September 22, 2020

Peter Stone Brown Archives

Archives of musician and writer Peter Stone Brown

When it comes to picking a Dylan album to listen to or a video to
watch, MTV Unplugged is one of the last things I reach for.  It’s probably the least listened to of all my (legitimate) Dylan albums. There’s some okay stuff on Unplugged though I certainly can’t remember what. The only time I ever put it on is when I’m arguing with someone about it. More than any other Dylan album (with the exception of 30th Anniversary) Unplugged seems like product.

I can’t think of one performance, released or not — not even “Hazel” — that comes close to the most mundane song on any of the Supper Club shows. Frankly we’ll never know whether Dylan agrees or not, though I’m sure Columbia thought, especially given Clapton’s success that something with the “Unplugged” name would sell better.  As has been documented hundreds of times, Dylan’s decisions on what to release or what not to release are at the very least perplexing.  There could be some little thing either in the recording of or video of the Supper Club that he decided he didn’t like and that was why it was never released.

Dylan has himself alluded to being told what to do in commenting on this show and I think he felt he had to do it more than wanting to do it. The whole notion of Dylan unplugged is completely ridiculous since in some way he always had an acoustic part of his performance.  The Supper Club was more real in that it just happened.  He did what he wanted to do, not to mention there was none of the bullshit of putting younger members of the audience up front, which right there made it a more “real” experience.

Tombstone Blues, rehearsal.

The acoustic “Like A Rolling Stone” is just silly. Dylan could do a so-called “acoustic” “Dignity” or “Tombstone Blues” anytime he wants. The last time he really did Tombstone Blues right was in ’65 with the Hawks. I like it when I see him do it, but in retrospect he hasn’t touched the original in any of the live shows in the past 20 years. It just becomes another blues song for the most part.

“Knocking on Heavens Door” is an okay performance with a good harp solo, but the singing at times seems like he’s trying too hard and Brendan O’Brien’s hardly-unplugged organ is fairly generic.  What the song lacks is the spookiness of the original studio take, a spookiness that was (sort of) captured in both the versions with The Band and when Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton sang harmony in subsequent live versions.  Without trying too hard, I could probably come up with a bunch of versions that are superior to the one on Unplugged.

The last time I heard him sing “Times They Are A Changin” like he meant it was in ’81, and he put a whole different spin on it, spooky and sad. But I thought “With God On Our Side” was easily one of the best things about Unplugged along with “Dignity.”

As far as I’m concerned the Supper Club shows remain one of the high points of the entire N.E.T.  Bob Dylan in a small club doing an all acoustic (with the exception of pedal steel) set that somehow in the space of exactly an hour captured his entire career and included songs from his latest album. And on top of that singing like he meant it, playing great harp and holding notes in a way that recalled a certain esteemed tour from almost 3 decades before and pulling out surprises like a great version of  “Queen Jane”. And not to mention other stellar performances such as “Delia,” “Blood In My Eyes,” “Ragged And Dirty,” “I Want You,” a superb “Jack-A-Roe” (which was amazing to watch), four terrific versions of “Ring Them Bells,” and each has its own unique quality. They were far more intense and exciting than MTV Unplugged, which Dylan seemed to be doing because he had to do it whether he wanted to do it.  He put far more emotion into the performances at the Supper Club than anything on MTV. In comparison the somewhat forced nature of MTV Unplugged doesn’t come close.

Unplugged is ultimately a minor work that lacks both the intensity of Dylan in concert or his best albums.

One Too Many Mornings, The Supper Club (footage from Highway 61 CD-ROM)