Mike Rimmer puts 'Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol 13 1979-1981' by BOB DYLAN under the microscope
Bob Dylan's career has been a twisting and turning journey which has had fans delighted and equally frustrated by his artistic choices. Every time critics and followers have thought that they have him pegged, he has immediately shrugged off the expectations and done what he wanted. Original folk fans cried "Judas" in the mid-'60s as he went electric and turned up the volume, then the mantle of "spokesman of his generation" was thrust on him. Later in the '60s he went to Nashville and embraced country music at a time when the mainstream rock culture looked down on the genre. In the '70s, his personal pain was turned into moments of brilliance, for example on 'Blood On The Tracks', but across the decades there have been plenty of ordinary album releases and moments where fans have been left guessing.
The 'Bootleg Series' has allowed Dylan to raid the vaults and release a wealth of material which never saw the light of day at the times of recording. This series of lavishly produced boxsets have given collectors and completists (if they have £100 plus to spare) a chance to hear works in progress, live renditions of songs and experiments on stage that have fleshed out our understanding of his creativity. He has been a major creative force for more than 50 years and that's what makes this series so interesting.
I have been looking forward to the release of Volume 13 since the 'Bootleg Series' began. For it chronicles in detail that momentous period when in 1978, in his late 30s, Dylan embraced Christianity and he began exploring his faith in a Vineyard school of discipleship. He seems to have been a quick learner and soon the themes of his new faith started emerging in the music he was recording. The release of 'Slow Train Coming' nailed his colours to the mast and the shock of Dylan's conversion sent waves through the music industry. In the UK, the negative press that his three Christian albums and gospel-fuelled live performances received led plenty of critics to suggest that the singer/songwriter's Christian recordings were substandard. But these recordings tell a different story.
People forget that the song "Slow Train Coming" won a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance in 1980. In this period, Dylan was singing better than ever with a fresh passion and conviction which infuses a lot of the songs on this collection with a compelling energy. To be honest Dylan has never managed to equal his consistently passionate vocal performances captured here in the last four decades. This album covers the period from 'Slow Train Coming' through 'Saved' to 'Shot Of Love' and the immense nine-disc (eight CDs, one DVD) set also offers a selection of unreleased songs, some of which have only been available from live bootlegs of the series, to studio tracks that were dismissed from inclusion on the final albums.
The decision in 1979 to dismiss his previous music and only play his Christian material in concert was a bitter pill for some fans to swallow. And in the shock, many managed to overlook the fineness of the band backing him. Dylan has had fine bands before from the '60s legendary lineup of The Band which took him electric to the all-star lineup of the Rolling Thunder band in the '70s but I would argue that the band playing in this era was the tightest of his career. Built on the rhythm section of drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Tim Drummond, the inclusion of a gaggle of female gospel singers gives the whole thing a spiritual vibe. Former Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett is at turns funky and powerful. The series reveals that at one time in the run up to the first gospel tour, Dylan toyed with the idea of including a horn section in the band but financial constraints meant that he finally chose to just take the gospel singers.
The 'Volume 13' collection starts with a live disc with songs taken from the period, opening with "Slow Train" from his first gospel tour where for the first time since he went electric in the '60s, some audiences booed him and walked out. And yet the evidence here is that the band are tight and Dylan's singing is some of the best of his career. Just check out his version of "When He Returns" on this disc and it's interesting that Dylan's first gospel tour of 1979 also included performances of a number of songs that would be featured on the 'Saved' album recorded in 1980. One highlight here is the version of "Covenant Woman" and a rocking "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" which features some blistering guitar from Fred Tackett. The 1979 version of "What Can I Do For You?" is a worshipful highlight. Even the harmonica solos have soul.
One of the interesting aspects of the live tracks in Volume 13 is how the songs developed with repeated performance in the three years they were part of Dylan's set. Disc Two starts with a riotous version of "Slow Train" featuring a pair of guitarists, since by this time Fred Tackett had been joined by Steve Ripley, and the two let loose. Other highlights on this disc include a live version from 1980 of "Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody" which was part of live concerts for a short while but not released. By the summer of 1982 "Gotta Serve Somebody" had a new driving groove and I have to confess I really love the worshipful vibe of the material that ended up on 'Saved'. One song that was written for that album but not included was "Blessed Is The Name" which sounds like a worship chorus of the era. This disc includes some live renditions of songs that ended up on the 'Shot Of Love' album which, unlike Dylan's two preceding albums, is, save for the classic "Every Gain Of Sand", a pretty poor album. Having said that, I've always had a soft spot for "Watered Down Love" and the version on this disc draws from Bob a more passionate performance than heard on the released version. There is also an early live version of the standout "Every Grain Of Sand" which is slightly faster and less elegiac than the studio version but still shows it to be one of Dylan's most beautiful and uplifting songs.
Of all nine discs on Volume 13, Disc Three is probably my favourite with its mix of rare and unreleased songs. Highlights include a very early version of "Slow Train" recorded in 1978 with the 'Live At Budokan' Band and a rehearsal version of "Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking" which shows how his live sound would have been augmented by live horns. The outtakes from 'Slow Train Coming' are fascinating and that's the delight of the 'Bootleg Series', that we get a glimpse of how things could have been. "Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One", "Trouble In Mind" and the bouncy "Ye Shall Be Changed" are all good songs but you can understand why they didn't make the album's final cut. By the time Dylan took his live band into the studio to record the 'Saved' album most of the songs had already been road tested and the album and outtakes have a devotional vibe to them. With tracks combining the piano/organ sound of a gospel church and the sanctified singing of his backing singers, some of the live tracks captured here like "I Will Love Him", "Jesus Is The One" and "City Of Gold" sound more like a revival meeting.
Disc Four continues with more unreleased and rare material and it kicks off with rehearsal versions of "Slow Train" and "Gotta Serve Somebody" which again demonstrate what Dylan's live band would have sounded like on the gospel tours if he had taken both horns and backing singers. Tracks like "Yonder Comes Sin" and the lyrically rewritten "Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody" again illustrate the breadth of unreleased material left on the shelf at the time. "Cover Down, Pray Through" is one of the best Dylan songs previously unreleased.
Discs Five and Six are an edited version of the widely available April 1980 bootleg of a live show in Toronto. The original contained the opening set of gospel songs performed by the backing singers and this feels incomplete without them. It also doesn't contain the preaching that Bob did between some of the songs. This is sad because Dylan is famous for rarely talking between songs and these tours found him at his most talkative. These discs give an indication of how Dylan was in front of an audience while singing songs from 'Slow Train Coming' and 'Saved'. The band sound tight and his voice sounds strong.
It is some of the material from these 1980 shows that make up the concert footage of Disc Nine, the DVD in this package. As a concept piece, the preachy nature of Dylan's songs is augmented by an actor, Michael Shannon, playing the role of a conservative southern American preacher linking the themes of the live songs with some good ol' boy preaching. Apparently the subject matter of the preaches was scripted from original ideas suggested by Dylan. After watching it once I am glad the DVD comes with the option that I can watch a version of it with just the songs and not the preaching. I'd have preferred to have heard Dylan himself preaching on this collection which the original bootleg recordings of the live shows captured but these preachy bits have been left on the cutting room floor for this release.
Discs Seven and Eight are live tracks from Dylan's Earls Court gig in June 1981 and at that point he had begun to re-introduce older non-gospel material from earlier in his material. I remember at a gig a few days earlier in Birmingham talking to Dylan fans who had seen the recent shows and I asked them what they were like. They described how they suffered through the gospel material but were ecstatic when he played earlier material. These discs include new versions of classic oldies like "Like A Rolling Stone", "Maggie's Farm", "Mr Tambourine Man", "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and "Blowin' In The Wind" executed by what had by then become a very tight live unit. There's a nice moment when he tells the audience that he had talked to George Harrison earlier in the day on the phone while George was talking in his garden and then Dylan dedicates "In The Garden", a song about Jesus in Gethsemane, to George, the most spiritual Beatle.
I know in this period of his life Dylan spent a lot of time discussing his faith with friends and producers and musicians and that other musicians were challenged by his friendship and the songs. This boxed set gives an opportunity to re-evaluate Dylan's gospel years and it is way, way better than you would believe if you paid attention to the critics at the time. After this period he preferred not to write directly about his faith because his record label refused to support any further gospel music. The rest of his '80s music output was disappointing and it was only 1989's 'Oh Mercy' that saw him pick things up creatively again. I often wonder what might have happened if he'd been allowed to continue exploring his faith through music without interference. We'll never know but for now, this exhaustive 'The Bootleg Series Vol 13' shines a lot of light onto the creative and spiritual journey at one of the most important musicians of the last 100 years.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.