37 Years Later, Dylan Plays Newport
This time, Bob Dylan knew better than to walk onstage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar.
The legendary singer-songwriter last played Newport in July 1965, when he famously "plugged in" for the first time, smashing barriers between folk and rock, and was booed by folk-music purists.
Thirty-seven years later, Dylan returned to Newport, and fans had nothing but applause as he walked onstage around 5:30 p.m. Saturday, slung an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and, with Al Gore standing just offstage, led his four-piece backing band into an acoustic version of "Roving Gambler."
These days, the 61-year-old Dylan is more Nashville than Greenwich Village. He wore a white cowboy hat and a black vest and managed a shuffling two-step during a few songs.
Next came countrified takes on "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Desolation Row," and "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," before the band traded their acoustic instruments for electric ones.
His band, which included Tony Garnier on bass, Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell on guitars and George Ricelli on drums, matched Dylan in Hank Williams-style black.
They switched between electric and acoustic several times during a 90-minute set that included 15 songs. Highlights included a hard-rocking version of "Down in the Flood," a song dating to Dylan's days with The Band, and an acoustic rendition of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere."
Jim Sullivan of Falmouth, Mass., who was just 7 the last time Dylan played Newport, brought his own 14-year-old son, Ben, to witness a bit of history Saturday. Both wore hats and T-shirts from Dylan's current tour. Like his father, Ben is a big fan, and belongs to an Internet chat group devoted entirely to Dylan.
"I was a Dylan fan all by myself for my whole life," Jim Sullivan said. "Then he was born, and I made sure he was a Dylan fan. Now I have someone to go to shows with."
After a 10-minute break, the band returned for a four-song encore that began with "Not Fade Away," and "Like a Rolling Stone," a song that hit the airwaves just days before Dylan's last appearance at Newport and would became an anthem of the 1960s. "Blowin' in the Wind," and "All Along the Watchtower," rounded out the encore.
"He's in better form than ever," said Mark Kunkel, a 51-year-old longtime Dylan fan who drove 1,300 miles from his home in Carrollton, Ga., in a 1977 Volkswagen microbus to witness Dylan's return to Newport.
The 10,000 tickets to Saturday's show at the two-day Apple & Eve Newport Folk Festival sold out faster than in any other year in the festival's history, fueled mainly by Dylan's long-awaited return.
Whether the boos in 1965 were for him or because of the poor sound quality — still a matter of intense debate — Dylan's three-song electric set that year has attained mythic status.
But the times indeed have a-changed.
"I can't think of anything he could do that would make me want to boo him this time," said Jack White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for WPRI-TV in Providence.
White, who was then a 22-year-old college senior, was among the folkies who jeered at Dylan the last time he played Newport. He even stormed off the festival grounds before Dylan was through.
"I've mellowed with age," said White, now 59. "I think you could probably say the same of most of my contemporaries."
Dylan's acerbic, at times sarcastic, protest songs captured the mood of America's increasingly disenfranchised youth during the early years of Vietnam war and the civil-rights struggles.
At 24, however, he was maturing personally and artistically. Earlier in '65, Dylan released "Bringing It All Back Home," an album of both acoustic and electric songs.
Then Dylan and his new sound hit the stage at Newport, the sacred hub of the folk movement.
"Newport was definitely the most dramatic place to do it," said Dylan biographer Michael Gray, author of "Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan."
"Everybody knew that he'd gone electric. It was there on the album. But the folk music establishment was hanging onto the notion that he was still one of theirs."
Dylan strode onstage late in the afternoon on Sunday, July 25, 1965, with a Fender electric guitar and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They stunned the crowed with a raucous rendition of "Maggie's Farm," followed by "Rolling Stone" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." Dylan then came back for an acoustic set with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Mister Tambourine Man."
Witnesses differ over whether the boos and catcalls were because Dylan "plugged in," or because of the sound system's shortcomings. Some say the harsh reception was due to the brevity of the set.
Whatever happened, popular music would never be the same.
"It exploded the possibilities of what you could do in popular music," Gray said. "After Dylan went electric, you could control your material as an artist and, in a way, your career, too."