Remember When: Rock’s Heavy Hitters Celebrated Bob Dylan’s First 30 Years in Music with an Unforgettable Tribute Concert

What concert featured the most impressive lineup of rock and roll luminaries? Woodstock? The Last Waltz? Live Aid? All solid choices. But you can make a pretty good case that The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration held in 1992 in honor of Bob Dylan can stand up pretty tall with all the others mentioned.

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At the time, it almost seemed like a farewell concert for Dylan, as his career wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders at that point. Little did we know the 30 years-plus since would hold some of his greatest artistic triumphs. Let’s go back in time to find out how this unforgettable event came together, as well as highlighting some of the performances, both incredible and controversial, that took place that night.

What’s the Occasion?

March 1962 witnessed the release of Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album. That meant 1992 marked the 30th anniversary of his recording career. A tribute was set for Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 16 of that year. A long list of superstars, many of whose careers had intertwined with Dylan’s own, was invited to perform his songs, with the man himself set to close out the show.

Dylan, 51 years old at the time, wasn’t exactly occupying a high point in either his life or career. His second marriage was crumbling, and his touring life didn’t seem to be bringing him any relief. Album sales plummeted throughout the ’80s, and, with the exception of Oh Mercy in 1989, critics who had once been so laudatory seemed to take delight in savaging his most recent records. A look back at what made him so special in the first place couldn’t have been timed any better.

The Performances

It’s difficult to narrow down the performances into just a few memorable ones, as the star-studded lineup all rose to the occasion. Many artists stuck to the obvious choices, such as Stevie Wonder working his magic on “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Neil Young unleashing his guitar squalls on “All Along the Watchtower.”

Those who stepped off the beaten path also soared. Lou Reed proved a kindred spirit to the bile spilling out of “Foot of Pride.” And Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers dug deep into Infidels and brought new life to the relatively obscure “License to Kill.” Veteran stalwarts (Richie Havens, Johnny and June Carter Cash) intermingled with then up-and-comers (Tracy Chapman, Eddie Vedder, and Mike McCready).

Sentimental highlights included Dylan’s old co-conspirators in The Band delivering a heartfelt “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” George Harrison, who rarely played live, ripping through “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and Roger McGuinn mewling his way through “Mr. Tambourine Man” with vigor. A version of “My Back Pages,” featuring McGuinn, Petty, Harrison, Young, and Eric Clapton joining Dylan in insisting I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now, was the icing on the cake.

Sinead’s Tough Night

Many people remember this night because of an incident involving Sinead O’ Connor. She was scheduled to perform “I Believe in You,” one of the gems from Dylan’s “Born Again” period. Unfortunately, many fans were still riled up about what happened two weeks previous, when she had torn up a picture of the Pope on live television. Boos rained down upon her when she was introduced by Kris Kristofferson.

Frustrated that she couldn’t start her intended song, she instead went off-script and performed an a cappella version of the Bob Marley song “War.” That didn’t endear her to those who were already against her, and she left the stage in tears.

Dylan Closes Out the Night

Dylan got the final word on that momentous evening in 1992, and he performed a spirited version of his chestnut “Girl from the North Country” to put a bow on the festivities. The applause was warm and congratulatory, yet it was hard to shake the feeling that folks were saying goodbye to his relevance as a musical icon at the same time.

Of course, Dylan had other ideas. His 1997 album Time Out of Mind began a creative resurgence that really hasn’t abated to this day. As such, the 30th Anniversary Celebration now stands as a testament to just one phase of Dylan’s career, a fittingly massive tribute to a transcendent body of work that has only grown in stature in all the years since.

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Photo by Steve Morley/Redferns

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