Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Album Review: Bob Dylan - Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series 13 1979-1983

Bob Dylan
Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series 13 1979-1983
**** and 1/2 out of *****

(This is a review of the two compact disc release)

While Bob Dylan has had many shifts in his performances and songwriting styles during his storied career, none has loomed as large and yet been as hidden as his Christian phase and this Bootleg release aims to explore that period in depth.

Focusing on his live performances during this time Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series 13 1979-1983 proves that Dylan was ultra-engaged. His sings with ferocity, backed by a host of female voices acting like a holy choir (these are Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Carolyn Dennis, Gwen Evans, Clydie King, Regina McCrary, Regina Peebles, Helena Springs, and Mona Lisa Young). The gospel sense is infused with the apocalyptic Armageddon message (especially on the first disc) but the secular world also slipped into the proceedings. With disco going on elsewhere, the backing music kicks in with some funky riffs and beats.

The religious fervor famously focused Dylan in the studio, as he used topnotch session musicians and producers for the three albums this release covers Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love. That attention to details carried over to the stage for these performances. Tim Drummond holds down the bass with Arthur Rosato and Jim Keltner manning the drum kit while a host of experts play guitar (Steve Ripley, Fred Tackett) and prominent keyboards (Al Kooper, Spencer Oldham, Willie Smith, Terry Young). Even Carlos Santana arrives to play a blistering solo on “The Grooms Still Waiting at the Altar”.

Arraigned mostly chronologically the years covered here find Dylan more fire and brimstone in ’79 with a steaming “Slow Train” and powerful “Gotta Serve Somebody” (from his famous Warfield Theater run) while second versions of both songs from ’81 have already evolved, taking on a funky looseness, with less Book of Revelation/End of Times force. “Solid Rock” has two different versions with the ’79 version bumping with grooving energy and the ’81 outing revamped, sapped of all its strength and enjoyment. The burning version of “Shot of Love” from ’81 however shows that Dylan can still dig deep and use that holy power for some inspired rocking.

The final few tracks move away from specific born again Christian directness towards a more worldly spiritual inclusion with the easy reggae tinged “Watered-Down Love” the light love song “In the Summertime” the fantastic organ drenched “Caribbean Wind” all this before one of Dylan’s all-time great pieces “Every Grain of Sand” which finishes the double disc set.

In between you get to hear the artist and players wrestling with the spirits and success of the tracks. The previously unreleased songs seem to be unreleased for the proper reason; they aren’t that dynamic. “Blessed Is the Name” is the best of these, working as a throw down gospel rave up that would be hard to capture in the studio, but “Ain’t Going to Hell for Anybody” remains one note throughout and “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One” is an odd pairing of strong religious declarations with music that would be right at home as a theme song to any generic early eighties network sitcom comedy.

The one thing constant throughout is Dylan’s strong performances on guitar (acoustic and electric), piano and especially vocally. From the heartfelt “Saving Grace” and “Covenant Woman” to the dynamically forceful “When You Gonna Wake Up?” and “Saved”; he is on point with his message and mission. The group stretches out studio versions adding guitar solos or piano runs to tracks but never overstay their welcome, the longest tune here is the almost seven minute piano based “Pressing On”.

Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series as a whole is amazing. It shines a light deep into the artist’s career, and while they shouldn’t be a first stop for new fans (explore the classic records first) they dig deep, unearthing linking tracks, lighthearted moments and for this entry, spiritual conversions. They are incredibly valuable to get the full scope of the man, his music and his vision as one of the most important figures of the 20th century and beyond. 

This entry continues the series stellar run and is needed to be heard, even if fans never loved or even liked these songs and aren’t apt to convert, it is clear Dylan truly felt the spirit during these years.
Support the artist, buy the album, and peep some video below:

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