan was a member of a band, not the leader out front, he was jamming with them, he was learning to play lead. He played a lot of solos. They were a real jam band. But they had their delicate moments too. The slow version of Tambourine Man, Visions of Johanna from 95, the Philly show, Shelter From The Storm from Prague when Dylan and Winston both had flu. All those memorable shows. There are so many pitch perfect 94/95 shows. It’s the last time Dylan sustained an energy level song to song.
Van Morrison might have been the arbiter of the bands demise because he didn’t see what Dylan saw in the band and his comments about Winston were the beginning of the end. Let’s be honest, Van had his own sound, his own type of band, his own perceptions about rhythm and blues and jazz and folk, his Too Late To Stop Now or Wavelength era band could have whipped any other band and sent them packing, but Van was wrong. Dylan was a different type of artist then and he was on a different trip musically, allowing his songs to be morph, to open up and be reformed, reborn and remade in clashes of sound and fury.
I’m sorry I never saw the 92-96 group live. I was too young. But I grew up on MTV Unplugged and it was how I first heard Bobs singing voice.
Bucky hung on through Time out of Mind and up through the 99 tour through April. The Vienna ’99 show from that last tour is one of my all time favourite shows Dylan has ever performed. The most stunning version of Boots of Spanish Leather I’ve ever heard. Larry Campbell and Bucky worked well together, Larry brought a whole other level to the proceedings and so of course the band morphed again.
My good friend Andrea Orlandi whose gold-shirted shot of Bob Dylan made it onto the recent ‘I Contain Multitudes’ artwork, followed that band religiously. He saw many, many shows. Before Winston he knew Charlie Quintana, he’d got to hang out with JJ, Winston, Charlie and some of the others on tour to tour. He knew big Jim. He captured some great images of Bucky and the band in those years and I post these below with his permission.
Rest in peace Bucky. Bob was mighty lucky to have you.