Reviewed by Lins Honeyman
By the end of the '60s, a lot had changed in the Bob Dylan universe. Having controversially "gone electric" in 1965 and then enduring a motorcycle crash the following year, Dylan had effectively disappeared from the scene only to reappear transformed into a seemingly mild-mannered, smartly-presented gentleman with a markedly different musical style. Gone was the unruly mop of curly hair - replaced by a neatly combed trim - and, thanks to the emergence of new spectacles on top of Dylan's characteristic Jewish nose, he now had the appearance and demeanour of a shy office clerk. Musically, the man's gravelly atonal singing style was in the process of being usurped by a purer, more melodic back of the throat voice whilst his penchant for spitting out protest songs would soon be tempered by a new love for the more light-hearted themes found in country music. The latest in a long-running catalogue of retrospective releases, this three disc set hones in Dylan's late '60s work and, as ever with the Bootleg Series anthologies, it provides a fascinating insight into the internal workings of one of the music world's most mysterious and iconic artists. Disc one covers outtakes and alternative versions of tracks from 1967's 'John Wesley Harding' album and 1969's 'Nashville Skyline' and, thanks to a combination of Dylan spending less time experimenting in the studio and/or many tapes simply having been destroyed following a dispute between the label and its storage company, there is arguably less meat on the bones here compared to previous Bootleg Series offerings. Nonetheless, amidst fairly straightforward alternate takes on now familiar songs, tracks like "I Pity The Poor Immigrant" from 'John Wesley Harding' is interesting in that it has an entirely different melody whilst a gem of an unreleased blues number called "Western Road" from the 'Nashville Skyline' sessions showcases the assuredness that Dylan had gained in his new musical approach as well as the stellar bunch of musicians he had chosen to surround himself with.
Undoubtedly the jewel in the crown, the middle disc and part of the third one finds Dylan teaming up with country music star Johnny Cash as they try out various songs in an attempt to find some collaborative middle ground. For the most part, it's Cash that sounds most at ease whilst his young ward tries to find his feet and comes across as somewhat sheepish and diffident. Cash's avuncular demeanour allows him to suggest various numbers including a mash up of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" with his own Dylan-based "Understand Your Man" - both versions bizarrely sung on top of each other here by their respective writers in a way that was worth a try but doesn't really work. Amidst the two men spending a lot of time searching for the right note or trying to find the lyrics of certain songs, a whole host of covers are included with the likes of standards such as "Careless Love" and "You Are My Sunshine" being presented in shaky and unfinished fashion whilst Cash references his Million Dollar Quartet buddies with passable versions of Elvis' "That's All Right Mama" and "Mystery Train" before letting Dylan take lead vocal duties on "Matchbox" - made all the more special by its writer Carl Perkins' inclusion as lead guitarist in Cash's backing band for these sessions. A smattering of old spirituals - "This Train Is Bound For Glory", "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" and "Amen" - are tentatively attempted whilst "Girl From The North Country", the only duo song to survive the sessions and appear on an official release, is tried out a couple of times before the pair seem to settle for the frankly dreadful and undercooked version that heads up the 'Nashville Skyline' album.
Disc three hones in on Dylan's 1969 appearance on the Johnny Cash TV show with refreshingly cohesive versions of "I Threw It All Away", "Girl From The North Country" and the Melvin Endsley-penned country classic "Living The Blues" sounding genuinely great. The latter song would go on to feature on Dylan's 1970 covers album 'Self Portrait' and two interpretations of Cash numbers from those sessions - "Ring Of Fire" and, more successfully, "Folsom Prison Blues" are included here in blink and miss it fashion. To round off this ramshackle but hugely fascinating box set, a brief collaboration between bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs and Bob Dylan is tagged onto the end with the undoubted highlight being the instrumental "Nashville Skyline Rag" which showcases Scruggs' brilliance as a player and the fact that he'd obviously done his homework before meeting up with his young apprentice. A chunky booklet featuring an extremely informative essay by music author Colin Escott and a foreword by Cash's daughter Roseanne rounds off this satisfying addition to the ever-expanding Dylan canon.
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