Friday, November 15, 2019

Bob Dylan 65: Travelin’ Thru

The ongoing Bob Dylan Bootleg Series project has resulted in volumes designed to be as revelatory as they are historically important. The fifteenth such release certainly illuminates a legendary collaboration, but it doesn’t necessarily rewrite history.
Travelin’ Thru goes in depth into the creation of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, two albums that were so unlike what Bob had done before, as well as what his perceived rock ‘n roll peers had accomplished. They’re also albums that, for the most part, have never been plundered by bootleggers, so the anticipation for hearing outtakes for the first time runs high. The first disc in the set devotes the equivalent of an album side’s worth of alternates from each of these albums, but unfortunately there are no “HOLY CRAP” moments among the selections. The lone unheard song, “Western Road”, isn’t much more than an uninspired 12-bar repeating the same clichĂ©s about going to Chicago. There are some takes tried in alternate tempos, but nothing that will have the listener thinking it should have been released instead of what was. (The compilers admit to the dearth of multiple takes, partially because they allegedly just weren’t different, but mostly because the tapes themselves have been missing for decades. We can’t blame the Universal fire for this one, much as we’d like to.)
The packaging for Travelin’ Thru prominently trumpets “featuring Johnny Cash” throughout, as the bulk of the set is dedicated to the session of duets that yielded the version of “Girl From The North Country” that opens Nashville Skyline. Unfortunately, little else reaches that level of sublimity, the majority of the summit spent running through what they can recall of various songs while Johnny’s band, which included Carl Perkins, gamely plays along and navigates the hairpin key changes. Johnny comes off better throughout, as their voices don’t quite mesh with Bob in full “Lay Lady Lay” croon, and he barely harmonizes more than singing a single note against Johnny’s melody. A few tunes could have had potential had they worked on them, but it’s hard to say whether they thought it would be worth it. One stab deserving attention is the real-time mashup of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Understand Your Man”, each man singing a verse from either song simultaneously. We could get excited about finally hearing Bob sing “Wanted Man”, but they spend most of the take trying to remember the words and making up new ones. Clearly they enjoyed each other’s company, and Bob even appeared on the debut episode of ABC-TV’s The Johnny Cash Show, performing “I Threw It All Away” and the almost-a-single “Living The Blues” and duetting with Johnny on “Girl From The North Country”. (All three are included here.)
To fill out a set that could easily fit on two discs instead of three, we get two further outtakes from Self Portrait, both Cash songs: “Ring Of Fire” gets a slick treatment and “Folsom Prison Blues” speeds up into a jam. Along the same lines are a handful of songs from a documentary about bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, including the Scruggs Family arrangement of “Nashville Skyline Rag” and Bob’s half-remembered “To Be Alone With You”. Recorded amidst the New Morning sessions, his voice has returned to its familiar rasp.
When you count the various copyright collections that emerged over the last decade or so, Travelin’ Thru effectively fills in the remaining gaps on the first decade of Bob’s career. It’s highly unlikely a future Bootleg Series release will cover anything else from the ‘60s; in fact, keen-eyed collectors would have scooped up the highly limited 50th Anniversary Collection 1969, which offered two discs’ worth of further outtakes from that year. This one will be welcomed by Dylan obsessives, and everybody loves Johnny Cash. But it’s also nice to have an installment in the series that doesn’t break the bank. And no “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”!

Bob Dylan Travelin’ Thru 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (2019)—3

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