In 2006, shortly before the release of his album Modern Times, Bob Dylan raved to Rolling Stone about the band that had recently been backing him onstage and in the studio. “This is the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man,” he told the magazine. “They can whip up anything, they even surprise me.”
From 2004 to 2018, Stu Kimball was a member of that very band, which shared stages with such musical luminaries as Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Jack White, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, Wilco, Mavis Staples, Merle Haggard and Patti Smith during Dylan’s legendary “Never Ending Tour”. Stu ultimately strapped on his guitar for 1,323 Dylan shows, the most that any guitarist has ever played alongside the iconic singer-songwriter. Logging that many miles with Bob Dylan requires more than mere chops, however. “You have to be able to follow him,” Stu explains. “Anything can happen at any time — and when it does, you just have to go with it.”
Never one to indulge in showiness or blatant self-promotion, Stu Kimball has always preferred to let his exceptional guitar playing do the talking, while bringing soulful authenticity to every song he plays. “I always try to play from the heart, to play with soul and conviction,” he says. “I play for the singer and the song to help bring their vision to life.”
During his teens, Stu honed his craft in various bands in and around New England, eventually co-founding the dance-rock outfit Face To Face with future Grammy Award winner Angelo Petraglia, who would later be known for his production and songwriting work with Kings of Leon and Taylor Swift, among others. Signed to Epic Records (and later to Polygram/Mercury), the band scored a Top 40 pop hit in 1984 — and reached number seven on Billboard’s dance charts — with the propulsive “10-9-8”. Face To Face stayed together for three albums, long enough for Stu to acquire his taste for life on the road as the band crisscrossed the U.S. supporting Cyndi Lauper, The Alarm and The Romantics, and even toured Japan as a headliner.
Thanks to his studio work with Face To Face, Stu swiftly developed a reputation as a player and producer who could be counted on to deliver whenever the tape was rolling. Playing on numerous recording sessions for über-producers Jimmy Iovine and Arthur Baker, he lent his guitar talents to tracks by Al Green, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Nona Hendryx, Darlene Love and Clarence Clemons, among others, as well as Baker’s audacious “Freedom Mix” of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”. “This was at the time when everybody was doing dance mixes,” Stu recalls. “Arthur pulled out the two-inch tape of the song and asked me to play along, and they used my playing in the final mix. I’m a huge Springsteen fan, so getting to play on one of his records was certainly a thrill for me.”
Through Baker, Stu also enjoyed a brief-but-thrilling brush with his future employer, when he was tapped to play guitar on Bob Dylan’s “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky,” from 1985’s Empire Burlesque. “I was sitting in the control room of the Power Station in New York, with Bob and Arthur,” Stu remembers. “I cut a rhythm track, and then Bob asked me to play some lead, which I did — all through the song!” he chuckles. “He seemed to like it… I did make the record.”
Following the breakup of Face To Face, Stu cut a solo record (1996’s One Last Wish), continued playing sessions, and branched out into production work — most notably co-producing Peter Wolf’s 1996 album Long Line and Carly Simon’s 2000 LP The Bedroom Tapes. “When I was back in Boston after Face To Face broke up, I started producing a lot of local bands,” he explains. “I had already learned and absorbed so much from all the time I’d spent in the recording studio, so I was eager to try producing — and when I did, I found I had a real talent for it. The artistry of producing, putting it all together, is something that truly appeals to me.”
During the early 2000s, Stu also hit the road as a guitarist in both Wolf’s and Simon’s bands. “I worked with Peter for a long time,” he says. “He’s the real deal, an amazing writer, performer, musician, and a dear friend. He’s a gas to perform with, and I learned a lot about music, recording, and life in general from him. Of course, touring and recording with Carly was great; she comes from the Great American Songbook tradition. The songs she writes are incredible and deeply personal. Working with Peter and Carly, I discovered that I was a pretty good sideman, and that I enjoyed that role. You have to be a team player — show up prepared, be on your toes, lock in with the other musicians, and follow the artist wherever they want to go. I learned how to do that, and it’s served me well.”
Such knowledge and skill certainly served Stu well in the spring of 2004, when he got the call to audition for Bob Dylan’s band. “I’d done a bunch of work on Martha’s Vineyard with Tony Garnier, Bob’s longtime bass player and music director,” he recalls. “I went to see Bob at a soundcheck in Boston with Peter Wolf, and Tony gave me his number. A week later, I gave him a call to check in. A week after that, I got a call from Peter, who had gotten a call from Tony, who was looking for me. Three days later, Memorial Day 2004, I was auditioning for Bob Dylan. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited; we ended up playing around thirty songs over about three hours without stopping, just totally off-the-cuff. The next day, I got the call saying I was in.”
Stu joined Dylan’s band in time for the second North American leg of the 2004 tour, and his arrival was greeted rapturously by no less than preeminent Dylanologist Peter Stone Brown, who wrote in his review of Dylan’s Atlantic City show that “Stu Kimball is a walking catalog of great guitar licks… [who] knows when and how to use those licks and use them with taste.” Later in the same review, Brown wrote, “I’m going to go out on a limb and say Kimball can take his place as one of the top five guitar players to play on-stage with Bob Dylan — easily.”
Stu’s friends and fans in the industry are plentiful and passionate, and include such diverse musicians as Mark Knopfler, David Hidalgo, Benmont Tench and Mavis Staples. When the late Merle Haggard toured with Dylan in 2005, the famously aloof country legend even went out of his way to praise Stu’s playing. “One day, we were doing a soundcheck and Merle was out there in the venue listening to us,” Stu remembers. “He came up to me afterwards and told me that I had ‘great tone,’ which is one of the best compliments I ever got!”
For the better part of fifteen years, Stu accompanied Dylan around the globe. He made significant contributions to Dylan’s platinum-selling 2006 album Modern Times, which won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. The album’s track “Someday Baby,” which won a Grammy for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance, was also used in a 2006 iPod + iTunes TV commercial that prominently showcased Stu’s fluid blues licks. Other Dylan albums featuring Stu include 2008’s Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, 2012’s Tempest, 2015’s Grammy-nominated Shadows in the Night, 2016’s Grammy-nominated Fallen Angels and 2017’s Grammy-nominated Triplicate. In the fall of 2018, Stu and Dylan amicably parted ways.
“I will definitely continue touring,” says Stu. “I love playing live shows. I’ve been enjoying a break for a few months, taking the opportunity to reconnect with friends and fellow musicians here in Boston. I’ve been sitting in every chance I get with former bandmates like Dana Colley and his band Vapors of Morphine, and friends like Jimmy Ryan and his band Hayride, Dennis Brennan, and Dave Johnston. It’s been a long time since I was home long enough to really feel and be a part of this amazing community of musicians here in Boston, and I’m loving every minute of it. I’m also determined to continue to play benefits like "Outside the Lines" for children with autism, where I sat in with my friend Kate Taylor, and "Wall of Grass" for Boston’s Animal Rescue League, where I recently sang a tune with about 25 of Boston’s finest musicians. I’m also doing some co-writing and sessions, and I definitely look forward to doing more producing."
“More than anything, I’m a band guy,” Stu concludes with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I love the sense of camaraderie and connection that comes from collaborating and being part of a team. And when I’m producing, I approach things the same way. I try to be supportive, help the artists play from their hearts, be authentic and play like they mean it. Helping artists give their best performances, regardless of the venue — that’s what I love, and that’s what I feel I was born to do.”