“How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?”
— Bob Dylan, “When He Returns,” 1979
Bob Dylan‘s career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.
One of Dylan’s most surprising stylistic shifts occurred in the late ’70s when he converted to Evangelical Christianity and began writing and recording music that reflected his newfound faith. The seeds of this conversion were sown in late 1978 when a fan at a show in San Diego tossed a small silver cross onstage, which Dylan slipped into his pocket. The following night in a hotel room in Tucson, Dylan claims he felt the physical presence of Jesus. “I felt it,” he later recalled. “I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”
While it seems like a stretch for someone like Dylan – who was raised Jewish and never really attached much spirituality to his work up to that point – to follow through on this kind of epiphany, he did just that, releasing three albums in a row that were a direct result of his newly minted devotion to Jesus. Consequently,
Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and the somewhat more secular Shot of Love (1981) seem like anachronisms in Dylan’s discography, a reflection of what many feel was a confused artistic detour.
Trouble No More, the latest installment in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, does what many of the previous installments in the series have done – it serves as a reexamination of a particular period in Dylan’s career, often resulting in earnest critical reassessment. In this case, Vol. 13 chronicles Dylan’s “gospel years”, and much as Vol. 10 did with its examination of the unjustly maligned Self Portrait sessions, Trouble No More goes a long way in giving this controversial period of Dylan’s career its proper attention and – for lack of a better term – praise.
Trouble No More is certainly a deep dive – nine discs (including a DVD) that uncover previously unreleased live recordings, outtakes, and rehearsals from 1979 to 1981. For fans of this period’s studio albums, Trouble No More is something of a revelation, not only in that it includes different studio takes of familiar songs, but – and perhaps more importantly – much of the material here is from concert recordings, where Dylan’s new songs are given an added layer of vitality and excitement. The musicians he brought on the road for these tours are top-notch, including ace session players like Muscle Shoals keyboard whiz Spooner Oldham, legendary drummer Jim Keltner, longtime Neil Young bassist Tim Drummond, and Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett (whose frequent solos are one of the set’s many high points). But these are gospel songs, after all, so Dylan sweetened the pot by including vocalists like Regina McCrary, Helena Springs, Mona Lisa Young, Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, and Madelyn Quebec to bring the spiritual subject matter the appropriate gravitas.
There are a couple of occasions where Dylan introduces songs with brief proselytizing, such as on one of the recordings of the fiery gospel stomper “Solid Rock”: “I don’t know what you got to hang on to,” he tells the audience, “but I got something called a solid rock to hang on to…that was manifested in the flesh! And justified in the spirit!” But for the most part, he seems content to let the songs do the preaching. The performances are full of energy, and regardless of the negative reputation this era of Dylan’s career may have initially received, the songs are mostly blues-based and not very different from a lot of what Dylan was churning out during his post-acoustic years.
Furthermore, there are several songs here that are included multiple times and chart the progress of the arrangements over the years. A different version of “Slow Train” opens each disc, taking the lyrically complex composition from a standard mid-tempo bluesy take to a much slower horn-infused soundcheck version to a brisk, almost shuffle version. To this day, Dylan has never been a stranger to drastically rearranging his songs for the stage. One of his most famous songs from this era, the Grammy-winning “Gotta Serve Somebody”, also gets plenty of reworking in the various versions presented here. In fact, it’s an interesting look at what could have been, considering the fact that a 1981 live version is far more lively and interesting than the somewhat anemic studio version, with Keltner providing a rock-solid Bo Diddley beat and Tackett’s slashing guitar chords giving the song plenty of firepower. On its best gigs, Dylan’s live recordings during this period rival his seminal work with the Band. They’re that good.
There are plenty of moments of quiet, uncomplicated beauty on
Trouble No More that put these new songs in a gentler light. “When He Returns” from Slow Train Coming is a potent number that presents the gospel fervor of Dylan’s convictions in its appropriate form. On the studio version – an outtake is included here – Dylan is joined solely by Barry Beckett’s soulful piano, and on a live version, Dylan plays the piano with Oldham providing chilling organ accompaniment. On a live version of “Pressing On” (originally from Saved), Dylan’s piano is initially accompanied by the backing vocals, with the full band eventually joining in. On these particular moments of spiritual testimony, Dylan sings with more conviction than he has in years. Say what you will about your own beliefs – as a fan, you can’t deny that Dylan truly believes in what he’s singing, resulting in some of the most gripping, galvanizing live moments of his career.
But again, even diehard atheists (or indifferent agnostics) will find plenty to love here. The previously unreleased “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One” rolls along in a bluesy New Orleans-style groove reminiscent of Allen Toussaint or Dr. John. As more secular material (like some of the songs from
Shot of Love) show up in setlists, songs like “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” begin to take shape. That song, originally a 1981 B-side that also showed up on the 1985 boxed set Biograph (as well as subsequent CD pressings of Shot of Love), is a hyper-literate bluesy stomp that sounds like a more mature – but no less raucous – cousin to “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”. As always, the lyrics provide detailed, vivid imagery: “West of the Jordan / East of the Rock of Gibraltar / I see the turning of the page / Curtain rising on a new age / See the groom still waiting at the altar.” Speaking of Dylan’s earlier material, classic songs from his pre-Christian era eventually made their way into 1981 setlists after Dylan bowed to pressure from fans, managers, and promoters. As a result, the last two CDs in the set – recorded in London in June 1981 – mix the newer material with older songs, with often terrific results. The musicians and singers who gave such weight to songs like “When You Gonna Wake Up” and “In the Garden” apply that same fervor to classics like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone”.
The DVD included in
Trouble No More is a documentary that serves as a crucial document of this period in Dylan’s career, primarily in the form of concert footage. Beginning with intimate rehearsal footage of the band running through the old spiritual “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” (with Dylan on bass!), there’s plenty of energetic live footage, interspersed rather oddly with present-day sermons performed by Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Shannon dressed in evangelical getup. It initially seems unusual, but as a way of putting the songs in the proper context, it works. One of the most beautiful moments of the DVD occurs at the end, with rehearsal footage of Dylan and Clydie King performing a duet of “Abraham, Martin and John” (with Dylan on the piano). It’s an intimate, breathtaking moment that perfectly caps off the documentary.
There’s plenty of textual supplements included in this lavish set, including liner notes by Amanda Petrusich, Rob Bowman, Dylan scholar Ben Rollins, and – most interestingly – comedian/actor/illusionist Penn Jillette. The Jillette essay, titled “In the Time of My Confession,” is essential for any fan looking to come to terms with this unusual twist in Dylan’s career. Jillette calls himself “a lifelong atheist and lifelong Dylan fan” and explains the unique predicament he found himself in when his idol found Jesus and began singing about it (Spoiler alert – Jillette grew to love these songs).
Dylan’s Christian/Gospel period didn’t last. In 1983 he released
Infidels, his first all-secular album in five years, and has gone on to release more than a dozen albums since, many of them – Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft – considered among the best of his career. While Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love are considered by many to be forgettable aberrations in an otherwise sterling discography, there are even more who realize that this was a crucial period in the career of one of music’s most exciting and revolutionary artists. Trouble No More provides plenty of evidence of this.