Bob Dylan turns in a rare electric guitar performance as he surprises Farm Aid 2023 with the Heartbreakers backing him

Bob Dylan plays a surprise set at Farm Aid 2023
(Image credit: Gary Miller/Getty Images)

Bob Dylan rocked up at the Ruoff Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana, on Saturday night with a modded Telecaster in his hands and the Heartbreakers as his backing band, as he surprised festival-goers at Farm Aid 2023 with a short but powerful three-song set.

Opening with Maggie’s Farm – what else? – he traded licks with the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, with both of them working a wonderfully skronky electric guitar tone, blessed with a little hot overdrive, that perhaps reminds us that there is a line that could be drawn between Electric Dylan – his attitude, his iconoclasm – and the grunge and alt-rock of the early ‘90s. 

There is of course more to that complicated rock ’n’ roll lineage but among those to have colored in the gaps and make that influence stronger were the the likes of Neil Young, who also performed on Saturday night and who co-organized the very first Farm Aid in 1985 with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to raise money for struggling U.S. farmers facing the threat of foreclosure. 

Bob Dylan and Mike Campbell

Dylan's backing band was none other than the Heartbreakers, with Mike Campbell (left), playing his '54 Telecaster (Image credit: Gary Miller/Getty Images)

Farm Aid has raised more than $70 million for farmers over the years. It was fitting that Dylan was on the stage. Dylan’s comments during Live Aid 1985 inspired Young, Nelson and Mellencamp to put on the festival in the first place. 

After standing to play Maggie’s Farm, Dylan, 82, took a seat for Positively 4th Street and Ballad of a Thin Man, and was flanked by Campbell throughout, who shared soloing duties with Dylan, with Benmont Tench holding things down on piano. Campbell was also on a Fender Telecaster, using what looks like his much-loved ’54 Tele – a more traditionally appointed model than Dylan’s sunburst T-style which has been fitted with dual humbucker pickups.

It was a treat to see Dylan play guitar. It has been widely reported that arthritis has  left him struggling to hold the guitar let alone play, and yet he remains an artist who is still filling the calendar with dates, next month setting out on the latest leg of his mammoth Rough and Rowdy Ways world tour that has been on the go since 2021. 

He released Shadow Kingdom in June, an album of all-new studio material that he recorded in 2021. Dylan is credited on guitar and harmonica but welcomed the likes of T-Bone Burnett, Greg Leisz and Tim Pierce to the studio to lay down some guitar.

But on this evidence, Dylan has still got what it takes to play those wayfaring solos of his, as though he is sketching out an elliptical idea on guitar to complement that which he has better articulated through verse. It was ever thus. 

Bob Dylan will be playing the first of two nights at the Midland Theatre, Kansas, on October 1st. See for full dates.

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.