Bob Dylan Concert Film, from Massey Hall, Toronto, 1980

The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan Massey Hall Toronto 1980

I wonder if the dear reader has ever seen “Stop Making Sense,” the Talking Heads concert film made in 1984. If not, then you really ought to (and at the time of writing it is viewable on YouTube). If one was around back then, and a fan of popular music, it was pretty much impossible to avoid the hoopla over it, and the movie was an enormous success in theatres worldwide. Looking at it now, it might at first appear amusingly anachronistic. Our eyes are so accustomed to super-glossiness, to computer-generated imagery (that’s CGI to you young folk) and quick-edits that “Stop Making Sense” could seem visually slow and almost muted. But it’s neither one of those things, of-course. It’s a brilliant concert film, undoubtedly one of the best ever made, from the opening with David Byrne playing “Psycho Killer” with just his acoustic guitar and drum-machine track, right to the end, with the band slowly increasing in size as the show goes on, and the whole thing building and building and building and leaving you with the sense of having witnessed pure genius. The filming made the music the center of the experience, and the band are so into their music that it is an unalloyed joy to watch.

I thought of “Stop Making Sense” recently when I watched (not for the first time) the concert film made from Bob Dylan’s performance on April 20th, 1980, in Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada. It too is currently available on YouTube, although the film was never officially released. Whether the failure to release it was due to the dim view that some Columbia execs took of Dylan’s gospel music, or some combination of factors, I don’t know, but the moment passed, although copies of the professionally shot and edited film have been circulating among collectors for all these decades.

I was reminded of “Stop Making Sense” for a few reasons. Firstly, there just aren’t all that many full-length concert films from that era. Film was/is expensive, and you need a lot of cameramen and equipment and it’s a lot of trouble and moolah. (In the digital era it can be done quite a bit more easily, if not necessarily better.) Secondly, the glorious gospel stylings of Bob, his band and his backing singers couldn’t help but remind me of the Talking Heads’ swampy-gospelly-type numbers. In their case, they are painting from the gospel palette with more or less of a degree of artistic distance from its origins; in the case of Dylan and his people, they are just doing it dead straight, and giving it everything they’ve got. Thirdly, you’ll notice watching the Bob Dylan-Massey Hall-Toronto-1980 film that little if any time is spent showing the audience on screen (until the final encore). Much was made of this approach being very important in the making of “Stop Making Sense.”

Am I saying that Jonathan Demme (the director of “Stop Making Sense”) or David Byrne saw the bootlegged “Bob Dylan in Toronto 1980” and decided to copy some of its style, four years later? It would be interesting to ask them, but nah, I think it’s more likely just a case of great minds thinking alike, with the intent of conveying a concert performance on the screen in the optimum manner.

And the “Bob Dylan in Toronto 1980” film does succeed. It is galvanizing, from the opening number (“If I’ve Got My Ticket Lord, Can I Ride?”) by Regina McCrary and the other lady singers, through their whole opening set, and from Dylan’s appearance on “Gotta Serve Somebody” through to the final encore, “Pressing On.” Two hours and twenty minutes worth. They leave it all on the stage, most especially Bob Dylan himself. I think that you do not need to share the particular religious beliefs professed in the songs to be left breathless by the performances.

It would have been Bob Dylan’s first official full-length concert film, had it been released in 1980. That honor went instead to the “Hard to Handle” film in 1986, showing Bob Dylan backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Australia. (Curiously enough, Bob’s performance of “In the Garden” from the Saved album was taken from mid-concert and made the opening number of that movie.) “Hard to Handle” is a lot of fun for a fan, but, as I think Dylan himself has acknowledged, he was a little bit lost around that time on stage, and at times it seems like he’s playing the role of a rock star—a role that he’s never pulled off too well. As a film, it’s arguably a little bit pedestrian as compared to the unreleased Massey Hall 1980 show.

The Toronto 1980 film should be released, of-course. I don’t even know who directed the filming and edited the version that is out there, but they did a great job, and they deserve credit. People who’ve seen the bootleg would gladly buy a high-quality packaged version. Marketed right, it could even be suprisingly huge; anyone who thinks that religious stuff doesn’t sell ought to take a look at the rating for “The Bible” series that was on TV recently.

There’s nothing embarrassing about looking back at Dylan during this era. What he did, and how he pulled it off, was amazing. His lack of embarrassment about it is clear enough from his participation in the “Gotta Serve Somebody – Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan” project a few years back and the fact that he still performs a gospel-era song when he feels like it. Even the “gospel rap” he speaks during the Toronto show is unembarrassing; the world hasn’t changed so much since then—only gotten more dangerous—and his advice about needing a solid rock to hold onto seems quite as relevant as ever.

(And, while they get around to releasing this film officially, maybe “they” could also get around to giving Saved the complete remix and remaster which it has needed since the day of its release.)

At least, in these latter days, it’s not quite so difficult for this undeservedly-obscure classic in the history of musical film-making to be shared.


Bob Dylan
Fred Tackett (guitar)
Spooner Oldham (keyboards)
Tim Drummond (bass)
Terry Young (keyboards)
Jim Keltner (drums)
Opening act and backing singers for Bob’s show: Regina McCrary (then Regina Havis), Clydie King, Gwen Evans, Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Mona Lisa Young.


Bob Dylan and the McCrary Sisters

The Cinch Review

The other night (8/26) in Cincinnati, Bob Dylan was joined for his encore by the McCrary Sisters—Regina, Ann, Deborah and Alfreda—who supplied backing vocals for “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Regina McCrary has a long history with Dylan, as a backing singer in his shows and on his records during the 1979 to 1981 period.

She is also featured on the 2003 CD and DVD called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Bob Dylan, where a variety of gospel performers do cover versions of Bob Dylan’s songs. On the album she is the lead vocalist with the Chicago Mass Choir.

On the website dedicated to that project, Regina is quoted thusly:

When I got with Bob Dylan, I began to study his music before, to see who this man was. And I came to a realization that this man has been feeding people wisdom and words of encouragement.

And God has been using his hand and his heart and his mind to write music, to write lyrics, to keep people encouraged and keep them uplifted and keep them in the fight and keep them like soldiers, you know. Don’t sit down, don’t lay down. You gotta stand up, you gotta fight, you gotta believe!

And, since I’m not on Facebook, thanks to a friend for forwarding the text of Regina McCrary’s enthusiastic post there after going on stage with her sisters and Dylan the other night. It includes this:


Now if that doesn’t warm your heart you’d better take a trip to the cardiologist.

Below via YouTube are the McCrary Sisters (Regina third from the left) doing their own version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Continue reading “Bob Dylan and the McCrary Sisters”

Bob Dylan makes like Liberace on new tour

The Cinch Review

The big news from the first few dates of Bob Dylan’s current concert tour in Europe is that his main instrument of choice is now a grand piano. No candelabra like the great Liberace, but he is keeping the Oscar he won for “Things Have Changed”—or a facsimile—perched atop, draped with beads of some kind. (There are currently a variety of fan video clips on YouTube, like the one embedded at right with a great version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” from his show in Bonn, Germany). Continue reading “Bob Dylan makes like Liberace on new tour”

Bob Dylan in Tel Aviv

The Cinch Review

In fairly typical if frustrating fashion, Bob Dylan seems to have treated his gig today in Israel like any other gig, not playing any special songs (e.g. “Neighborhood Bully”) or making any big pronouncements. (I think Bob believes all his songs are special.) The most amazing thing about the set list is that it is identical to the one from his show in England a couple of days ago. When was the last time Dylan played two consecutive shows with exactly the same set list? For the record this is what he played in Ramat Gan stadium today: Continue reading “Bob Dylan in Tel Aviv”

Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Bob Dylan played yesterday, April 10th, in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. He delivered a set list that was in keeping with the kinds of shows he’s been doing the last couple of years. Reportedly, the venue was “half-empty” (or, as one may prefer to think, half-full) but this didn’t prevent Bob from delivering a relatively rare second encore, with the song Forever Young. This is the full list of songs he played: Continue reading “Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”

Bob Dylan in Shanghai

The Cinch Review

The set list from Bob Dylan’s April 8th show in Shanghai is now up at Bob Links and goes as follows:

1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
2. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
3. Things Have Changed
4. Tangled Up In Blue
5. Honest With Me
6. Simple Twist Of Fate
7. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
8. Blind Willie McTell
9. The Levee’s Gonna Break
10. Desolation Row
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Spirit On The Water
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man

15. Like A Rolling Stone
16. Forever Young

This second set list to look at from mainland China lends some credence to the theory that he may have been prohibited from playing Times They Are A-Changin’ or Blowin’ in the Wind, and — I’m thinking — Masters of War. However, I’d continue to caution that no one has cited a specific source for any list of banned songs. I do hope that Bob Dylan’s “camp” will make the record clear at some point; perhaps when he’s safely out of communist airspace (which won’t be until he leaves Vietnam, where he plays on April 10th). Continue reading “Bob Dylan in Shanghai”