Bob Dylan´s Bootleg Series has always been a blessing, since 1991 and till this day. The creative wellspring of the artist begged for this treatment, both in the need of documenting an extraordinary life-spanning career of live performances and of documenting high quality songs and recordings, outtakes and alternative versions, that, for one reason or another, didn´t make it to one of the album releases through the years.
While the number “Thirteen” for some means bad luck, the reason why mostly points back to The Last Supper, with Judas as the thirteenth guest. If the number of Volume Thirteen for exactly this set from this period is just a simple twist of fate or a nod to the fact that the artist a few years before this periode was named Judas – who knows? Many of Dylan´s earlier fans and/or critics also in 1979 focused on Dylan´s “betrayal”, one more time. I don´t know how many I´ve met during the years, that told me that they liked Dylan until “Slow Train Coming”, but stopped listening to him when it was released. There is no doubt about it – the label “Judas” was something that Dylan always would remember – as in his interview with Rolling Stone in 2012, speaking about people accusing him for plagiarism:
“These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”
Nevertheless – this time, “Volume Thirteen” really means good luck for us all. For all lucky enough to have known some of the, until this day, unreleased material from the rich period from late 1978 through 1981, there always have been a strong hope for a Bootleg Series-release like this, not as a “pay-back-time”-experience but first and foremost to give everyone interested the opportunity to get to know the strength and beauty of this material. Both the lost fans from 1979 and the new fans from through the almost forty years that have passed by. I´ve registered that some people already, without even having listened to the finished result, have complaints about the content – why isn´t this and that included, this song or that version of that song and so on. Of course – this could easily be a 15-, 20- or 30-cd-box, and the possibility for a part two of Volume Thirteen is obvious. I could easily make a list of suggested material, but in the following I wont talk about what this treasure chest is lacking, but mainly focus on what is included. Both the depth and width of the set is flabbergastingly generous. In my humble opinion.
“The Bootleg Series, Volume Thirteen – Trouble No More” is organized in five different parts:
- CD 1 & 2: Hand-picked Live Performances from November 1979 to November 1981. (This is also the same songs included on the 2 CD-version and the 4 Vinyl Album-version of the set)
- CD 3 & 4: Rare And Unreleased. Outtakes, Sound-checks, Rehearsals & Live Versions of Unreleased Songs. (Interestingly – two of the tracks are already from fall 1978)
- CD 5 & 6: Live recordings from Toronto 1980 – picked from the shows 18th, 19th and 20th of April.
- CD 7 & 8: Live recording of the complete Earls Court, London show 27th of June 1981
- DVD: “Trouble No More – A Musical Film” – Bob Dylan concert and rehearsal footage mixed with sermons performed by Michael Shannon – see my own review of this.
The three years, 1979 – 1981, gave us three albums, all in all 150 concerts, divided in
a) three legs with only new material, fall 1979, winter and spring 1980,
b) “Retrospective Tour”, fall 1980, mixing old, new, covers and traditionals, and then
c) three legs of touring in 1981, also with both gospel material, songs spanning Dylan´s earlier career and a few traditionals and cover versions.
All seven legs are documented with one or more songs on the box, and in this way introduces us for “the whole story”, a great overview of the period. Not because it gives us all versions of all songs, not even all the songs that were played or recorded those years. But the “100 Previously Unreleased Live and Studio Recordings including 14 Unreleased Songs” is a beautiful start.
A slow train coming.
If there´s a theme song for this box set, it has to be “Slow Train”. Six out of eight cd´s starts with a version of this song, and it´s a great example of how a song develops in the hands of Dylan. We all know how we can follow a song from the early years of his career and until this day, the song shedding of one more layer of skin mostly each tour, like “Blowing In The Wind”, “It Ain´t Me, Babe” or “Tangled Up In Blue”, or sometimes inside a tour, like “Mr Tambourine Man” in 1978, or from night to night, like “Long And Wasted Years” the last years. The change can be in lyrics, in vocal, in mood, in tempo and in musical arrangement. This will never stop – everything Dylan does live, is a work in progress, even the last years with more fixed sets. I my listened to twelve different takes on “Desolation Row” last spring, following Dylan in Europe. These last days on his tour in US he have introduced radically new arrangements of “Thunder On The Mountain” and “Trying To Get To Heaven”. Moving on.
We already knew that “Slow Train” was the first of the gospel songs that were sound-checked, it has been well known that the song was rehearsed before the Nashville show in December, but this recording is said to be already from the 5th of October 1978 (cd 3). This is almost six weeks before the famous San Diego concert, where someone in the audience threw a cross to to Dylan, a cross he picked up and wore a few days later. The lyrics is different, the refrain the same. The slow train has been a-long-time-coming, one could think. It´s part of a long journey, a long struggle with the deepest questions in life. For most of us, I guess, for the restless poet pilgrims even more.
“In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
“Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth
To love and follow His direction?”
“Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?”
“I fought with my twin, that enemy within
’Til both of us fell by the way
Horseplay and disease is killing me by degrees
While the law looks the other way”
“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”
While the version from October 1978 (cd 3) is almost like a slow jam, an experiment, different words, but with strong vocals from Dylan, the next version, a year later, October 1979 (cd 4) is a complete take, rehearsed with funky horns a la Muscle Shoals, preparing for the opening of the gospel shows in Fox Warfield a few weeks later. Again a very engaged vocal by Dylan, the musicians around him making it a great track – one can only dream of how this could have been, had he brought the horns along for the tour.
“This is called “Slow Train Coming” – it´s been comin´a long time, and it´s picking up speed”, Dylan introduces the song on the last of a string of shows at Fox Warfield in 1979, the 16th of November. No horns, but the back-up vocals and Fred Tackett on guitar makes it all funky, Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner shuffles coal and serves as the playing brakemen on the locomotive.
Next up is the Toronto version from 1980 (cd 6), Fred Tackett in front, even more potent and aggressive on the guitar, Dylan´s timing and phrasing impeccable.
The rhythm-driven version from London, 27th of June 1981, (cd 8) is quite different. This really sounds like the train is coming. The guitars are in the back from the start, the keyboards more in front. It feels like more of a apocalyptic version. Dylan is shouting the refrain, like he is standing in the storm. The girls are singing the lonesome tune of the train whistle.
The last version is from two days later (cd 2), same arrangement, Dylan´s vocal even more desperately intense. All versions adds to the feeling and experience of a great song and of the alchemy Dylan is doing with his songs.
As he told us, Bob Dylan´s first hero was Hank Williams. He has played his songs from the start, outtakes of “Freewheelin´”, on the hotel room in “Don´t Look Back”, in the basement in 1967 and many more times. He played “Thank God” at the Chabad TV Special, he have contributed to the “Timeless” tribute and he even set melody to one of Hank´s lost poems.
“I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting,” he wrote in Chronicles. “The architectural forms are like marble pillars.” Enough said.
When Hank Williams released his more low-key songs, his recitations, moral songs and hymns, he used the psevdonym Luke The Drifter. “Help Me Understand” was one of this songs, and Dylan´s version included on “Trouble No More” is taken from the same sound-check as the first “Slow Train”. Bob is very faithful to the original but in a quite rough version, singing the refrain but reciting the verse, the story of the breakup of a family, the grown-ups “strengthened their own selfish pride/At little Sue’s expense”. Although the refrain is little Sue´s prayer: “Lord take me and lead me and hold to my hand/Oh heavenly father help me understand”, this isn´t a gospel song, but more of a moral sermon interestingly fitting for Michael Shannon in “Trouble No More – A Musical Film”: You should take good care of your children. This is the year after Dylan´s own divorce.
The song is strongly related to a song like “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw” from Basement Tapes when it comes to Dylan´s performance. Of course – “Sign On The Cross” is also very much inspired by Luke The Drifter the way Bob delivers it.
Another highlight of the box set is the cover of Dallas Holm´s “Rise Again”, a song performed as a show-stopping piano duet with Clydie King on eleven of the “Retrospective Tour” shows, and one more time in 1981. The version included are even more intimate than the performed, this time just with an acoustic guitar. It has the same magic intensity as the version of “Abraham, Martin & John” in the film. I would think it´s also from about the same time, preparing from the fall tour 1980.
The lyrics are from the perspective of Jesus Christ:
“Go ahead, drive the nails in My hands;
Laugh at me, where you stand.
Go ahead, and say it isn’t Me;
The day will come, when you will see.
‘Cause I’ll rise, again,
Ain’t no power on earth can keep Me down!
Yes, I’ll rise, again,
Death can’t keep Me in the ground.”
Dallas Holm´s own version was made in 1977 and awarded the song of the year in the Christian part of the music industry´s “Grammy”, “Dove Awards”. The original is quite a polished rendition, but as usual Dylan makes the song his own in this beautiful and heartfelt version with Clydie.
“Bootleg Series” is an endless river of great songs and takes left on the floor in the recording studios, but quite as much a jigsaw puzzle of Bob Dylan´s rambling life as a performing artist. None of the previous sets digs deeper than this one, both focusing on whole shows (as Earls Court, London, cd 7 and 8) and hand-picked live gems from the period (cd 1 and 2), both the development of a single song through several live performances (f.i. Slow Train Coming, Gotta Serve Somebody and Pressing On) and documenting songs that appeared just once or few times in a live show (among others songs as Thief On The Cross (1), Caribbean Wind (1), I Will Love Him (2), Groom´s Still Waiting At The Altar (5) ). One of Dylan´s golden rules is to never perform songs the same way twice. “Trouble No More” is a golden opportunity to delve into this jazzy urge, gift and capability of this unique artist, actually, the fans will be able to happily dive and swim through this perspectives as Scrooge McDuck does in his money bin.
In my opinion, some of the songs performed this years stands among the great Dylan songs, but some of them are more filling a space in a live show, functions well in the setting, more than on it´s own – Stand By Faith, I Will Love Him, Blessed Is The Name and Jesus Is The One fall into this category, underlining the gospel feeling then and there, but not so much more. While I always would be hunting for another take of “When He Returns”, “What Can I Do For You”, “Saving Grace” or “Pressing On”, this ain´t the case with those songs mentioned above.
Dylan´s harmonica on the versions of “What Can I Do For You” is beautiful beyond words, and the live sets shows us the flowering of both the balladeer, the gospel singer, the blues singer, the rock singer and the soul singer. He is singing his heart out on “When He Returns”, making us all want to believe what he believes, crying in the wilderness. The tough blues of “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” makes us all wanna stop being influenced by fools, the gutsy rocking “Groom´s Still Waiting At The Altar” makes us all wanna dance, the cool reggae-beat of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” makes us smile and sing along, also when Dylan changes the pig with a dog and ruins the rhyme. He really rocks in “When You Gonna Wake Up”, and in “Pressing On” he makes us listen one more time: “Don´t Look Back”.
The songs from Toronto on cd 5 and 6 give us great insight in Dylan on the gospel train, with fire and brimstone in the performances at the last leg that´s exclusively new songs. Dylan, the band and the choir fits each other like a glove. On cd 1 and 2 we got the overview from the challenging no-compromise and stormy intensity from the start in November 1979 to the more smooth weather, controlled and relaxed end of 1981, showing both progression and change in mood, tempo and arrangements. Everything a part of this story, everything worth listening to.
The Earls Court Concert from London 1981 might be the greatest Bob Dylan live show officially released to this day. Yes – I mean it! Seriously! I love the 1966-shows, I love Rolling Thunder, and yes I´ve heard it all. Nevertheless, Dylan in 1981 is at one of his absolute heights as a singer, he is mature, strong, tender, powerful and with a wonderful blue color in his voice that´s really unique this year, like its fetched from Van Gogh´s “Starry Night”. Added to this he got a great and soulful band, back-up-singers directly from heaven and a tremendous mix of old and new songs, displaying all sides of why Dylan is one of the greatest performing artists of our time. His version of “Like A Rolling Stone” is brimful of compassion and empathy like it never was before (or later), the Picasso of song going through his wonderful staccatoist period in “Mr Tambourine Man”, he is holding his heart in his hands when he sings the line of: “Ooooohhhh, the feeling still here in my heaaaaaaart” in “I believe In You”, and he is acting the kafkaesque theater of “Ballad of a thin Man”, playing all the parts himself. The humor is there in “I Don´t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”, and the harmonica splits the darkness in the beautiful blessing of “Forever Young”. All Dylans are displayed in this show – the young melancholy in “Girl From The North Country”, the complexity of love in “Just Like A Woman” with its most rocky bridge ever, a punk version of “Maggie´s Farm” (Introduced with “Here´s another animal song, the man animal…”) two years into Thatcher as prime minister. Dylan shouting: “I try my best to be just like I am/Everybody wants you to be like them”. It´s the politics of sin and it´s social conscience and the poet´s game and it´s the eternal fight for individual freedom. It´s about grace, about faith, about hope, about love, about doubt, about truth, about busy being born. A beautiful version of “It´s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, alone with his acoustic guitar, like he ended Newport in 1965, is telling the audience that he is still moving on, right before the show ends with another reggae, “Knockin´On Heavens Door”. No – this is maybe not the best of all the 1981 shows, I know that – but still – I think this is the greatest Dylan concert officially released until this day. Thank God!
Rare And Unreleased.
All over the world there is a lot of people waiting for this release, many has waited for a long time, hoping. Some people know the live recordings, some went to the shows and a lot of people haven´t even heard the albums. It´s difficult to make an analysis of what effect this release will have upon people with totally different starting points for the listening experience. Even when we come to the “Rare And Unreleased” there are items well known through many years and others shockingly new to almost everyone.
“Making A Liar Out of Me” is one of the biggest surprises. It´s like you are walking in to this secret room in the basement of a famous painter, and in the inner corner, under a rug, you find a beautiful but unfinished sketch with striking visual imagery and an exiting use of colors. You look at it in awe, wondering why the artist didn´t finish it. This is the effect of this song.
“Well I say that it ain’t flesh and blood you’re drinking
In the wounded empire of your fool’s paradise
With that light above your head forever blinking
Turning virgins into merchandise
That you must have been beautiful when you were living
You remind me of some old-time used-to-be
I say you can be trusted with the power you been given
But you’re making a liar out of me”
Some of Dylan´s most beautiful songs aren´t necessary finished works. “I´m Not There (1956)” from Basement Tapes would be the most obvious example, the lyrics not finished, here and there “dummy lyrics” impossible and not meant to understand, but the performance nevertheless of ageless beauty. “Making A Liar Out of Me” is found in a later stage than this, but the feeling is still that the song, even in all its glory wasn´t finished, a fate shared with many more great songs. Or sketches.
“Caribbean Wind” was released already in 1985, on “Biograph”. For this listener, the beautiful and quiet pedal steel version on this box set, from September 1980, are one of the absolute highlights, both as a performance and as poetry, with the great opening verses quite a bit different from the earlier released take.
“She was from Haiti, fair brown and intense
I don’t think she’d ever known about innocence
I was playin’ a show in Miami in the theater of mystery.
Told her about Jesus, told about the rain
She told me about the vision, told me about the pain
That had risen from the ashes and abided in her memory.
Was she a virtuous woman? I really can’t say
Something about her said trust me anyway.
As the days turned to minutes and the minutes turned back into hours.
I pretended to be sleeping and he thought I was
But I was only paying attention like a rattlesnake does
When he’s hearin’ footsteps trampling over the flowers.”
(Caribbean Wind, rehearsal with pedal steel on “Trouble No More”)
As opposed to:
“She was the rose of Sharon from paradise lost
From the city of seven hills near the place of the cross
I was playing a show in Miami in the theater of divine comedy
Told about Jesus, told about the rain
She told me about the jungle where her brothers were slain
By a man who had been dying and disappeared so mysteriously
Was she a child or an angel? Did we go too far
Were we sniper bait? Did we follow a star?
To a hole in the wall wall to where the long arm of the law can not reach?
Could I been used and played as a pawn?
It certainly was possible as the gay night wore on
Where men bathed in perfume and practiced the hopes of free speech”
(Caribbean Wind, version from “Biograph” 1985)
The irony is that it´s a different version of the lyrics at Bob Dylan´s homepage. This is one of many great examples of how Dylan paints and overpaints a picture, layer by layer, sometimes in studio, sometimes in his live performances. To be in the room and listen to lyrics like this:
“I pretended to be sleeping and he thought I was
But I was only paying attention like a rattlesnake does
When he’s hearin’ footsteps trampling over the flowers”
– and then realize that this maybe was the only time those words could be heard, may be quite an extraordinary and mind-blowing experience, knowing that you´re listening to a genius at work and just have to hold your breath. Until this day, where we all are able to pick up the sheet from the studio floor and listen to one more version of a beautiful and mystical song from the period when Dylan again started to increase the complexity of his lyrics, just a few months was passed by after the recording of “Saved”. Moving on.
The relation between “Caribbean Wind”, “Making A Liar Out of Me” and “Angelina” from the same period could be said to be quite as much related to outtakes from “Infidels” like “Foot of Pride” and “Someone´s Got A Hold Of My Heart” as it is to the gospel songs from 1980. The phases and stages of Dylan´s art isn´t always that easy to control, and the record company´s need to stamp him and label him into a fitting description for a box set like this, well, it might be a challenge.
“Trouble In Mind” was the B-side to a single from “Slow Train Coming”, never appearing on an album, until the German compilation “Pure Dylan”, but still not so easy to get hold of. A fine blues song and a great vocal performance. On this set we get the first take of the song, and in my opinion, when it comes to the vocals, superior to the earlier release, Dylan a bit more hesitating, almost whispering the vocals, to great effect, then more power on the refrain. A fabulous first take! Of the other alternative takes it´s worth mentioning the strong outtake jam of “Dead Man, Dead Man”, complete with some really great harmonica work from Dylan. We also get the only live recording of a rocking “Thief On The Cross” and the same goes for the little pearl, “City of Gold”. And of course another rehearsal of “Every Grain of Sand” from fall 1980, from a few days after the one included on “Bootleg Series, Volume 1-3”, this time without Jennifer Warnes and a barking dog, the song is growing and so are the vocals, in all its tender beauty.
After 1981 it would be almost three years before Dylan took to the road again. “Infidels” was released in 1983, and we learned that the same enemy that wore a cloak of decency some times come as a Man of Peace. In Europe 1984 “When You Gonna Wake Up” and “Every Grain of Sand” was well integrated in the set, as were “Jokerman” and “License To Kill”. “In The Garden” was used in 1986 with Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, as it was in 1987 along with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Slow Train”, as he also played with “Grateful Dead” the same year. The material from the “gospel years” were now integrated into Dylan´s enormous portfolio of songs, and he uses some of them when he feels like it – I remember well the shock when we heard the riff starting “Solid Rock” in Stockholm in 2002, same night as a thunderous “Man of Constant Sorrow” from his debut album, both songs from different wells of creativity, inspiration and genres, but both also a part of the big river of music known as Bob Dylan. In the same way I think that both his jewish heritage and his Christian inspiration live side by side – in his life and in his art. Why do he have to choose?
The “Trouble No More” box set is a rich and generous gift to us all, showing us in all its glory what a enormous strike of existential, creative and musical lightning those three years, from fall 1978 to fall 1981, really was. At last. The waiting has been rewarded.
And – for the record – I´m not a believer. Still – I believe the songs.
p.s. The ninth disc, the “Trouble No More – A Musical Film” DVD is reviewed here. d.s.