The Never Ending Tour Extended: Highway 61 Revisited 1989-2003

The Never Ending Tour Extended: Comparing recordings of Dylan performing his own compositions across the years.  Articles by Tony Attwood returning to recordings presented by Mike Johnson in the Never Ending Tour Series.

In this series we look at the way Bob has transformed certain songs over time in his live performances, in particular looking for the progression in his feelings about, and his understanding of, what the song offers, what the song says, where it can be taken next, and even on occasion how he can reinterpret the past.

According to the official figures “Highway 61 Revisited” is the third most performed song from the Never Ending Tour beaten only by the Watchtower and Rolling Stone.   As I come to write this piece the official site is showing 2000 performances dating from August 1969 to November 2019.  Can you imagine playing the same song 2000 times?

The earliest recording we have comes from 1989 and is not taken from the actual “NET” series on this site.  But it is worth hearing as the song in terms of the lyrics and melody is pretty much as we’d expect but the instrumental breaks are quite different as is the ending.  But it retains its position as a rare old rocker…


In 1994 as you can hear next, the song was the introductory piece.   Bob has changed his voice to make the delivery slightly more spooky, emphasising the fact that the opening verse does have a contract between Abe and God to commit a murder.

I find Bob’s voice perfect for reflecting this horror – and the instrumentation follows that style – it is less rock than the first example above.  This is helped by the fact that the instrumental breaks move into two verses long, emphasising the feelings.   Then as Bob’s voice comes in he is reflecting this deeper, darker mood.   The Highway is indeed covered in blood.

By the time we reach the next world war we are swamped under the horrors of what is hitting all around.  As a result, a very simple piece of music is extended to around six and a half minutes, and as the instrumental breaks hit us harder and harder we also get the point that Bob is saying, “You want rock?  Yes, I can do that!”  Just listen to the last ten seconds!


What Bob has now done is taken the song down somewhat in its intensity.  It is still there still vibrant, still in your face, but now there is an element that we have all heard this before.   Yes, it still means a lot, but we know that because we know the lyrics off by heart.   So when he tells us that “It is easily done” there is a sense of tiredness not of urgency anymore.    1995 part 6


But who is to say Bob can’t go back to an earlier version?  Let’s go back and use the upbeat version again – after all, it hasn’t been played like this for a while.  1998: One who sings with his tongue on fire.


And so it goes on and on, the speed has been varied, the emphasis slightly changed, surely with such a simple song (it does hardly have a melody after all, and there are only three chords).   Is there anything else that can be done?

Well, if you were expecting the answer to be “no” suggesting that Bob will just go through the motions, then in my view you are wrong.   For in 2003: Can there be a perfect performance? we really were going somewhere different again.


This is solid rock n roll, but just listen to the freedom and flexibility the soloists have in each of the instrumental verses.   The fight is not over, in fact it seems it has hardly begun.  Highway 61 is not just some relic of a signpost, but a fight that is still going on across the generations.

And really if you are not convinced by this just listen to the final verse (that’s the”trying to create the next world war” verse) and the instrumental coda that occurs thereafter, with that ultimate epilogue as the slow blues steps up to the final conclusion.   That was nothing like it sounded way back in 1989.

Quite honestly I’ve been so overpowered by that collection I don’t think I can take any more “61” – so unless you can remember later performances we’ll have to stop with that one for now and wait for a later date.   “Mopping one’s brow” seems an appropriate phrase at this moment.

The series so far

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