We're kicking off our Holiday Gift Guide Review series with a look at Bob Dylan's The Complete Budokan 1978.
Long before Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan was reinventing himself. The artist who stepped onstage at Tokyo's Budokan arena in 1978 only bore superficial resemblance to the firebrand who was proclaimed a "Judas!" by an irate fan over a decade earlier at Manchester Free Trade Hall. That audience member was famously angry over the then-folkie's decision to plug in and go electric; what would he have thought of this "new" Dylan, leading a big band with a trio of female background singers and a honking saxophonist? Upon its initial release (1978 in Japan, 1979 in the rest of the world), the double album Bob Dylan At Budokan proved controversial and, indeed, divisive. Sony Music Japan and Legacy Recordings have just afforded listeners the opportunity to revisit and re-evaluate Dylan's third live album of the 1970s in a lavish 4-CD box set manufactured in Japan and being imported to the United States and beyond. The Complete Budokan 1978 (also available on digital/streaming) presents the two complete concerts recorded by CBS Japan on February 28 and March 1, 1978 as newly remixed from the original tapes, with a total of 58 tracks (36 of which are previously unreleased). For those who thought they knew Budokan - or had developed an opinion on it - this set just might cause any preconceived notions to shatter.
The Complete Budokan preserves the seventh and eighth shows of Dylan's highly-anticipated 1978 world tour which kicked off in Tokyo in February and concluded in Hollywood, Florida in mid-December. He had not released a studio album since Desire in 1976 and had been absent from the concert stage since the final Rolling Thunder Revue date in May of that year; the Tokyo shows were his first international concerts since 1966. Having navigated choppy waters in his personal as well as professional life, Dylan was revitalized and seemingly ready to revel in, well, being Bob Dylan.
For the occasion, he assembled an eight-piece band and three background singers, many of whom had joined him on Street-Legal (that LP would be released mid-tour). The band consisted of Billy Cross and Steven Soles on guitar; David Mansfield on mandolin, dobro, and violin; Alan Pasqua on keyboards; Rob Stoner on bass; Ian Wallace on drums; Bobbye Hall on percussion; and Wrecking Crew veteran Steve Douglas on saxophone and flute. Helena Springs, Jo Ann Harris, and Debi Dye were the handpicked vocal trio rounding out the sound. Whereas Rolling Thunder's sprawling ensemble emphasized earthy grit, this group (called "the orchestra" by Dylan in his introductions) served up a slicker, more polished style well-calibrated to Dylan's considerably more measured - if no less spontaneous - singing.
A sprawling instrumental version of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" served as a de facto overture for both evenings with Mansfield happily fiddling and Douglas soloing on the saxophone. (Both performances of "Hard Rain" are among the unreleased highlights.) The setlists for both nights were similar but not identical, and most of the original 2-LP set was culled from the March 1 show. Dylan concentrated on his classic songbook for the world tour, giving fans the songs they wanted in refreshed arrangements designed to fill the large venues.
The February 28 vocal opener is Roland Janes' "Resurrection Blues," the second and last time Dylan ever played the blues tune in concert. (The first was days earlier, on February 24.) On March 1, he chose another cover: Tampa Red's "Love Her with a Feeling." That one lasted for 31 shows on the tour before being consigned to history. Dylan is still peppering his concerts with cover versions.
This many decades later, it's not nearly as shocking as it was in 1978 to hear the troubadour musically reinventing his already-standard tunes. To see Dylan in concert today - and to have seen him in recent memory - is to expect the unexpected. He deployed the big band throughout the Budokan shows in fulsome, dynamic arrangements that didn't exactly give short shrift to rock and roll but also made room for R&B, soul, and an idiosyncratic version of adult contemporary pop. The latter sensibility comes across on a rather louche "I Shall Be Released" and a torrid "I Threw It All Away," both of which have Steve Douglas wailing on his sax, yacht rock-style, and the vocal trio of Springs, Harris, and Dye warmly cooing behind Dylan's rueful leads. That he was enjoying himself seems obvious as the band rollicks through a flute-flecked version of Bringing It All Back Home's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and uptempo treatments of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" (also from Bringing...) and Blonde on Blonde's "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)."
Dylan was relishing the opportunity to recast his songs in a new light. He's a theatrical showman on "Ballad of a Thin Man," adopting the fervor of a preacher. The fiery "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" and funky, nearly-unrecognizable, country-meets-disco-meets-riff rock take on "Maggie's Farm" are surprising, to say the least. A rip-roaring "All Along the Watchtower" has some of the same cacophonic, gleefully genre-bending qualities as "Maggie's Farm" with its spiky guitar, colorful fiddle, and flitting woodwinds. A galloping romp through "All I Really Want to Do" - a hit for both Cher and The Byrds - emphasizes the bounce of the melody. Why does "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" get a reggae makeover? Though likely anathema to purists, it's all right and completely in the freewheeling (Freewheeling?) spirit of the concert. Dylan, then and now, wasn't about to let his songs be treated as sacred cows. This was perhaps never clearer than on Budokan.
Blood on the Tracks' "Shelter from the Storm" gets a little less bloody here, but the singer maintains the emotion in the flashy rendition. Another Blood standout, "Simple Twist of Fate," here juxtaposes Dylan's relaxed vocal with Pasqua's carnival organ and Mansfield's puncturing strings. Blood, considered by some to be the singer-songwriter's "comeback," was only three years old when he chose to completely reimagine its songs here. "You're a Big Girl Now" is a slow burner with a late-night vibe. This was not an artist willing to rest on his laurels, nor a merely contrary one. Dylan was simply meeting the moment (much as he does today) in a musical landscape dotted with new sounds from punk to disco, all expectations be damned.
Only electric guitar and Alan Pasqua's churchy organ support Dylan on an intimate "Girl from the North Country." While still incorporating the additional texture of the band and singers, "Blowin' in the Wind" (or "Blown'" as it's stylized on this set) loses little of its primal power. "Just Like a Woman" is likewise restrained. The most stark and successful re-arrangement might well be Blonde on Blonde's "I Want You," radically slowed down to a ballad and all the more beguiling as the crawling tempo and spare setting draw attention to the impressionistic lyrics. The Jacques Levy co-write "Oh, Sister" from Desire is one of the comparatively rare tunes performed on both nights; its cryptic, spiritually-minded lyrics loosely anticipated Dylan's subsequent born-again period.
On both evenings, a sweet and crowd-pleasing "Forever Young" preceded the final encore of "The Times They Are-A Changin'." Relatively chatty during these shows, Dylan introduced "The Times..." on the first night with sincerity: "I wrote this...about 15 years ago...it still means a lot to me. I know it means a lot to you, too." It's one of the most simple, candid, and disarming moments on any Dylan concert disc.
The February 28 and March 1 performances preserved in the box aren't drastically different, but as the singer has never phrased anything exactly the same way twice, there's plenty for completists to enjoy in having both shows. In addition to "Love Her with a Feeling" (which started off the evening on a similarly bluesy night as the previous show's "Resurrection Blues"), Bob and the band performed four more unique songs, one of which made the original 1978 album. That was the breezy, reggae-fied "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" which replaces the elegiac world-weariness of the original with a lightness that's in ironic contrast to the heavy lyrics.
Par for the course, "One More Cup of Coffee" is glossier than the album version on Desire, but still haunting. Dylan went back further for "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)," plucking the morning-after song from 1964's Another Side of Bob Dylan. The folk trappings have been replaced by a light dance beat and shimmering Spanish-style guitar. The final unique song from March 1, "The Man in Me" from 1979's New Morning, was played 155 times in concert between 1978 (its first performance was on February 20 on the first stop of the tour, also at the Budokan) and 2011. As the original version employed female voices, too, it was a good match for the forces of this particular band. Dylan shows off some new lyrics (not the only time at Budokan; "Going, Going, Gone" also underwent a rewrite) in the vibrant performance.
The audio is exceptional here. Tom Suzuki has freshly remixed both concerts from the original 24-track multitrack tapes; Suzuki was one of the original engineers credited on producer Don DeVito's original 1978 LP. As subtly remastered by Akihito Yoshikawa, both shows come to vivid life as if recorded yesterday.
Typical for physical product produced in Japan, The Complete Budokan 1978 is beautifully packaged. A glossy, squarebound book is one of the essential items in the sturdy slipcase. It's lavishly illustrated with photos of Dylan in Japan, the original master tapes, various international releases of the 1978 album, and memorabilia. Heckel Sugano, Dylan's product manager at CBS Japan, contributes a warm and wonderful reminiscence of his 1978 visit to the country while American journalist Edna Gundersen adds an appreciation of the performances. The complete world tour itinerary is also reprinted along with a selection of original concert tickets. Tetsuya Shiroki, of Sony Japan, has penned an essay recounting the 16-year road (!) leading to the current box set.
A Memorabilia folder offers loads of replica swag including period ads (including a fun one with international releases including a self-titled 1976 compilation and Golden Gran Prix 30 set from the following year), concert tickets, the original 30-page program book, and foldout posters. One thing you won't find throughout is any reference to Columbia Records; as the name "Columbia" is owned by another party in Japan, the discs and printed material are all branded with the Sony Music name. The one exception is on the OBI strip; the American OBI has the logos of both Columbia and Legacy Recordings. (The box as released in Japan is almost identical, with a slightly different OBI and an additional no-frills booklet featuring all of the text in Japanese.) The slipcase is stored within a resealable bag.
The Complete Budokan 1978 showcases a Bob Dylan who's traded ferocity for contentedness, yet it's a testament to the strength and adaptability of his songs. If everyone else has reworked Bob Dylan songs ad infinitum, why shouldn't the songwriter himself? Not long after the world tour wrapped up, he would launch the next phase of his life and career when he embraced Christianity. The born-again Dylan was, in many respects, different from the Budokan Dylan, who was different from the Rolling Thunder Dylan. Sooner or later, one of us must know: The fascinating, challenging, inventive, wild, wacky, genre-defying, and oddly moving chapter captured in Tokyo 45 years ago receives its ultimate celebration on The Complete Budokan 1978.
The Complete Budokan 1978 is available now as a 4CD set. The 2LP Another Budokan offers 16 of the previously unreleased performances on vinyl in a gatefold jacket with an OBI and a four-page insert. As an Amazon affiliate, we earn from qualifying purchases.