This was always going to be a hard sell…hours of previously unreleased live recordings from Dylan’s “Christian Period” when the former Mr Zimmerman preached fire and brimstone from three studio albums between 1987 and 1981.
This latest installation of Dylan’s Bootleg series comes in two versions, a sprawling 8 CD, 1 DVD package, and a more easily digestible 2 CD edition.
As much of a Dylan fan as I am, I found the idea of sitting through over nine hours of his gospel songs just a bit daunting, so the 2 CD set it is.
For those who weren’t around back in the late seventies, here’s a brief overview of the scenario.
After a string of acclaimed albums (Blood On The Tracks, Desire, Street Legal) Dylan took pretty much everyone by surprise and converted to Christianity, then released Slow Train Coming in August of 1979.
No one knew what to think of it. The album was produced by Jerry Wexler, recorded at Muscle Shoals and featured excellent musicians including Mark Knopfler. Musically, it was Dylan’s most interesting set since Nashville Skyline. But it was difficult to come to terms with the lyrics.
These gospel songs weren’t the sort that could be read in any generic sort of feel-good way.
Dylan was very specific is songs like Gotta Serve Somebody and Slow Train…you were either with him, or you were destined to burn in hell…there was no middle ground.
So listening to the trio of albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot Of Love) that make up this era was not always a pleasant experience. Most people don’t buy Bob Dylan albums to be preached at. They was to hear him rail against authority, or against a former lover, not judge their own beliefs.
As a result, record sales ebbed and fans stayed away from Dylan’s concert in droves, many of them walking out after it became apparent that, instead of hearing Blown’ In The Wind and Tangled Up In Blue, they would be confronted with nothing but songs like When You Gonna Wake Up and Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking.
But that was almost 40 years ago. How do those song stack up today?
The good folks at Columbia Records and Team Dylan are betting that time has made this music more palatable. Indeed, the liner notes accompanying this package desperately make a case for re-evaluation. Penn Jillette has written one essay, detailing his initial disappointment when first buying those albums but now finding a way in to the music.
I remain sceptical.
A few details regarding the music featured here.
They are live recordings from tours undertaken between 1979 and 1981. Dylan’s core band is superlative, with a rhythm section of drummer Jim Keltner and Tim Drummond on bass. The main guitarist is Fred Tackett, who went on to play with the re-formed Little Feat. Swamper Spooner Oldham is on keys and a bevy of female gospel singers, including Clydie King, provide backing vocals.
All play and sing exquisitely.
However, the source for most of the 30 tracks featured here are soundboard recording captured on cassette and the lower fidelity, while not distracting, does ultimately keep this from being a completely satisfying listening experience.
And then there’s the lyrics, and the on-stage preaching from Mr Dylan.
Disc one opens with Slow Train.
“This is called ‘Slow Train Coming’. It’s been coming a long time and it’s picking up speed,” Dylan warns his audience.
Then the band kicks in, with Tackett turning in a stinging guitar solo, one of many that populate this collection.
The rhythm section cooks and simmers like a tasty stew on Gotta Serve Somebody, but the dodgy source material turns the bass into a dull roar.
There are plenty of musical highlights, including the bluesy Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking and the moody Do Right Baby (Do Unto Others).
There are also previously unreleased songs such as Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody, in which Dylan boasts, “I can twist the truth as well as anybody”, and the rollicking Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One, that sounds like something out of the Dr John playbook.
But, as you might glean from the song titles, the lyrics are relentlessly judgmental.
Penn Jillette ponders in his essay why he was able to enjoy religious-based music by Bach, or Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, and why it took him so long to come around to Dylan’s. Of course, in his essay, he says he does hear this music in a new light…well, Columbia paid him to write this thing…but to my ears, the accusatory lyrics are still hard to digest.
Fortunately, Dylan himself tired of this approach and by 1983 he was back to making secular music with the Mark Knopfler-produced Infidels (not exactly one of Dylan’s greatest, either).
Despite all this, I’m still curious to check out the multi-disc version of Trouble No More. The idea of hearing 14 previously unheard Dylan songs and watching the feature-length documentary is still very tempting.