As I walked toward the entrance of Hartford’s Bushnell Memorial Hall in May 1980, I was quite surprised to see ticket holders offering their $15 tickets for $5 each. I thought it was sacrilege for so many people in Connecticut to be disinterested in seeing Bob Dylan in a relatively small venue, with 2,500 or so seats.
People were practically giving tickets away—not wanting to see a tour that had been slammed by various media critics. Dylan was unwatchable and unlistenable, the slammers said, because he was playing religious songs, preaching about his conversion from Judaism to Christianity, and not playing his most popular songs.
Nine months before the Hartford concert, Dylan had released Slow Train Coming, a controversial record that announced his new born-again Christian life. The concert was also a month before Dylan’s subsequent release, Saved, an even more controversial record full of Dylan’s preaching that cemented his religious conversion, was panned by critics, and made many fans worried about their hero’s musical direction.
So, as we sat inside the Bushnell waiting for Bob to take the stage, we were very uncertain and concerned about what was about to unfold. We quickly learned there was no reason for the worry.
Dylan and his four-piece band—backed by a female gospel chorus—came out roaring on the opening number “Slow Train Coming” and followed with powerful, energetic versions of "I Believe in You” and "When You Gonna Wake Up.”
Then Dylan broke into a between-song smile and said: “Okay, anybody left out there? They tell me everybody leaves these shows.” He began preaching, telling the audience they were going to hear about Jesus all night, and “if you got demons inside you, you’re not gonna like this.”
And, unlike today’s Dylan, who often doesn’t say a word to his audience, the 1980 Dylan sometimes couldn’t shut up between songs, talking and talking, preaching and preaching.
The music was riveting throughout the show—full of enthusiasm and passion—and Bob’s loquaciousness was fascinating. I left the Bushnell somewhat stunned and fulfilled: Dylan had again spun his unpredictable musical magic.
Sony’s new box set, Trouble No More, The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981, beautifully captures the experience. The eight-CD/one-DVD release presents Dylan in all his fervent glory.
Except for “Ye Shall Be Changed,” none of the tracks, or the versions of them here, at least, have been previously released. Besides numerous live songs, there are rehearsal numbers and studio outtakes.
There are songs aplenty with Dylan’s Christian lyrics that were on Slow Train Coming and Saved. Hardcore Dylan fans are especially eating up other songs in the box set such as the live version of “Lenny Bruce,” the rehearsal song “Caribbean Wind,” the outtake “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” and the initial release of various songs, including “Making a Liar Out of Me,” “Blessed is the Name,” and “Cover Down, Pray Through.”
I’ve seen Dylan in concert more than 50 times over the years, including some of his best and most famous shows: the Hurricane Carter benefit at New York’s Madison Square Garden during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, his four-hour rehearsal show at Hartford’s Toad’s Place in 1990, and three of the brilliant acoustic shows at New York’s Supper Club in 1993. Today, maybe surprisingly, I look back just as fondly at the religious-fueled show at the Bushnell.
The intensity and the spirit of that show puts it on my Best I’ve Ever Seen list—a list that is quite long and makes me feel guilty each week as I try to make musician after musician pinpoint only one show as the best they witnessed.