Note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on August 30, 2010.
Bob Dylan is currently known for being “on the road, heading for another joint”. Even President Obama referred to Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour” when he performed at the White House in February, 2010.
However, after his motorcycle mishap in 1966, Dylan kept off the road for almost eight years. During this time, the silence increased his mystique, even though one of the main reasons for staying out of the spotlight was to leave the past behind, and lead a somewhat normal life.
In the years immediately following the accident, Dylan rarely appeared in public. He performed at a Woody Guthrie tribute in 1968, and was seen on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. Dylan was asked to play the legendary Woodstock Festival, which took place very near his home, but decided instead to leave town and play in the U.K., at the Isle Of Wight Festival, two weeks later on August 31, 1969.
How did the promoters persuade Dylan to play his first full-length concert in three years? Besides paying a reported $50,000-to-$84,000-plus-expenses for the gig, organizers Fiery Creations, aka brothers Ronnie and Ray Foulk, said that they sold Dylan on the idea of the festival by sending him a short film highlighting the island’s cultural and literary heritage.While rehearsing for the show, Dylan was interviewed and said that he’d always wanted to visit the Isle of Wight because it was the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
There were protests in the U.S. about Dylan only appearing in the U.K., rumors of Dylan writing new material for the gig, and 300 American journalists and photographers that reportedly followed Dylan to the U.K.
To get ready for his upcoming festival performance, Dylan made a surprise appearance at a July 14 concert by The Band, who were playing the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, Illinois. Dylan appeared as “Elmer Johnson” during the encore, performing four songs.
Dylan planned on leaving the Woodstock area with his family by the start of the festival, but his son Jesse was knocked unconscious when he hit his head on a doorknob while boarding the Queen Elizabeth II. So Bob and Sara (pregnant with son Jakob at the time) had to fly to London on the 25th. Starting the next day, Dylan rehearsed with the Band at a barn in Foreland Farm, Bennbridge. According to guitarist Robbie Robertson, Dylan was far more into the rehearsals than the Band.
On the 27th, Dylan gave a short press conference, and said little – a marked changed from his 1966 surreal battles with the press. Some of his answers: “The more the merrier. I just hope it’s a good show”, that his old style of dress was “gimmicky” and he no longer needed gimmicks, “I’d like to meet Georgie Fame”, “I’d sure love to (use the Beatles recording facilities), I love the Beatles, “and “My job is to play music. I’m just going to take it easy.You’ve got to take it easy if you’re going to do your job well.” As for being asked to give his views of young people taking drugs, Dylan replied, shaking his head, “I don’t have any of those views. I wish I did, I’d be glad to share ’em with you, but I … I think everyone should lead their own life, y’know.”
On the 29th, Dylan, members of The Band, and The Beatles (minus Paul McCartney, who was home with his wife Linda and their first child, Mary, born on the 28th), played some tennis (Bob Dylan and John Lennon versus Ringo Starr and George Harrison), then jammed back at the barn.
The day before the concert, Dylan and the Band reportedly rehearsed for four hours. It had been rumored that they also played at Hector’s Crab and Lobster Inn, although this lie was reportedly spread by Islander Jeff Lewis.
The Isle of Wight Festival featured an impressive line-up, including Tom Paxton, Richie Havens (both at Dylan’s insistence), and others including, of course, The Band’s own set after 10 p.m., 90 minutes late, followed by Dylan.
Here’s what the Band played, according to one source:
- We Can Talk
- Long Black Veil
- Kingdom Come
- Ain’t No More Cane
- Don’t Ya Tell Henry
- Chest Fever
- I Shall Be Released
- The Weight
- Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
In anticipation of the concert, there were all sorts of rumors spreading, from Dylan performing for three hours to an all-star jam session featuring members of The Beatles. Dylan became aware of some of the hype, so the promoters tried to do some preemptive damage control.
What the audience got was the new, conservative, country-crooning Bob Dylan, in a white suit and with an acoustic guitar. There was a long wait for him to appear, and Dylan did not hit the stage until 11 p.m. After the first song, Dylan spoke the friendliest words he may ever have said from the stage at this point: “Great to be here, it sure is”.
Dylan played just over an hour. Levon Helm said that there were about ten more songs with question marks on the set list that went unplayed.
The reaction by most people was one of contentment mixed with disappointment, although there were those that praised the performance.
Among the 150,000 to 200,000 there to see the concert were three Beatles, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, and members of the Rolling Stones.
Keith Richards had this to say:
I saw (The Band) at the Dylan gig on the Isle of Wight and I was disappointed. Dylan was beautiful, especially when he did songs by himself. He has a unique rhythm which only seems to come off when he’s performing solo. The Band were too strict. It was like they were just playing the records on stage and at a fairly low volume, with very clear sound. I like some distortion, especially if something starts happening on stage. (NME, December 6, 1969)
Elton John also attended the festival. His debut album, Empty Sky, had just been released in early June. According to record producer Stuart Epps:
I went to the Isle of Wight festival with Elton (John), Steve Brown , Jeff Titmus, Ian Duck from Hookfoot (who got busted for hash on that trip) and maybe Bernie (Taupin), can’t remember (he was so quiet you didn’t really notice if he was there or not). This was still 1969 and I had only left school 2 years before. My whole life had completely changed since then. For the guy who we still called Reg though, life was to change much more dramatically. We were going to see Bob Dylan playing in a huge field to about 150,000 . Backed by the amazing Band. No-one could have guessed at the time, that almost a year later to this day, Dylan would be going to see Elton in Los Angeles and because of the headlines that were to follow in the Melody maker, namely —– DYLAN DIGS ELTON ! everything was going to change. (Note: It was after seeing John at the Fillmore East, actually, accompanied by members of The Band, on November 20, 1970.)
The Isle of Wight wasn’t just a great gig, it was an amazing event. You really felt part of a movement in those days. The air smelling of grass and Patchouli oil again but due to not a lot of facilities, a few less pleasant smells too. Still none of us cared about that. We were one, Elton included, in this amazing event. The line up of artists wasn’t that interesting, apart from The Who, but I will never forget when Garth Hudson, The Band’s amazing organist, came on stage and started playing the intro To The Weight. We were so far back, that the wind would sometimes take the sound away, almost a bit like listening to Radio Luxemburg, which had such bad reception in the U.K. Somehow though, this gave the music even more magic and made the atmosphere of the gig more intense. I wonder if Elton was feeling the same?
Tom Paxton, the surprise hit of the festival, commented:
I sat with John and Yoko for the Band and Dylan and thought they were totally great. I was struck by a gesture of Bob’s that seemed to go pretty much unnoticed by the press and the crowd. He sang the British folk song, Wild Mountain Thyme. Very nice. I was at the party at Dylan’s ‘hotel’. Also there were John and Yoko, George Harrison and Ringo Starr with their wives and some Apple staff. The ‘entertainment’ was a test pressing of Abbey Road which I thought was tremendous. It was a quiet party and I didn’t stay late …
Listening to the concert and watching archival footage, it appears that Dylan and the Band were not only having a good time on stage, but they played a powerful set. in retrospect, it seemed like a slightly mellower blue print for ‘Tour ’74’.
The problems appeared to be people’s expectations, playing for such a vast audience, and fatigue mixed with poor planning. Dylan also included a couple of the weaker performances on Self Portrait, including a fumbling version of his biggest hit, “Like A Rolling Stone”, which did not help the concert’s reputation. The rawness of the Band sounds contemporary now, but must have come across as sloppy and unprofessional to untrained ears at the time. Not only were many of Dylan’s songs drastically rearranged, but almost half the material had never been performed live before. The solo acoustic set is especially moving, starting with a tender reading of the traditional “Wild MountainThyme”.
The concert was taped by Elliot Mazer, who Dylan bumped into at the Carnegie Deli before leaving for England. There were plans for a live album, but it never materialized. The show was, of course, bootlegged from inferior sounding audience tapes. Four songs were included on 1970’s Self Portrait.
Dylan and Sara left the mainland for London on September 1, and is rumored to have played on an unreleased version of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” at this time. The Dylan’s left for Kennedy Airport the next day, telling the waiting members of the U.S. press “they make too much of singers over there.”
Here’s what Dylan played, courtesy of Olof:
Woodside Bay, Near Ryde, Isle Of Wight, England: 31 August 1969
1. She Belongs To Me *
2. I Threw It All Away
3. Maggie’s Farm
4. Wild Mountain Thyme (trad.) (Dylan solo)
5. It Ain’t Me, Babe (Dylan solo)
6. To Ramona (Dylan solo)
7. Mr. Tambourine Man (Dylan solo)
8. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine
9. Lay Lady Lay
10. Highway 61 Revisited
11. One Too Many Mornings
12. I Pity The Poor Immigrant
13. Like A Rolling Stone *
14. I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
15. Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) *
16. Minstrel Boy *
17. Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35
*Included on Self Portrait.
Bob Dylan, with Robbie Robertson (guitar), Richard Manuel (piano), Garth Hudson (organ), Rick Danko (bass), Levon Helm (drums).
Complete list of acts August 30 -31 (alphabetical order):
- Blodwyn Pig
- Blonde On Blonde
- Bonzo Dog Dooh Dah Band
- Edgar Broughton Band
- Joe Cocker
- Aynsley Dunbar
- Fat Mattress
- Marsha Hunt and White Trash
- Mighty Baby
- The Moody Blues
- The Nice
- The Pretty Things
- The Who
- The Band
- Bob Dylan
- Gary Farr
- Julie Felix
- Richie Havens
- Indo Jazz Fusions
- Liverpool Scene
- Tom Paxton
- Third Ear Band
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