How Bob Dylan & The Heartbreakers’ Surprise Farm Aid Set Came Together

Dirty Knobs bassist Lance Morrison provided behind-the-scenes insight into the historic performance.

By Nate Todd Sep 27, 2023 10:42 am PDT

Bob Dylan’s performance at Farm Aid on Saturday was a surprise to just about everyone. Some of the only people that knew were the band, which included members of Tom Petty’s longtime group The Heartbreakers in guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Campbell rounded out the lineup with members of his band Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs, drummer Steve Ferrone (who was a Heartbreaker from the mid-1990s onward), guitarist Chris Holt and bassist Lance Morrison.

Writer Ray Padgett had a chance to interview Morrison and gained some interesting insight into how the historic performance came together, published on Padgett’s Substack, Flagging Down The Double E’s. Morrison revealed that the band knew about a month in advance that Bob was going to to perform at Farm Aid and that they would be playing with him after Dylan had called Campbell.

Morrison also stated that “of course he wanted Benmont in there, Benmont’s the man, but also he has a history with Bob, so it was very helpful to have him there too.” Additionally, Morrison noted that Farm Aid came in the midst of the Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs tour and that it was a whirlwind of plane and van rides to and from the airport immediately after landing and after the concert to make it happen.

But happen it did. Dylan’s 2023 Farm Aid appearance was his first in person since performing at the inaugural benefit festival in 1985 — an event he inspired during his July 1985 Live Aid benefit appearance by asking if some of the money raised could be used to help American farmers. Interestingly enough, Bob was backed by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers at the first Farm Aid.

So Dylan and The Heartbreakers members showing up at Farm Aid 2023 certainly made sense. What was surprising to many fans was that Bob played guitar as he’s rarely played guitar in concert for the past decade. But Morrison had an interesting take on Dylan playing guitar.

“That’s one of the things that I didn’t realize, that he hadn’t been playing guitar recently. So when he shows up, the first thing he did was put on a guitar. They had a couple of guitars there for him. He’s standing up playing guitar in rehearsal and it just seems normal to me. It’s like, well, there’s Bob Dylan with the guitar. Exactly the way I’ve always seen it.”

Moreover, Dylan played guitar on a trio of classic songs — “Maggie’s Farm,” “Positively 4th Street” and “Ballad Of A Thin Man” —- from perhaps his best year creatively, 1965. Dylan released two groundbreaking albums in 1965, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, on which “Maggie’s” and “Thin Man” appear on respectively. “Positively 4th Street” was a non-album single that came out after both ‘65 albums on September 7.

While “Maggie’s Farm” was a fairly obvious choice it being Farm Aid, Dylan hadn’t performed the song since the 2011 Grammys and not at one of his concerts since 2009. “4th Street” and “Thin Man” were also bustouts, not played since 2013 and 2019 respectively.

In Padgett’s interview with Morrison, the latter noted that the epic “Like A Rolling Stone” was rehearsed with just the Knobs and Tench “but once Bob got there, I don’t think he wanted to do it, or we just never got around to it.” According to Morrison, however, the rehearsals were extensive with Morrison noting that they “did a couple of days.”

Bob naturally had a few curveballs in store when it came time for the show, with Morrison revealing he changed the key to “Maggie’s” at soundcheck. The actual performance — which Morrison noted not even the Farm Aid crew knew about — Bob called an audible to keep going as he soloed out of “Thin Man” even as Campbell was ready to end the tune. But Mike and the Knobs being seasoned pros just rolled with it.

“Mike said that we were ending the song and then he saw that Bob was soloing and he’s like, ‘Let’s keep going. If Bob wants to solo, everybody should hear Bob’s solo,’” Morrison said, and later in the interview noted. “…we’re hanging on a B-minor at that point, and it’s no big deal. And Mike and I started the chord changes at the same time. So I think it worked without the train wrecking too much.”

But perhaps the most important takeaway was this comment by Morrison. “Bob seemed happy, smiling.” Read Ray Padgett’s entire interview with Lance Morrison here and watch Dylan’s surprise performance at Farm Aid below:

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