When you have written literally hundreds of songs over a seven-decade career then there really isn’t such a thing as an essential crowd pleaser. Bob Dylan’s prolific career has resulted in such a grand mausoleum of song that in the 1990s David Bowie bemoaned the amount of choice he had for a setlist in comparison to Dylan, “I was green with envy,” he said, “When I heard Bob Dylan’s got about 140 songs to choose from.”
But it’s no good having those songs if you don’t know what to do with them. Fortunately, Bob Dylan knows exactly how to get the best out of his gilded creations. According to Jimmy Page, the experience of watching Bob Dylan perform was so profound that he was looking for the other invisible 999 versions of him hidden behind the lone star symphony on stage.
“In May 1965 I experienced the genius of Bob at the Albert Hall,” Page wrote as part of an Instagram post. “He accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and cascaded images and words from such songs as ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and ‘She Belongs To Me’ to a mesmerised audience. It was life-changing.”
However, his live career has famously not been without its hitches. Robbie Robertson of The Band would tour with Dylan on the infamous electric ‘Judas’ concerts that followed his crowning as the king of folk in a proto-punk act of defiance. Robertson said, “When I started playing with Bob, I didn’t know how so much vocal power could come out of this frail man. He was so thin. He was singing louder and stronger than James Brown. We were in a battlefield on that tour, and you had to fight back.”
The main song in question on that fightback Robertson mentions is the electric track he has played more than any other, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. Not only is it one of the greatest songs of all time, but it showed the power of plugging in more than any other, lending a visceral edge to his folk introspection in searing style.
Away from the electric controversy of the Newport Folk Festival, his live act has travelled through various permutations. From his early days playing with Joan Baez which Dylan fondly reminisces on, “I always liked singing and playing with her,” Dylan recalled, “I thought our voices really blended well; we could sing just about any kind of thing and make it make sense. To me, it always sounded good, and I think it sounded good to her too.” Right through to the Rolling Thunder Revue (where Baez featured once more) and his ensemble performance of recent rimes.
This unique diversity to his career lends the list of songs he has played the most and a very noteworthy edge. If he didn’t want to play a song live then it wouldn’t feature, it is as simple as that. As Paul McCartney recently said, “I always like what he does. Sometimes I wish I was a bit more like Bob. He’s legendary…and doesn’t give a shit! But I’m not like that.”
Interestingly, the song that features the most is one that Dylan has actually remarked upon regarding it continually cropping up in his live act. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ saw Jimi Hendrix take on the metaphysical anthem and appreciatively juice it right down to the pith, as Hendrix said himself: “All those people who don’t like Bob Dylan’s songs should read his lyrics. They are filled with the joys and sadness of life.”
“I am as Dylan, none of us can sing normally. Sometimes, I play Dylan’s songs and they are so much like me that it seems to me that I wrote them. I have the feeling that ‘Watchtower’ is a song I could have come up with, but I’m sure I would never have finished it,” the guitarist continued.
The result is a masterpiece that Bob Dylan even preferred to his own and amended the structure of his initial track for later live performances to be more like Hendrix’s, explaining: “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way,” adding: “Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.”
The deep introspective spiritualism of Dylan’s oeuvre is often shadowed in biblical overtones. They’re many ways to interpret his most played live song but if my opinion is worth a dime, it seems to be about Christ upon the cross and the two thief’s conversing on either side. I could be wrong, but it proves an important point regardless: it is the ambiguity and philosophical scope of such songs that makes them stand out as masterpieces in the world of modern music.
With ‘All Along the Watchtower’ he provided a message that usurped spiritual vapidness and despondent nihilism that pervaded an era of despair in America. In favour, he presented a note of fullness and forgiveness through an attitude of hope and the joyous sequestering of cynicism that comes from looking for solace beyond the despairing insular world of the watchtower. It is a worthy top stop champion even if it is somewhat unexpected.
The full top twenty is available to listen to below and is taken from his official source and the figure to the right depicts how many times he has apparently played the song live. It makes for one hell of a career-spanning setlist.
The 20 songs Bob Dylan has played live the most:
- All Along the Watchtower – 2268
- Like a Rolling Stone – 2075
- Highway 61 Revisited – 2000
- Tangled Up In Blue – 1685
- Blowin’ in the Wind – 1585
- Ballad of a Thin Man – 1253
- Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – 1086
- It Ain’t Me, Babe – 1070
- Maggie’s Farm – 1051
- Things Have Changed – 975
- Rainy Day Women #12 & #35 – 963
- Love Sick – 914
- Mr Tambourine Man – 903
- Summer Days – 885
- Masters of War – 884
- Just Like a Woman – 871
- Simple Twist of Fate – 804
- It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – 772
- Stuck Inside of Mobile… – 748
- Thunder on the Mountain – 739