After 37 years, folk-rock icon Bob Dylan returned in triumph to the stage, where he fused classic folk commentary with electrified rock and roll. And yes, this time he brought the acoustic guitar.
When Bob Dylan returned to the Newport Folk Festival last August 3, after an absence of thirty-seven years, he was greeted with sustained and enthusiastic applause. There were no rumblings of discontent as his crew set up complex electrical equipment after Shawn Colvin left the stage. No lanky folk purist lurked in the shadows with a fire ax looking for cables to cut. The only complaint I heard was from a woman in her fifties sitting not far from me, who told a stone-faced state trooper that although she had been here all morning, now that Bob Dylan, 60, was about to appear, a very rude man had pushed his way to the front of the crowd and was standing and blocking her view.
Wow! The times sure did change.
My children are older and wiser and on to my tricks, but when I have grandchildren, I am going to make sure they know exactly where I was during the 1960s: On the Mall during the "I Have a Dream" speech; in the mud, when Jimi Hendrix played "The Star-Spangled Banner"; carrying a rifle during the Tet offensive, crowded in the kitchen when Bobby Kennedy was shot, and in the audience when Dylan "went electric" at Newport.
Virtually everyone I have spoken to while writing this article claims to have been there--been there because they'd followed Dylan for years and didn't boo--so why not me? Articles leading up to and following Dylan's return hailed his previous appearance as the turning point in popular music, a defining moment for a generation who had first learned to ask probing questions when they heard "Blowin' in the Wind," and would now do just about anything but work on Maggie's farm.
Newspaper reviews were indeed generous. "As 10,000 spectators watched Saturday from lawn chairs or on picnic blankets, and perhaps 1,000 more from a flotilla of boats in Newport Harbor, there were no jeers--only cheers--as Dylan, wearing a cowboy hat, alternated almost song by song between his acoustic and electric guitars to perform such standards as 'Desolation Row,' 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' and 'Positively 4th Street,' " the Los Angeles Times reported.
Dylan, who wore a much-too-obvious wig, capped his two-hour show with four rousing encores. Of special interest was the point when he and three other band members used electric guitars to do an over-the-top-- if that's possible--version of "Like a Rolling Stone," only to follow it up with the same group playing an all-acoustic rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind." Nowhere could the generational gap have been more graphic than during this juxtaposition of the two kinds of instruments, once deemed incompatible.
All the back-to-the-future musical magic worked, noted a Chicago Tribune review. "But what once were protest songs now had fans that included former Vice President Al Gore waving their arms and dancing on the lawns outside the Civil War-era Ft. Adams. 'There was a lot more of it this time,' quipped Robert Jones, producer of the weekend concert, who was backstage during Dylan's short, tumultuous 1965 set."
Dylan, who performed just five songs at his 1965 appearance, insisted that Apple & Eve Newport Folk Festival organizers treat his return as "just another gig." This was not such an easy request, especially in recent years, since Dylan's last two albums, 1997's Time Out of Mind (a Grammy winner) and 2001's Love and Theft, are among his most acclaimed. But maybe what fans like most about the folk rocker--besides his music, of course--was his expectation, somehow, of not drawing too much attention at his return to Newport. If anyone had the right to become famous and still remain fairly anonymous, it would be Dylan, right? After all, such an outrageous claim goes with the perpetually uncharted territory he has been covering since the start of his long career. …