BOB DYLAN: MTV UNPLUGGED (1995)
1) Tombstone Blues; 2) Shooting Star; 3) All Along The Watchtower; 4) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 5) John Brown; 6) Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; 7) Desolation Row; 8) Dignity; 9) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 10) Like A Rolling Stone; 11) With God On Your Side.
When MTV approached Dylan with their still-relatively-fresh «unplugged» franchise, the man eagerly accepted the invitation, hoping to use it as a pretext for playing some of the material from his last two acoustic albums. However, it soon became obvious that this was not at all what the MTV people had in mind, since MTV people were setting the whole thing up for MTV audiences, and what sort of MTV audience would want to sit through an entire show of acoustic murder ballads and ʽFroggie Went A-Courtin'ʼ? Eventually, Bob just had to give in and agree to play «the usual» — the only oddities on the setlist are ʽJohn Brownʼ, an old protest song from 1962 that Bob never got around to officially release, and ʽDignityʼ, an outtake from the Oh Mercy sessions (another Oh Mercy song, ʽShooting Starʼ, is also on the setlist, indicating that Bob still regarded Oh Mercy as his last «proper» studio album up to date).
Given this situation, one could suggest that, perhaps, Bob would end up sounding disinterested and distant as a result, but most such predictions usually underestimate Mr. Zimmerman. After all, good or bad, all the performances would go on tape, and he was not at all interested in letting his reputation go to waste in the eyes of young MTV viewers. Consequently, the performance has him totally involved — as best he can, with that ever-deteriorating voice of his and with a backing band that has no immediately recognizable names, but is probably threatened into working as hard as possible. Indeed, as they launch into ʽTombstone Bluesʼ, with Brendan O'Brien playing the Hammond in Al Kooper mode, and Bucky Baxter violating channel rules by adding electric slide guitar licks in the background (because what would ʽTombstone Bluesʼ be without at least a little electricity?), what we hear is a strong echo of the «real thing» — the old hipster Dylan from 1965 — as compared to say, the relatively lacklustre, bite-less version from Real Live a decade ago, where the slowed-down tempo and the time signature change simply ate it all up.
From there on, it is all at least pleasant, and at most, inspiring — ʽDesolation Rowʼ, reimagined as a country-tinged ballad from the era of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, being one of the major highlights of the show; ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ shedding its poorly fitted reggae coat and returning to its stately gospel roots; and some nice steel guitar solos adding new spice to ʽThe Times They Are A-Changin'ʼ. ʽJohn Brownʼ will be enjoyable to everyone who liked the 1992-93 albums, and ʽDignityʼ is a rather pedestrian blues-rocker, but played with enough martial energy to keep it up for about six minutes.
Most importantly, the Unplugged album is the last record where Bob's voice, old and frail as it already is, is nevertheless free of the «gargling croak» that would already be in full swing two years later. This means that he can still boast some sort of technical and emotional range in his performances, and even hit some high notes every once in a while. On many of his contemporary live shows, he did not really care about this either way; but for those young MTV viewers, he does, and delivers credible — in fact, occasionally haunting — versions of ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ and ʽWith God On Your Sideʼ (the latter song requires a particularly versatile mode of singing, and the man actually hits all the right notes! Just filter out all the nasality and it's almost as good as in the old days).
Keeping this in mind, please forgive the inexperienced audience for not recognizing ʽDesolation Rowʼ until Bob actually says "desolation row", and then they all start clapping like crazy. If these were more or less the same people that sat in during the Nirvana and Alice In Chains shows, this delayed reaction is understandable — but some people might have gone home that evening with a little revolution taking place in their minds, because the show was really damn good. The video version is well worth owning as well: not only does it feature the complete show (with an additional ʽLove Minus Zero/No Limitʼ, otherwise only available on limited European editions of the CD), but Bob also cuts a pretty cool figure, sporting 1966-style dark shades and an overall «mystery look» that he'd cobbled together around the late 1980s and still carefully preserves up to this day (no more silly "thank yous" to the audience, for instance). All in all, a profitable thumbs up, even though, for obvious reasons, Unplugged will hardly have a chance to go down in history as one of his biggest live triumphs (unlike, say, Clapton's).
Check "MTV Unplugged" (CD) on Amazon
Check "MTV Unplugged" (MP3) on Amazon