Bob Dylan - Trouble No More Bootleg Series Vol. 13 1979-81

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:2017-11-03
Bob Dylan - Trouble No More Bootleg Series Vol. 13 1979-81
Bob Dylan - Trouble No More Bootleg Series Vol. 13 1979-81

Like a lot of Dylan fans, I wince at the mere mention of his "Born Again" phase. I’ve always found the records in this period to be remarkably mean spirited. All that Cotton Mather posturing and fire-n brimstone hectoring just makes me want to canonize and blast The Cramps. Let’s face it, without any irony, it’s a downright unpleasant mentality to be around. Those that deemed it career suicide, proved to be prophetic. Soon after, he hit a major career slump and despite albums like, Infidels he was a running joke until 1989’s Oh Mercy. Not that Dylan cared about any of that, then or ever. Contrary to his reputation for being the “voice of a generation”, Dylan was always in his own world. Yet, with the release of this latest installment in the ongoing Bootleg Series, things are ripe for a little re-evaluation of this controversial period. Unlike Dylan's “born again” studio albums at the time, these live recordings manage to transcend the fact he had lost his marbles. There's true passion here. With moments of real tenderness and vulnerability. The band is killer. Long and short, the Wheel is indeed on Fire. I suppose "relevatory" is the operative word here. So, here's How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb Known As Dylan's "Born Again" Phase...

I’ve heard ‘Slow Train’ before, but never like this. The 2nd version on disc 2 goes to show how things progressed musically during this tour. The first version is full of yearning. The Second, is menacing and driving. Of course, what’s missing is Dylan preaching to his fans as they walked out. I suppose in retrospect something can be said for allegory but it can’t be denied Dylan was playing the part of the barnstorming preacher to the hilt. This is indeed Gospel Music and lyrically and performance wise, it holds up with the best. ‘When He Returns’ blows its studio counterpart away. Same with pretty much all this material. In terms of previously unreleased songs like, ‘Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Nobody’, one can easily overlook the proselytizing and see that Dylan is lean and focused.  

As I said, the band is hard to top. Spooner Oldham. Fred Tackett. Jim Keltner. It really doesn’t get any finer. He not only recorded at Muscle Shoals, he brought it on the road. The backing choir can send a shiver at times. If he's lost his mind, his playful banter with the band goes to show he hadn’t completely lost his sense of humor. Other examples can be found in ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ when he breaks into the then popular, “You can call me Ray” routine. Or on, ‘Saving Grace’ which is a conscious nod to Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter recordings.

This set features two great Dylan compositions, which in my opinion, were never done justice in the studio. Here, ‘Caribbean Wind’ and ‘Every Grain of Sand’ are simply stunning. ‘Wind’ has a desperate edge. ‘Sand’ a mournful vulnerability. Both are worth the price of admission alone. Same can be said for the haunting, ‘In The Summertime’. By contrast, ‘Groom’s Still Waiting At The Alter’ is ferocious and finds Dylan foaming at the mouth, rabidly preaching to the rafters. Regardless of what one thinks of Dylan’s religious convictions, its pure entertainment. Not to mention Punk as shit. A cracking version that makes every other version blush and bury its head in shame. He’s just on fire. His phrasing at times is simply mind blowing. No wonder Sinatra was an admirer.  

While not calculated, it’s clear this move by Dylan was not only a middle finger to the whims of fashion but his own fanbase as well. It almost feels like deliberate sabotage, but when you listen to the conviction in these performances, Dylan wasn't kidding around. He believed in what he was doing. That’s not to say there wasn’t a nod and wink here and there, but he was far more interested in wearing his heart on his sleeve. Regardless of what one may think of his Evangelical fury during this period, these recordings go to show that Dylan remained a consummate entertainer. And despite being universally panned at the time, he was in top form. Personally, the whole Billy Bible routine is easier to swallow if one looks at it as he's playing a role as opposed to being a genuine fanatic. And maybe sometimes he was just playing at it for effect. All I can say is, on these recordings, he has the fire and fury at his command.

Any serious Dylan devotee is selling themselves short by passing this one up. Sweep away your prejudices and you’ll hear Dylan like you’ve never heard him. Nor is he’s hardly the first artist to mine the Bible. Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits have never shied away from Biblical imagery. Nick Cave (a professed admirer of Dylan’s religious period) is also no stranger to God and the Devil. So, what Dylan’s doing here is nothing new. He’s just taking it and running away with it. Like he’s always done.

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    I have had a hard time keeping up with the Bootleg series, but will check this out. Every Grain is a powerful song and I really liked the first Bootleg Series version of it. When He Returns was one thing that got me through some dark times many years ago - truth in that song regardless of belief.

  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Excellent review, and you hit the nail on the head with regard to the validity of the religious themes. Despite my distaste for the subject matter, there's no denying that there are some amazing recordings done in the name of Jeebus.