Over the course of his 40 year career, Bob Dylan has always stayed one step ahead of the rest of the world. In the mid-‘60s, just as anti-war sentiment was catching on, he abandoned his early folk protest songs for more surrealist, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. After his infamous motorcycle accident in 1967, as the rest of the rock world was catching up, writing more poetic, ambiguous fare, Dylan decided to go country. In the early ‘70s, as the singer-songwriter genre was reaching its peak, he put out the mother of all introspective albums, Blood on the Tracks, a record that was unmatched in its soul-baring honesty. Following his inspired 1975, which brought his minor classic album Desire and a ferocious, guerilla assault on New England and Canada, otherwise known as the Rolling Thunder Tour, fans could only wonder what he’d do next. Then, in late November 1978, at a concert in Fort Worth, Texas, Dylan stepped onstage with a large silver cross around his neck; in April, 1979, Dylan showed up at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, a born-again Christian.
In the three years that followed, Dylan would take his fans for a ride that all of them could not have ever anticipated. Of all the directions Bob Dylan could have gone in, converting from Judaism to Christianity and releasing three albums of gospel songs was easily the most uncool move of them all. The albums Slow Train Coming and Saved, especially, contained pointed, fire and brimstone testimonials, and a contentious 1979 tour (much like his “electric” tour of 1966) that featured nothing but gospel songs and between-song sermonizing challenged his baffled fans. Looking back, 25 years later, those two albums, though some of the most highly focused records of Dylan’s career, in retrospect sound rather dull, with surprisingly ordinary production. Despite a few classic songs from that period, namely “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “I Believe in You”, and “Every Grain of Sand”, the period from 1979 to 1981 is one that’s usually one of the last parts of Dylan’s career that new fans take an interest in.
Thanks to a dogged Dylan fan named Jeffrey Gaskill, Dylan’s gospel period has been revisited and revitalized by some of the greatest gospel and soul singers on the face of the earth, and the interpretations of Dylan’s Christian songs found on Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan are nothing short of revelatory. Consisting of songs specifically from Slow Train Coming and Saved (the slightly more diversely-themed Shot of Love was left out), Gotta Serve Somebody breathes new life into the 25 year old songs. Most tribute albums that feature covers by famous musicians usually fail spectacularly, but this one, for once, gets it all right.
The legendary Shirley Caesar kicks things off with the title track, Dylan’s most famous, and most popular song from the period. It might seem at first like a note-for-note cover, but the sly addition of Hammond B3 organ, some slinky guitar licks by Brent Rowan, and Caesar’s impassioned delivery add a bluesier, funkier feel to the tune that the original lacked. The same goes for “When You Gonna Wake Up”, by Lee Williams & the Spiritual QC’s, who also add lush Motown harmonies during the chorus. Vocal quartet Fairfield Four’s rendition of “Are You Ready”, on the other hand, blows the original out of the water, their rich a cappella vocal harmonies doing more than any slick production could ever accomplish. Dottie People’s cover of the timeless “I Believe in You” and Helen Baylor’s performance of “What Can I Do For You?” are simply done, but gorgeous nonetheless. Regina McCrary, who sang back-up for Dylan during those gospel years, returns to sing a stirring version “Pressing On” with the Chicago Mass Choir, and Sounds of Blackness add heaps of funk to “Solid Rock”. Meanwhile, Rance Allen’s tortured performance on “When He Returns” and Mighty Clouds of Joy’s euphoric cover of “Saved” best exemplify both the desperate and joyous themes of Dylan’s gospel songwriting.
The biggest treat for Dylan fans is an appearance by Bob himself, on a completely rewritten performance of “Gonna Change My way of Thinking”, sung with his old friend Mavis Staples. Performed with his ace backing band in tow, Dylan transforms the song from the stale version heard on Slow Train Coming into a ragged, raunchy, apocalyptic sounding blues number. In true Dylanesque fashion, he adds an enigmatically funny interlude where Staples enters, Bob and his band stop playing, and the two banter back and forth; Staples asks if Bob has anything to eat, and Bob drawls on about “knockin’ off” and frying some chickens and reading “Snoozeweek”. The song begins again, for real this time, with Dylan’s craggy voice singing, “I’m gonna revitalize my thinkin’/I’m gonna let the law take its course,” as his band (featuring Tony Garnier on bass, Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton on guitar, and drummer George Recile laying down some thunderous beats) completely shatters the original.
Bob Dylan, more than anything else, has been a seeker, of sorts, for his entire career. Always in search of something (what it is, only he knows), Christianity was just a brief stop on his musical journey, but it’s now something that he himself has begun to revisit in recent years. The last few years of his nearly decade-old Never Ending Tour have featured old acoustic gospel numbers (such as “I Am the Man, Thomas”, “Hallelujah, I’m Ready”, and “Somebody Touched Me”), and even songs from his born-again period, like “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Solid Rock”, and “Saving Grace” have been resurrected in concert. However, it’s this album of gospel covers that really drives home how special those songs actually are. Fans might have minor quibbles, like Aaron Neville’s tepid cover of “Saving Grace”, or the fact that Shot of Love‘s “Every Grain of Sand”, arguably Dylan’s best religious song ever, is absent, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that this album is a beautiful, soulful, emotional piece of work. Better yet, it’ll send folks back to the original albums with renewed interest and an even deeper appreciation for one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.