Thursday, December 28, 2023

Album Review: Bob Dylan - The Complete Budokan 1978

Bob Dylan 
The Complete Budokan 1978
***and1/2 out of *****

Time has a funny way of playing tricks on you. When I first started getting into Bob Dylan on a serious level, Live at Budokan was the first album I randomly grabbed from a record store. It was on sale...with stunk. 

Being new to Dylan, I filed it away and very rarely (meaning never) went back to it. Now comes The Complete Budokan 1978 and with decades of fandom, over thirty live shows, and countless hours listening to various iterations of the chameleon who is Bob Dylan, this release sounds immensely better. This is not for new fans, and will never be his best period of performing, but I no longer think it is his worst, which is a huge turnaround. 

Simply put Dylan needed money in 1978 after years of The Rolling Thunder tour, his failed movie Renaldo and Clara and his divorce. He hooked up with Jerry Weintraub who in the late 70's worked with Elvis to reinvigorate his career in Las Vegas and that is clearly where both Weintraub and Dylan took their inspiration. These songs, some of his most well known, are done with overblown pomp and circumstance on every level. 

The cheese factor is certainly high throughout, but now it is common place for Bob to completely re-work his songs each tour with varying degrees of success. It could be argued Rolling Thunder was the start of his reinvention and that this '78 tour captured here is the second iteration of those reinventions, with his third coming shortly after this release when he was born again. Listening to The Complete Budokan 1978 in that mind frame does elevate the proceedings a bit as this release captures a remixed, and remastered, two nights in Japan (February 28th and March 1st 1978).  

Dylan used a large, extended band for this tour: Steve Douglas — saxophone, flute, recorder Steven Soles — acoustic guitar, backing vocals David Mansfield — pedal steel guitar, violin, mandolin, dobro, guitar Billy Cross — lead guitar Alan Pasqua — keyboards Rob Stoner — bass, backing vocals Ian Wallace — drums Bobbye Hall — percussion Debi Dye, Jo Ann Harris, Helena Springs —backing vocals.  

This overloaded stage set up starts things each night with an upbeat, weird, instrumental version of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall". This let's the listener know things are going to be a bit different throughout, what isn't that different is the two nights presented here. Just a few songs differ from night to night and overall the energy is much better from the first show, 2/28. As a release, it can be a bit repetitive, but the sound and remastering do brighten things up from the original. 

The second song from each set shows Bob stretching out already, each night finds the band playing a blues cover to get the show rolling. "Repossession Blues" is up first with scratchy guitars and strong, clear singing from Bob while the second night was "Love Her with a Feeling" which slowed the pace and got the band locked in. With Dylan's history, these more obscure numbers were probably where he would have liked to stay and explore with the band, but this tour was about the hits and those followed each night in vastly different forms from their original recordings.  

Some of the more successful iterations presented in this showtune format are a reimagined "Shelter From The Storm" that shines bright with Douglas' sax, "Ballad of a Thin Man" which ups the energy and intensity of the original, the gospel swelling of "I Shall Be Released", an upbeat string/flute filled take on "Love Minus Zero/No Limit", the crazy almost disco version of "Maggie's Farm" and "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)" which threatens to go completely bonkers. The best of the whole bunch may just be "Oh Sister" which uses an ominous start, squirrely guitars, background ooh and aahs, hand drums, and a jamming sax solo, all in the vein of War.  

His finale on both nights also recalls another artist big in '78, Bruce Springsteen. Both "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Forever Young" go heavily dramatic with theatrical musicality, over the top singing from Dylan, sax work and strings. It is odd to hear Dylan moving in a Springsteen direction and while unique versions, something just doesn't feel right about them.  

The majority of the performances here fall into that middle-of-the-road category with some pluses and minuses. "I Threw It All Away" has passionate singing and the sax work is nice, but overly is just a touch too cheesy, as is "You're a Big Girl Now" and "Is Your Love in Vain?". Dylan's mix of over singing and delicate passages almost works on "I Want You" while the light reggae and flute work of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and the mandolin lead on  "The Man In Me" are both interesting, but fall a bit short as complete efforts. The full on reggae, flutes, hand drums and insane percussion is also a bit much on "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" but the kitchen sink aspect of it all makes for a thought provoking listen.   

The glitzy white suits, flamboyant arraignments and overblown nonsense is obviously present throughout and that overkill sinks a few of his best known songs. Nothing can save this rendition of "Mr. Tambourine Man", "Blowin' in the Wind" is a complete drag in this arraignment, and "All I Really Want to Do" is Velveeta laced big band nonsense from the start; all pretty unlistenable and presented twice here. That said, longtime fans will still find enough interesting moments to make this remaster worth listening to. Efforts like "Going, Going, Gone" and "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" have a work in progress feel, very much like his current touring rearrangements. 

Revisiting Dylan's more critically reviled releases have caused people to think about those albums differently. Another Self Portrait was eye opening and added depth to Self Portrait, Trouble No More showed Dylan's true passion during his Jesus years, and Springtime in New York added to his early 80's output. The beauty of Dylan is you can always find something new in his work. 

Sure, The Complete Budokan 1978 will probably not top anyone's list of Dylan albums, but it pulled the original off the bottom of mine and makes for a unique deviation in his career. Now, in a few years if Bob and company re-release and can get me to reevaluate Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove they will have pulled off a miracle.   

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