On October 16th, 1992, there was only one ticket floating around the New York City streets that everybody wanted to get their hands on but remained illusively out of touch. To mark 30 years of Bob Dylan’s genius, the great and the good of the music world came together to pay tribute to the enigmatic talent which was named by the great Neil Young as ‘Bobfest’.
The event was held at Madison Square Garden and was put on to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s first-ever record release on Columbia Records. The mammoth stage was set and the list of artists willing to get under the spotlight and perform a cover of their favourite Dylan songs was bigger than most major music festivals.
When we say there was a big roster of incredible performers, we really do mean it. The event saw a host of acts including Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Chrissie Hynde, The O’Jays, Eddie Vedder, Sinéad O’Connor, Tracy Chapman, George Harrison and, of course, Lou Reed.
To celebrate this incredible event, which remains one of the greatest evenings of live music that has ever gone down on the planet, here are five of the most iconic performances from Bobfest which remain essential viewing.
Let’s dive in!
The 5 best performances from ‘Bobfest’
While others took on the more notable moments of Dylan’s incredibly lengthy discography, Reed, ever the non-conforming artist, chose to do something a little bit different. He chose to perform one of Dylan’s bootleg tracks, ‘Foot of Pride’.
The song was originally an outtake from the Infidels sessions but has been widely loved by his fans ever since. As with most Dylan albums, demos and outtakes from Infidels were quickly bootlegged but ‘Foot of Pride’ did eventually make it on to record, released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. It’s one of those tracks that separates fair-weather fans from diehards and put Reed firmly in the latter’s camp.
“That’s the song I picked to do at Bobfest (in New York in 1992). I’d been listening to it almost every day for two months,” Reed said of the song and performance, before adding: “It’s so fucking funny: ‘Did he make it to the top? Well, he probably did and dropped.’ There are so many verses, it was impossible to learn. G.E. Smith [ who was part of the band that night], who was playing with me, turned the pages. There is a lot of anger here. It’s not the Three Stooges.”
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder
Eddie Vedder was the biggest rookie on the bill at Madison Square Garden which is a testament to what Dylan saw in him and, although Pearl Jam was one of the biggest bands in the world at this point, that didn’t mean anything when he was in the company of music’s biggest legends.
Vedder was joined by his Pearl Jam bandmate Mike McCready at Bobfest and they delivered a gorgeous rendition of Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’. This performance proved to everyone watching in the wings or backstage that he was the real deal and was on course to become a legend in his own right, which he sure as hell went on to achieve.
Pearl Jam are another example of Dylan’s wide influence over music and although sonically they come from different worlds, Vedder learnt the art of songwriting from worshipping the iconic songwriter. His cover of ‘Masters of War’ was the moment he proved himself to any remaining doubters.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are two of the most symbolic figures of Americana. The two legends of the genre helped change the face of music and, over the years, they have not been shy about discussing the admiration that they had for one another. His duet with his with June was one of the stand-out moments from this star-studded show and provided a beautiful, precious few minutes as they covered Bob Dylan & The Band’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’.
“In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats then and now,” Dylan wrote upon Cash’s passing in 2003. “Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English.
“I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.”
The late former Beatle and Bob Dylan shared a great friendship which started all the way back when they were the two most defining figures of the ’60s with Dylan singling him out as his favourite Beatle both on and off stage.
This would turn out to be one of Harrison’s last performances before he became unwell and, although his final outing would be an impromptu show at VH1 accompanied by Ravi Shankar in 1997, as well as at the memorial service for Carl Perkins, this show was one of the last times Harrison would take the stage would be all down to his friend Bob Dylan.
Harrison arrived on stage near the end of the evening and performed ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ and ‘If Not for You’ before he joined the large ensemble of musical stars for ‘My Back Pages’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. It would be one of the last times he would ever perform.
Neil Young took to the stage to deliver a short but killer set that saw him start by covering Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ before moving on to ‘All Along The Watchtower’ — which got the whole of Madison Square Garden on their feet.
‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ is widely considered by many as being in the conversation along with Dylan’s greatest work, it has since been reimagined by a host of iconic figures such as Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Frankie Miller, Linda Ronstadt, the Grateful Dead and, of course, the great Neil Young — whose cover in 1992 at Bobfest might well be the highlight from the entire evening.