A surprise appearance from the man himself, Bob Dylan, brings three tracks which were thought lost to the last decade. His presence and perpetual state of touring and appearing in places not expected, in this instance Farm Aid 2023, is a constant delight for the hardcore faithful. Hearing any legend of the stage head back to their roots is always a delight, but with Dylan, there is a special feel to it. For those lucky enough to have seen him play live, the feeling is an eruptive and unique one. It comes from his state of play now, where he finds himself and how his music from all those years ago has developed. Farm Aid 2023 provides just the hook and showcase of where it now is. An opening performance of Maggie’s Farm presents it.
Grumbling, gravelly and great are now synonymous with Dylan, whose output this year has been nothing shy of incredible. Not just the quality, but the quantity too. Releasing as he did in his golden period through the 1960s, even if one of those full-blown albums is a live recording from decades ago. His spirit is back, his fight and desire. Much of it is left on the stage with these three songs, which kicks off with a guitar-laden stunner in the form of Maggie’s Farm. It is not Dylan at his vocal best, that appears to have been held back a tad, but he eases into this three-track set as best he can. Taking the fight to Positively 4th Street is a genuine treat. It sounds and feels as fluid as it gets. Dabbling in the past does no good, but Dylan does so for this Willie Nelson-organised event.
Hearing those blasts from the past, particularly Ballad of a Thin Man, is a welcome, warm feeling. It does not beat the modern-day touring Dylan partakes in. Rough and Rowdy Ways has its claws deeply sunk in the brain, Johnny Mercer covers et al. But there is a true magic, despite the quality, of hearing Dylan take a look at his finest works. So many covers, few scratching the surface of what Dylan brings to it here. Richard Hawley came close, though his version is buried in the Peaky Blinders soundtrack. Now, it is time for pace changes, warbling words and stilted charms from Dylan who turns a mutter into a stunning recollection of those old, firm words. Leaning back into a padded chair, stretching his legs and strumming away, Dylan feels his way into a process and reaction he has not massaged since the 1960s.
As far as iconic imagery of the legendary songwriter goes, there is no greater sight than a cowboy hat-wearing guitarist morphing the instrumental layover into a wild, Prince covering While My Guitar Gently Wheeps-like shot to the system as Dylan hits risible elongations of words. It works, though. That is the beauty of late-stage Dylan. His reverence and even fear of putting a foot wrong guides him through dangerous patch after dangerous patch, and playing with the words no doubt keeps it fresh. Does it keep it perfect and tightly wound? Not exactly, and this Farm Aid 2023 appearance, while for all the right reasons, hears Dylan not quite hang with the all-time performances of his lengthy career. Still, the shock of this trio of songs and the appearance itself does some much-needed heavy lifting.