I. Gotta Serve Somebody
Bob Dylan wasn't mincing words. On the first track of the first album of what would later be referred to as his "gospel years," the artist laid his message out with striking simplicity. "It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord," Dylan admonished, "but you're gonna have to serve somebody." Suddenly, the same singer-songwriter who opined that "the answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind" had found the answer - and His name was Jesus Christ.
Between 1979 and 1981, Dylan was galvanized by his immersion into evangelical Christianity, taking to the stage with the passion of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher and bringing his newfound fervor to his work. The subjects might have been different, but the songs were electrifying as in days of old, and with "Gotta Serve Somebody," Dylan was even rewarded with his most sizeable hit since "Hurricane" (1975) and first top 25 entry since - ironically? - "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (1973). Although decades have passed, Dylan's gospel years have remained largely inscrutable even to his most dedicated fans used to his still-ongoing transformations. Trouble No More, the thirteenth volume of Dylan's long-running Bootleg Series, finally puts this creatively inspiring and eternally provocative period into thrilling perspective, most fully on an 8-CD/1-DVD Deluxe Edition.
Certainly, religious imagery, and even Biblical lore, was no stranger to Bob Dylan's music. Nor were questions of faith, morality, mortality, and righteousness. But whereas the former Robert Zimmerman's belief in his family's Judaism was rarely an explicit reference point in his body of work (the jokey "Talking Hava Negeilah Blues" notwithstanding?), his adoption of Christianity infused every aspect of his art. The eight CDs of Trouble No More chronicle this journey through two discs of selections from his live performances of the era; two discs of choice live and studio material; and two concerts (two discs each, one a composite of April 1980 Toronto shows and one a London performance of June 27, 1981).
The presence of an audience electrified and animated Dylan; hence, this set's heavy reliance on live material and the choice to open the collection with 30 live tracks on two CDs which also comprise the 2-CD version. During his concerts, he and his crack band and singers introduced or reinvented songs from the studio trilogy of Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love into rock gospel rave-ups with a power only hinted at on the records. Beginning in November 1979 (just a couple of months after the August 20 release of Slow Train Coming), Dylan would exclusively play his gospel music onstage, conjuring a revival spirit unheard from him since The Rolling Thunder Revue - albeit this time, with the headliner routinely calling out the audience for their sins. As of May 1980, one month before the arrival of Saved, Dylan gave in to the requests of promoters and audience members alike and began incorporating his secular classics back into the sets alongside his sacred songs. Within years, the best of the gospel songs would become part of that classic repertoire.
In stark contrast to many of his earlier, convention-shattering songs, there was little room for poetic impressionism in Dylan's lyrics during this time. The messages were intended to ring out loud and clear, and lyrics were often based on, and adapted from, specific Bible verses. He also tended to favor the concept of the "list song" (a form popular in the grand old Tin Pan Alley/Broadway tradition and even further back). But the earthy songs were vigorous and far from devoid of invention, with Dylan clearly inspired via both his melodies and musicianship. For the avowed "song and dance man," who has long seemed to downplay the significance of his works, these were clearly compositions straight from the heart.
II. Every Grain of Sand
From the varied selections opening Trouble No More, it's clear that Dylan's gospel shows were among the most incendiary of his long career. Spurring him on throughout this period was an all-star band including, at various points, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Fred Tackett on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, and vocalists Regina McCrary, Mona Lisa Young, Helena Springs, Clydie King, Regina Peebles, and Carolyn Dennis, a future Mrs. Dylan, among others. Though Dylan's live performances have never been carbon-copies of his studio work, his experimentation was taken to elastic new levels on these gospel tours. "Gotta Serve Somebody" was the opener of every one of his concerts between November 1, 1979 and July 1, 1981, and remained on the setlist after that point, too. It's presented twice on these first two discs, and the second version from July 15, 1981 is a blazing rock reinterpretation, seething with power and intensity - in no small part thanks to Tackett, Keltner and King's vivid contributions.
A dramatic range of styles keeps Trouble No More continually engrossing. Take two songs from Slow Train Coming in their live settings on the first disc here: the rage and fury of "When You Gonna Wake Up" is sharply different than the stark simplicity of "When He Returns." On the latter, Dylan eschewed traditional songcraft (the composition has no bridge and no chorus) as well as his onstage companions, performing it only with Spooner Oldham on stately piano.
Often the many sides of the artist were on display in one song. The bright melody and rousing, twangy arrangement of "Precious Angel" contrasts its dark lyrical imagery of the Rapture. There's clarity and furor in the blues-based pair of "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" and "Are You Ready?" which is amplified by the band's fierce attack. Regardless of whether they shared the singer's sentiments, Dylan's group of this period played with power and spirit (holy or otherwise).
The live versions here are often vastly different than studio counterparts: see "Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)" which is presented twice in live form, so fluid was Dylan's approach on the concert stage to these songs. The artist brought new depth to a trio released on Saved. (Rob Bowman's excellent track-by-track liner notes point out that by the time Dylan entered Muscle Shoals to record the album, the majority of its songs had been played by the same band around 50 times in concert.) A classic sound, with Dylan on harmonica, is conjured with "What Can I Do for You," an intense yet mellow and soulful statement which was covered contemporaneously by Debby Boone! The dramatic, pointed "In the Garden" retells the Biblical story from Jesus' arrest to his resurrection, while "Saving Grace" is among the loveliest, and most tender, items ever written and recorded by Dylan. A studio release didn't necessarily mean a song was finished, either; hence, the June 12, 1981 take on "Watered Down Love," rewritten from its Shot of Love version which was recorded a month prior but wouldn't be released for another two months. Another Shot standout, "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar," was energized onstage when Carlos Santana dropped in wielding his axe on November 13, 1980.
The occasion of any "new" Bob Dylan song is certainly one for many to rejoice; this collection offers no fewer than 14 never-before-released songs. Between 1979 and 1981, Dylan frequently introduced songs from the stage, many of which made it to his studio albums and some of which didn't. He additionally rehearsed a number of new compositions which never made it to the stage or the studio. The rollicking yet pointed "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody" is included twice on Discs 1 and 2, in two radically different takes. In any form, the song rings true with a pang of autobiography as the singer lists all of the bad behaviors on which he's turned his back, including misleading and manipulating people, and twisting the truth. It recurs on Disc Four with a new set of lyrics. The funky "Ain't No Man Righteous, No One" takes aim at social hypocrisy and "doing evil in the name of love" - a timely message for any era, with or without the religious component. Alas, Dylan only played it three times before retiring it from the setlist. In its studio version, it takes on a rollicking barroom flavor thanks to Barry Beckett's piano. "Blessed is the Name," taken from a November 1979 Santa Monica gig, is an effective, repetition-laden, straight-from-church rouser based upon the title phrase "Blessed is the name of the Lord forever/Wisdom and might are his."
III. Help Me Understand
Discs Three and Four of Trouble No More focus on previously unreleased versions of familiar tracks, in various stages of their development, as well as wholly unreleased compositions from both the studio and the concert stage. These offer a deep dive into Dylan's process. These are the tracks that paint the fullest portrait of the singer-songwriter's mission to "change my way of thinking" via his art.
The first four discs of Trouble No More all open with a uniquely haunting version of "Slow Train." The take that opens Disc Three is a rehearsal version from October 5, 1978 with his big band (including Jerry Scheff on bass and Bobbye Hall on percussion) made during a concert sound check. Violin and especially a sinuous saxophone add colors that wouldn't be repeated when Dylan began performing the song live the following year. The melody is taken much slower, and the lyrics are embryonic at best. December 7, 1978's "Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)," similarly, was developed by Dylan long before he committed a version to vinyl for Slow Train Coming on May 4, 1979. By that point, only the pivotal first verse remained intact. The selections here have seemingly been chosen to present the most radically different variations (the soulful "Pressing On" in a different meter; a dramatically extended "Dead Man, Dead Man"; a more reggae-fied "Watered-Down Love," to name a few). But a rehearsal version of the gorgeous "Every Grain of Sand" confirms Dylan's memory of it as a song that "came to me" in near-complete form.
A couple of covers tackled during this period are featured here. Hank Williams' "Help Me Understand," originally cut by the country legend under his pseudonym of Luke the Drifter, was played during an October 1978 soundcheck. Dylan even recreates Williams' recitation about a broken home, clearly evincing an affinity for the original record. In a more modern vein was Dallas Holm and Praise's "Rise Again." A contemporary Christian hit from 1977, it occupied a slot in Dylan's tour between November 18 and December 4, 1980, showing that he was paying attention to what others in that wildly successful musical movement were doing.
Dylan had briefly considered taking a horn section on the road for his gospel tours. Though he opted against it for financial reasons, energetic rehearsals of "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," "Slow Train," and "Gotta Serve Somebody" with swaggering horns survives. These rehearsals, especially for "Slow Train," are a truly tantalizing "What if?" for the artist's gospel oeuvre. Dylan also experimented with Steve Douglas' saxophone on a studio outtake version of "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar."
A different musical color came courtesy of pedal steel guitarist (and frequent Neil Young associate) Ben Keith. His steel gilds a truly lovely "Caribbean Wind" from a September 1980 rehearsal. Bowman's notes tell us that a later rehearsal with Keith found Dylan working through a selection of covers including "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Little Feat's "Willin'," and Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind." Fodder for a future Bootleg Series volume, one hopes?
The studio outtakes aren't as plentiful. The first stab at "Gotta Serve Somebody" lacks the gospel background vocals of the final version and has an even funkier '70s R&B feel as clavinet intertwines with acoustic piano. With Tim Drummond on bass and Mark Knopfler on guitar, the ingredients for the final recording were present, but Dylan still needed to hone the recipe further. "Trouble in Mind," the first song attempted for the Slow Train Coming sessions which was eventually released as a B-side, is heard here in its even swampier first take. (Take 7 was the master take which remains unreleased on U.S. CD - all the more shocking given the size and scope of this set, on which it would have been most appropriate.) The previously unreleased "You Changed My Life" was considered for Shot of Love, but the breezy melody was ultimately dropped.
Of the other previously unreleased songs here, some were clearly works in progress, and others fully formed. Like the released songs, Dylan employed a number of musical styles to bring them to life in concert. "I Will Love Him" is largely built on the same repetitive style as "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell..." But this happily energetic statement of faith is given a rip-roaring treatment with a freight train rhythm - the slow train was picking up steam!
The taut single-chord rocker "Jesus is the One" returns to the list song format, with Dylan ticking off the names of all those who aren't the One, and "Cover Down, Pray Through" is a hypnotic blues. The gently upbeat folk ballad "City of Gold" is embellished in the performance here by Willie Smith's gospel organ flourishes and the background trio only. A number of songs never made it out of the rehearsal stage: "Stand by Faith" is a basic call-and-response ("How do we walk?" "We walk by faith!") with few dynamics. The slow-burning "Making a Liar Out of Me" and raucous "Yonder Comes Sin," with its riff recalling The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," likewise never were heard by an audience until now. The liner notes tell us that "Thief on the Cross" is likely Dylan's last song penned during the gospel years. The edgy, driving number was performed just once, in New Orleans on November 10, 1981, with the band (including Al Kooper on keyboards and Steve Ripley and Fred Tackett on guitar) in fine fettle
IV. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
Like the other periods of Dylan's long career, the gospel years eventually came to an end (though the typically enigmatic Dylan never felt the need to explain or clarify his personal faith in ensuing years). Discs 5 and 6 of Trouble No More present a composite concert drawn from Dylan's Massey Hall shows in Toronto of April 18, 19, and 20 when he was exclusively performing his sacred songs. (The gospel-only concerts totaled 79 shows, for those wondering!) Discs 7 and 8 have the London concert of June 27, 1981, by which point almost half of the set was turned over to secular favorites such as "Like a Rolling Stone," "Maggie's Farm," and "Mr. Tambourine Man" - much to the relief of Dylan's fans and promoters. Somewhat surprisingly, these concert versions don't feel rote or forced; instead, the singer and band (including Fred Tackett and Steve Ripley on guitar, Willie Smith on keyboards, Tim Drummond on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, and the background group of Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, Regina McCrary and Madelyn Quebec) are inspired throughout - perhaps at the chance to sing "new" material. (A San Diego concert of November 28, 1979 has also been released as an exclusive CD release for those who purchased the box set at full price through Dylan's website. One remains hopeful that this will become available to a wider audience down the road.)
While today Dylan rarely addresses the audience in concert, his gospel years were marked by frequent admonitions and sermons to the crowd. Controversially (and reportedly at the request of the artist), these lengthy sermons have been excised from these concerts. Though most of his raps to the audience reflected and reinforced the messages of his new songs, he occasionally delved into more unfortunate areas, as during a San Francisco concert of May 8, 1980 when he seemingly condemned homosexuality. Dylan's raps were part and parcel of his live performances during this period, and have long been debated and discussed. Placing them within proper historical context would surely have been to this set's advantage.
The deluxe box concludes with the DVD premiere of a new, hourlong film entitled Trouble No More: A Musical Film. Rather than chronicling the gospel years via a straightforward documentary, director Jennifer LeBeau instead opted to craft an unusual concert film. LeBeau has taken vintage live footage filmed by Ron Kantor and interspersed it with newly-shot sermons, penned by Luc Sante and robustly performed by Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, Revolutionary Road). The movie is bookended with performances of two songs not included on the box's audio portion: a rehearsal of "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well" and a stark, stirring "Abraham, Martin and John" as a duet at the piano between Dylan and Clydie King. The concert footage is intense and fiery, showing a sweat-drenched Dylan, his band, and singers in passionate form on "Solid Rock," "Slow Train," "When He Returns," "Precious Angel," "Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)" and more. (These performances, though some are edited, are not interrupted with any talking heads or dialogue, but are happily allowed to play out.) A consummate actor, Shannon fully embodies his old-time preacher character from the pulpit. Although the sermons are based on themes in Dylan's songs, such as hypocrisy, avarice, and sin, one wonders why Dylan's own documented raps weren't adapted to paint a more accurate portrait. The DVD boasts options for "Concert Only" and "Sermons Only," and offers six concert bonuses, including alternate and more complete performances.
Like past Bootleg Series volumes, Trouble No More is a beautifully designed and packaged release. The 9-disc Deluxe Edition is housed in the same slipcased format as past releases, and contains two impressively thick hardcover books. The first has Amanda Petrusich's introductory essay and Rob Bowman's track-by-track liner notes (which often take on a personal tone), as well as all of the discs. In a nice touch, they're adorned with colorful spins on the Columbia label of the period. The second book, entitled Pressing On: Photographs and More 1979-1981, is a lavish gallery of images accompanied by another very personal essay, this time by avowed atheist Penn Jillette. In his entertaining remarks, the magician uses his own experiences to suggest why a more casual Dylan fan with no interest in gospel just might find a lot to love on Trouble No More. In addition to rare photos of Dylan and his band, onstage and off, this book boasts wonderful recreations of various picture sleeves, memorabilia, ticket stubs, lyric sheets, and labels, although the inclusion of the label for Columbia's promo-only London Interview - July 1981 EP makes one wish that the rare item had been included in the audio portion.
As most of the live tracks have been sourced from cassette tapes, the sound is variable, but undeniably strong when considered as a whole. The Toronto and London concerts have all been derived from multitracks and newly mixed by Chris Shaw and Steve Addabbo. Shaw and Addabbo have mastered this set along with Mark Wilder for subtle yet vibrant sound.
With Trouble No More, producers Jeff Rosen, Steve Berkowitz, and Gregg Geller have created an alternate history of Bob Dylan's gospel years that, in its complexity and multi-faceted quality, almost renders the three studio albums of the period as supplemental material. The box set may not clear up the lingering mysteries of the gospel years, but surely the art that emerged from them has never been so captivatingly examined.