BY STEVEN ROSEN (This first ran in CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, August, 2012 but has been updated on March 11, 2021 to correct the date and provide additional details on his first Cincinnati show.)
Bob Dylan, who plays PNC Pavilion on Aug. 26 with special guest Leon Russell, has performed in the Cincinnati/Dayton area so often in the past five years he seems like a resident. This will be his seventh show since 2007 — his fourth in Cincinnati.
His shows now have a certain genial predictability, too. With a band that plays hot roots-rock infused with jump-blues/country-boogie elements, he plays older hits from the 1960s and 1970s along with highlights from his more recent “comeback” albums of the 1990s and 2000s.
But there was a time when any show he held here was suspenseful and full of surprise, because he toured so rarely and was changing the pulse of American music, as well as his own identity, with every record. And when he lost much of his following in the early 1980s, he fought determinedly and defiantly to win it back.
Using the charts of Olaf Bjorner’s Bob Dylan Yearly Chronicles, it’s possible to find 26 shows in Cincinnati, Dayton and Oxford. Comparing those to what was happening in his career at the time, we’ve culled 10 especially memorable dates. (If you were at any, please share your recollections.)
• Taft Theatre, March 12, 1965: Dylan’s first Cincinnati show was acoustic and, according to a Cincinnati Post review, featured him on guitar and harmonica on such songs as “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “All I Really Want to Do.”
• Music Hall, Nov. 7 and 18, 1965: This was his second trip in Cincinnati this year (Bjorner’s records say he bookended two Music Hall dates between shows in Cleveland and Toronto); he had done a solo performance at Taft Theatre on March 12, for which a poster survives. But he was now a Top 40 rock ‘n’ roller touring with a fully electric band. His “Like a Rolling Stone” had been released in July and was an instant hit, and he played Cincinnati with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. They would become the Band in a few years. If the Cincinnati show followed the format of others on this tour, he opened with an acoustic set featuring “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Desolation Row” and other recent, surrealistic ballads. Just four days after the Nov. 18 show at Music Hall, he would marry first wife Sara Lowndes in New York.
• Riverfront Coliseum, Oct. 15, 1978: Dylan had stayed away from this area for 13 years, but was a bigger concert draw than ever when he arrived with his World Tour Band that featured eight other musicians and three female back-up singers. The 27 songs included older material plus poignant songs from his 1970s albums Blood in the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal.
• Memorial Hall, Dayton, May 21, 1980: Ever changing, Dylan had become a gospel-rock singer and proselytizing Christian during this period – and his tour, with a great band and six female back-up singers supporting the album Slow Train Coming as well as previewing songs from Saved, finished there. This was a time when Dylan alienated his audiences – a second Dayton show had to be scrubbed for lack of sales — with frightening song introductions like this one before the song “Solid Rock”: “Well I remember trying to tell people in the sixties that hard times would come but it would change. I told them about it in 1963. Those harder times are coming now. The 1960s are gonna be just like a little lamb compared to the 1980s.”
• Music Hall, Nov. 4-5, 1981: For the tour supporting his final gospel-rock album, Shot of Love, Dylan wisely dropped the apocalyptic stage patter and broadened his repertoire to offer a retrospective of his work. Touring with a band that included Al Kooper on organ, this helped revive his fortunes. On the first night, there was a duet with back-up singer Clydie King on the Tin Pan Alley standard “It’s All in the Game” — they also shared vocals on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” both nights.
• Riverbend Music Center, Aug. 10, 1989: For his second show at Riverbend in two years (part of what has become known as his still-ongoing Never-Ending Tour), Dylan had a fiery combo — led by guitarist G.E. Smith from Saturday Night Live’s band — that tore through 1960s classics. And he treated the crowd to another Tin Pan Alley oldie — “I’m in the Mood for Love.” Steve Earle opened.
• Cincinnati Gardens, Feb. 19, 1998: Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind, his most heralded album since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, was just a week away from winning key Grammy awards when he arrived here with perhaps his best band since the Band. Larry Campbell, Bucky Baxter, Tony Garnier and David Kember moved effortlessly between acoustic and electric arrangements as Dylan proudly played Time Out of Mind selections and select older material.
• Bogart’s, July 11, 1999: Dylan and band took a night off from his co-headlining arena tour with Paul Simon to headline this special gig at the venerable Corryville rock club, which holds about 1,500. Again a mix of acoustic and electric numbers, it featured a hot version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” during the encore. This was a good year for Dylan in our area — he also played Dayton and Oxford.
• Taft Theatre, Oct. 15-16, 2007: He last played the Taft 42 years ago (in 1965), but he still had enough currency to charge $75 and $55 for tickets, and with his band played a satisfying set — often on electric keyboard rather than his more familiar guitar — that included songs, like the spooky “Ain’t Talkin,’” from his 2006 album Modern Times.
• Fifth Third Field, Dayton, July 10, 2009: Dylan’s short, unusual co-headlining tour of minor league ballparks with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson came to Dayton because of Fifth Third Field’s attractive downtown location.
Will this upcoming concert turn out to be equally memorable? Hard to tell, but Dylan isn’t coasting on his legacy yet. He has his 35th studio album, Tempest, due out Sept. 11.
I believe the dates are wrong for the concerts in 1981. Off a couple days. I have a poster that states the days were November 3 and 4.
Thanks, I’ll check into it. The bobdylan.com has the 4th and 5th as the dates; and the 3rd as an off day. So something could have changed somewhere along the line.
I had bought the original monotone album Bob Dylan at a music shop on Broadway in Nashville. Bob is six months younger than I am. Both prewar babies. I was so impressed with his unique sound that I told my sister in Lexington that I would drive from Knoxville pick her up and go on up to Cincinnati to see him play. When we got to Cincinnati, went to some Russian event by mistake and found out where the concert was just a few miles away. We were just seated when Bob came out on the right side of the stage. He had a chair like those at the high tables at Hooters with harmonics of different keys and behind him and to his left a bass player. He did the set beautifully. I, of course, knew every song. After the show walking out my sister thought we had seen a good show. Something very pure was my feeling in seeing his simple one man show. Later I saw him with his band. A much more musically rich sound, but I remember his solo performance as magical.