“Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God’s greatest gift to him.” (Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone)
Jann Wenner´s review of the controversial “Slow Train Coming” was a great and brave piece of rock journalism, ending on a note focusing on Bob Dylan as a god-gifted singer. “Trouble No More – A Musical Film” displays for all who have ears – and eyes – that he was on to something important and true. Even more than a film about the message, the fight between good and evil, the protesting against a world gone wrong, it´s a film about a voice without restraint crying in the wilderness of life, speaking from the heart and to the hearts. That we finally get this document of this important and strong period in Bob Dylan´s life and career is nothing less than a triumph in all its glory. In this film you can hear and see all the qualities of his singing, both the tenderness and the whining, the crying, the longing, the roar, the soul-sighing a la Otis Redding, the anger, the sadness, the love, the irony, the humor, the musicality, the improvising and over all the exquisite timing and phrasing that makes Dylan one of the greatest singers of our times.
Bob Dylan is a storyteller. “Trouble No More – A Musical Film” is a story. Bob Dylan loves stories. “Trouble No More” is a story he is telling us. Bob Dylan is a story he is telling us.
Like “Jesus Met A Woman At The Well”, the terrific opening of “Trouble No More” – a great, relaxed back-stage rehearsal with an intense Bob and his great back-up vocal singers. The song itself a traditional gospel song, based on a story from the Gospel of John, sung and recorded by a long string of folk and gospel artists through the years, and, interesting enough, first recorded by Bob on the 1st of February, 1961. Mark that “Exhibit 1” to connect the dots between all the Bobs we´ve been presented through the years.
The rehearsal is from fall 1980, before the so-called “Retrospective Tour”, where Dylan started to mix both old and new songs, both his own, traditionals and cover versions. This happens after three legs and 79 shows of his touring exclusively consisting his own new gospel songs, mostly the songs from “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” and some of the outtakes from those two records.
This beautiful “musical film” both starts and ends with songs from this phase – the ending is a duet between Dylan and Clydie King, a phenomenal version of “Abraham, Martin & John”, first recorded and released by Dion in 1968. The duet is pure magic, both vocally and visually. Bob Dylan is playing the piano, Clydie sitting close by, and the interaction between the two makes this scene one of the great highlights of the film. The song is not a gospel song, but one of many cover versions integrated in the “Retrospective Tour”, this one a touching tribute to some of the heroes mourned by many americans, not the least all who participated in the fight for civil rights. After seeing Ken Burns´impressive documentary about the Vietnam War, you understand even better than ever the depth of the feelings related to those issues, the song released the year both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr died. An extra chilling effect is related to the verse about John:
“Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone”
The song was performed eighteen times out of nineteen shows the fall of 1980. Four days after the last show, 4th of December, John Lennon was killed. Some of the good die young.
But there is much going on between “Jesus Met The Woman At The Well” and “Abraham, Martin & John”. From the opening song about a woman meeting Jesus we are taken directly to one of the closing songs of the shows, “Are You Ready”, with the words: “Are You Ready To Meet Jesus/Are You Where You Ought To Be?” He is adressing his audience, but also himself: “Am I Ready, hope I´m Ready”.
As we´ve been told, the actor Michael Shannon shows up in the shape of a preacher, giving little sermons between the songs, the first one after “Are You Ready”. This is not Dylan´s sermons from 1979-80, but new sermons, written by Luc Sanne, ordered by Dylan, spanning six different themes by his choice: Hypocrisy, Virtue, Temperance, Gluttony, Justice and Prudence. This is sermons about cardinal virtues and cardinal sins. This is classic philosophy themes as well as explicitly christian themes, and Shannon is speaking to us about making moral choices when it comes to temperance, about taking care of our body and our soul, about knowing that hypocrisy wont save us or give us a ticket to heaven, that we should not judge other people, and that God will help us straighten up if we are willing. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” The sermons are underlining the strong moral and social themes of Dylan´s songs from this period, more than preaching some demanding christian doctrines about demands of faith or way of believing. In this sermons it seems there is no salvation if you´re not a humble and good person – there is no free ticket for the rich or the hypocrites who are respectable on the outside, but wicked inside. They will be punished – if not in this life, then in the next. Every sermon and every moral challenge is as much directed at so-called Christians as it is to so-called non-believers. That´s a message and part of the story. I think.
After “Are You Ready”, we go to “Solid Rock”, Dylan smiling and dancing as a song & dance man should do, happily singing the full blown gospel and the joy of having something to hang on to. Both songs are from “Saved”, the by far the most gospely of the three albums. The band is on fire, with a rhythm section to die for, Tim Drummond, who have played with both James Brown and Miles Davis, Jim Keltner, who have played with half the world, the two together making the engine on the slow train coming. In fact, in this song it´s picking up speed.
“Slow Train” is Dylan at his best. This was one of the songs he rehearsed already in 1978, before starting on his three months of bible school in Winter 1979. In “Slow Train” he is spitting out his worldview, he overturn the tables and adresses the anger to both man´s inflated ego and to the world, even to the people talking in the name of religion. The enemy he see, wears a cloak of decency.
“Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend”
“When He Returns”! What can I say – easily one of the highlights of the film – the camera is through the whole song close to Dylan, sitting by the piano, intensely baring his soul in one of his most outstanding vocal performances. There is not much hope, barely one. When you listen to “When He Returns”, I myself almost wish that I was able to believe.
“How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?
Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?”
I guess we never could label Bob Dylan as an optimist, not before and not after this period. Through all his work there is shadows and words of disillusion, lack of faith in the world´s and human nature´s ability to straighten out by itself. This world can´t stand long. The apocalyptic visions has been part of his nobelwinning art from the start, from “A Hard Rain´s A-Gonna Fall” and “When The Ship Comes In”, the claustrophobic intensity of “All Along The Watchtower” to “Things Have Changed”. Even these days he each night points out: “If the bible is right, the world will explode.” When we see him in this film, it seems like he believes we actually were running out of time, helped by political incompetence and human egotism, mostly winning over love and compassion. You better start swimming, or you´ll sink like a stone. These days, Dylan could see just one lifebuoy.
Then, one more song from “Saved” – the title song, maybe the most evangelical of all his gospel songs, preaching the gospel and the story of salvation in one funky celebration, the girl gospel choir behind him strengthening the feeling of being in the midst of a charismatic jack-pot of music, rhythm and faith, Dylan telling us his story like it was a spiritual song:
“Nobody to rescue me
Nobody would dare
I was going down for the last time
But by His mercy I’ve been spared
Not by works
But by faith in Him who called
For so long I’ve been hindered
For so long I’ve been stalled
I’ve been saved
By the blood of the lamb”
It´s a joy to see him in his joy, but it´s not a joy that can last forever, I guess. But that he had a glimpse of the sun, that´s for sure.
“Do Right To Me, Baby (Do Unto Others)” – an intense performance of a song already used in concert late 1978, Dylan´s own spin on the Golden Rule, the refrain mirroring the little doubt in human nature – the Golden Rule sure is a good idea, but you first:
“But if you do right to me, baby
I’ll do right to you, too
Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you”
Dylan is not without self insight and self irony, as we can see in the rocking performance of “Ain´t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody”:
“I can manipulate people as well as anybody.
Hold ’em and control ’em, squeeze ’em and tease ’em.
I can make believe I’m in love with almost anybody.
Force ’em and burn ’em, twist ’em and turn ’em.
All that satisfies the fleshy needs.
I’ve been down that road, I know what it needs.
But I ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody.
I ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody.
I ain’t gonna go to hell for anybody.
Not today, not tonight, not tomorrow, no never, no way!”
One of many signs that he really thinks, or that he really wishes to let his old self, or at least, some of his old self, behind – strike another match, go start anew. One more time. Because, as we know: He not busy being born, is busy dying.
Then, another highlight of the film, a touching rendition of the beautiful ballad “What Can I Do For You”, a low-key ballad and a fine vocal, but the harmonica solo at the end is of show-stopping nakedness, power, intensity and musicality – doing things with the little blues harp that you shouldn´t think were possible, squeezing it empty for all the soul possible to put into it. A fantastic moment.
The concert footage ends with the song that was also ending most of the shows this period, “Pressing On”, starting quiet with Bob on the piano:
“Many try to stop me, shake me up in my mind
Say, “Prove to me that He is Lord, show me a sign”
What kind of sign they need when it all come from within
When what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been?”
The song is building and building, the girl choir is rising as a wave behind Bob, and even Bob will rise again, from the piano, grabbing the mike, goes to the front of the stage, singing to the cheering crowd of believers and non-believers, then leaving the stage.
You would think it was over. The end credits are rolling, but then the fabulous bonus track, the transcendent duet with Bob & Clydie, “Abraham, Martin & John”, underlining the invisible red-painted sign over this film – “Sweet Soul Music Sung By Bob Dylan”. Clydie, who has been one of Ray Charles Raelettes, who have sung with Frank Sinatra, still seems to have the time of her life singing with Bob Dylan. A perfect ending, quietly pointing out of a phase of pure gospel and to the next where the gospel songs are a integrated part of Dylan´s live show, the old and new come together in a higher unity.
As the pictures of the musicians rolls over the screen we can hear the gorgeous early version of “Every Grain of Sand”:
“In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand”.
“Trouble No More” is an extraordinary musical film. The use of the sermon clips in between songs both shows the pride Dylan still got towards this part of his production, and that the strength of his struggling with good and evil is not over, not then, not today and not even tomorrow. He is still pressing on.
Bob Dylan could have chosen to release a complete filmed show without any sermons and exactly in the order the song was played in concert, and that could maybe been even more to the critics and some of the fans satisfaction. We all want more of this great concert footage. Of course. But Dylan, the storyteller, wants to tell us a story, this time. And there will be more Bootleg Series Volumes to come. For this one we just have to be very grateful.
The DVD comes with six extra performances, some complete takes of songs shown in the film (Ain´t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody, Precious Angel and Slow Train), but more interesting the one cut from Dylan´s tour in 1981, a great “Shot of Love”, a great live version of one of the songs never released on record before, the tough bluesy “Cover Down, Pray Through” (we always thought it was Break Through – and I still hear him singing that…) and another take from rehearsal in fall 1980, another version of “Jesus Met The Woman at the Well” with Bob playing bass.
Actually, the dvd also makes it possible to see just the sermons or just the songs.