Bob Dylan may not always be the most reliable live act. Famed for changing setlists and songs to his desire, as is his prerogative, when Dylan really turned it on, he was quite simply one of the most arresting live acts you’ve ever known.
With music festivals feeling like a distant memory, we thought we’d join up these two lines of enquiry and find one of Bob Dylan’s greatest festival performances. Of course, we had to revisit the second year of the legendary Isle of Wight Festival and likely its most famous headliner ever—Mr Zimmerman. On August 31, 1969, Bob Dylan ended a three-year hiatus from paid gigs by performing at the Isle of Wight festival, an event that had gathered mystique after its first festival in 1968.
The event was hosted just eleven days after Woodstock and was deemed a British counterpart to the event that had heralded so much free love and creative spirit in America. Organisers managed to bag the huge name of Dylan for the headline slot. It came as quite a shock decision from the folkie especially following Dylan’s refusal to play Woodstock which was held in his hometown. But for lucky fans in the UK, the freewheelin’ troubadour made sure the Isle of Wight Festival 1969 was truly memorable.
Bob Dylan had been off the road for three years following a near-fatal motorcycle accident. It was enough for fans to worry that the artist may never return. He was initially unsure on making the Isle of Wight festival his comeback show, after all, it was still way in its infancy. But after the Foulk brothers showed the singer tapes of the island and the festival’s burgeoning history, he soon agreed.
The clip below is revered as the return of one of the greatest songwriters of all time. However, it nearly didn’t happen. As Dylan and his family were due to sail across the Atlantic on the QE2, Dylan’s son Jesse was hit with a cabin door and hospitalised. Dylan just about made the show after taking a last-minute plane.
The performance was being billed as the “gig of the decade” after rumours of one or more Beatles joining Dylan on stage continued to swirl around the site with the hype soon reaching fever pitch. Not helped when the day before Dylan would take the stage, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr arrived on the island to stoke the rumours. They were a part of a huge celebrity contingent that included Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton as well as Yoko Ono, Jane Fonda, Françoise Hardy, Georges Moustaki, Syd Barrett, Donald Cammell, Elton John and others. Quite possibly one of the most star-filled audiences you’re ever likely to have seen.
It may not have seen The Beatles take to the stage with Dylan but his performance, while dressed in an impeccable cream suit, remains one of the singer’s finest moments. The 20-minute clip below features not only performances from Bob Dylan accompanied by The Band, but also footage from a press conference with the man, some shots of the festival itself as well as some of The Beatles in the crowd for the eagle-eyed among you.
The clip is a composite of colour and black and white footage that focuses mainly on Dylan’s performance in the headline slot. In the footage Bob Dylan and The Band plays songs ‘She Belongs To Me’, ‘I Threw It All Away’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘One Too Many Mornings’, ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’ as well as ‘Quinn The Eskimo’
It’s a brilliant piece of footage to paw over. For fans of the Nobel Prize winner, for fans of festivals, for fans of film, for fans of history —this has it all. Take a look below and watch Bob Dylan perform live at the Isle of Wight Festival.