Friday, December 15, 2017

Bob Dylan 63: Trouble No More

After he publicly embraced Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and began using his stage and albums to tell everyone about it, it took some time for fans to “get it”. The common belief is that Bob Dylan got Jesus out of his system after three albums, but close perusal of the songs he’s written over the last four decades prove that he’s still concerned about the end times, holy wrath and judgement, and other mysteries of faith. His approach changed, but he really didn’t.
Anyway, Bob’s so-called “born again” years continue to perplex longtime fans as well as newcomers, so a Bootleg Series volume devoted to the period makes sense from a marketing standpoint. While the recordings on those three albums vary from a quality standpoint, he also toured constantly with a stellar band backing him up—anchored by Jim Keltner, Tim Drummond, Fred Tackett, and sometimes Spooner Oldham—which gave the songs room to breathe and grow. Trouble No More, in all its incarnations, consists largely of live recordings in terrific sound, most of which are sourced from cassettes right off the board.
And here’s where it gets a little annoying for the consumer. As they’ve done lately, the volume is available as a two-CD set, as well as an eight-CD box with a DVD and books. The cheap set is all live, taken from concerts covering three calendar years, with a few duplicates of songs from different shows, and a small handful of songs that never made it to albums. The larger set includes those discs, plus two more discs of “rare and unreleased” studio outtakes, rehearsals, and live performances, including even more new-to-the-official-canon songs. There’s also two discs’ worth of selections from an April 1980 residency in Toronto, plus a full show from July 1981 in London on two more CDs. (And if you bought the set through Bob’s website, you got another concert from November 1979 on another two CDs.) Taken all together you have six versions each of “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, four of “Solid Rock”, and two or three versions of several others of the period.
Of the new material on the two-CD version, “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody” is nice to hear in decent quality. As a song it’s preferable to “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One”, which struggles under its New Orleans groove. “Blessed Is The Name” is actually better when the ladies sing. And we get earlier versions of “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Caribbean Wind” before he heavily revised the lyrics.
The big box does indeed provide some real gems, like the live versions of “Slow Train” and “Do Right To Me Baby” from early in his conversion. The virtual concerts nicely show not only how well the band rode the dynamics, but we also get to hear appreciative audiences, despite the legend. The alternate studio takes are occasionally illuminating, like the passionate first reading of “Pressing On”. Some of the unreleased songs aren’t very exciting lyrically, though “I Will Love Him” and “Jesus Is The One” are a little overt but well played, and “Thief On The Cross”, “Yonder Comes Sin”, and “Cover Down, Pray Through” just plain rock. Rather than the take issued as a B-side and available nowhere else, we get take one of “Trouble In Mind”, and “Ye Shall Be Changed” is repeated from the first Bootleg Series box. The 1981 concert is interesting for how he mixed earlier material with the Christian material, but some of it is still in the ill-advised Budokan arrangements, and frankly, doesn’t have the fire and passion of the religious material. Also, he’d already developed that whiny tendency to spout the lyrics rather than sing them, with that extra nasal approach comedians find so endearing.
The two-CD version of Trouble No More should suffice for all but the most rabid listeners. None of Bob’s sermonizing between songs is included, nor any of the opening sets of gospel from the rotating set of backing vocalists, but when we do hear them, they fit rather than dominate. We have since upgraded our rating due to becoming better acquainted with the music, and the big set is far from tedious. The liner notes go into incredible depth describing the evolution of the material onstage, and the essay by devout atheist and outspoken skeptic Penn Jillette is movingly powerful.
Yet we maintain that a happy medium could have been achieved, had they simply added the “rare and unreleased” discs to the two live ones for a single, comprehensive package; not too big, not too small. Sometimes we think they’re intentionally ignoring us.

Bob Dylan Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981 (2017)—4


  1. I've said for years this much maligned era was ripe for rediscovery. Not sure the 2CD set will convince casual fans, but there is definitely some great listening in the box set.

  2. Now if you had the Cutting Edge box set, you would not be saying this.

  3. The Cutting Edge set is an incomparable wonder.