Archive for November 14, 2017

No Trouble for Bob Dylan

November 14, 2017

This month saw the release of Trouble No More the latest in the long-running saga of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. This one is Vol.13 and it covers the years 1979 to 1981. Not being either a big pal of Bob or his record company meant there was no chance of a review copy (does anyone get one?) so naturally I had to buy this one.

Not having a research allowance either since university retirement means I opted for the cheaper 2 CD edition rather than the elaborate 8 disc plus DVD version that Columbia have also put on sale. I’ve never been a completist so this doesn’t bother me and I’m happy to see the more modest 30 track double album of live recordings take its place on the shelf alongside all the previous Bootleg Series albums that I have (which is all of them). Tell Tale Signs (Vol.8) is a particular favourite.

Trouble No More focuses on that period of Dylan’s career when he was widely thought of as a Born Again Christian but the essays and notes with this release as well as the reviews I’ve read generally prefer to call it his gospel period. It doesn’t sound so extreme.

I lived through those times as a Dylan fan and attended two of the six nights of concerts he gave at Earls Court in London during the summer of 1981. I was there with my friend Derek who is vastly more knowledgeable about Dylan than I am. Well, I’ve only been to Dylan concerts about a dozen times but real Bobcats like my friend would be ashamed to have only seen the Nobel Prize winner on such a paltry number of occasions.

Along with most other Dylan fans I was disappointed at our man’s sudden religious epiphany and the fact that his albums Slow Train Coming and Saved contained only his new Christian material. One friend (not Derek) vowed never to buy another album of his. The subsequent Shot of Love was also heavily religious (though its worst song was, in fact, the secular ‘Trouble’ a protest dirge that’s just a list of complaints). These weren’t even very good albums. Not by Bob’s high standards anyway.

By the time I saw the Earls Court shows in June 1981 he had started to include again some of his better known and more popular non-Christian songs so there was a mixture of the religious and secular in the shows I saw. (Yes, I know many of the songs on John Wesley Harding and other earlier albums are as ‘religious’ as anything here but that’s a discussion for another time).

What’s evident from these live recordings and has been noted in many reviews (this isn’t a review) is that many of the songs and all of the performances were brilliant and infused with a real passion. Dylan at his best is a great singer and he’s at the top of his game backed by some superb singers and a band that really knows how to play this stuff. The rare ‘Caribbean Wind’, only ever played once on stage (in San Francisco), is fantastic and the gospel songs stand up very well. Furthermore, the recording of ‘Slow Train’ that opens Disc 2 is from one of the Earls Court concerts and it still sounds riveting.

I have no religion. For me the chance of there being a God who looks over us and cares about the universe is about as likely as the existence of Santa Claus. I’m sure my friends felt the same way all those years ago which is the main reason why they were so reluctant to accept the normally free-thinking freewheeling Dylan falling for it. But as already pointed out in another piece I read, no-one gets upset about a gospel song if it’s sung by Ray Charles. Why not Bob Dylan then? These songs prove there’s no need to follow the ideology but we can still be excited and invigorated by someone else’s joy. These are simply great performances.

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