On one hand, it’s no great mystery that when Bob Dylan seemed to find new faith around 1979, a lot of fans and Dylanologists lost theirs — in him.
On the other, Dylan’s track record for musical revelation was so firmly established by that time that he could have put out an album of songs about his stamp collection and they would have been worthy at least of honest consideration.
But Dylan’s apparent conversion to what sounded a lot like fundamentalist Christianity struck many as a stark turnaround from tenets we had come to expect from him, and from rock music itself — first and foremost being a healthy skepticism toward institutional conventions of any kind.
Dylan, after all, was the man who (contrary to his own wishes) was widely considered “the spokesman of a generation,” the musician who made it a virtual prerequisite of young adulthood to challenge authority and dogma.
So what were audiences to think when, with the release of 1979’s “Slow Train Coming” album, he sang that he was “Gonna change my way of thinking / Make myself a different set of rules” and preached that “there’s only one authority / And that’s the authority on high”?
All this figures into the latest edition of his record company’s ongoing series of archival releases, “Bob Dylan — Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/ 1979-1981.” This one spans the so-called “Christian period” of his trio of albums: “Slow Train Coming,” “Saved” (from 1980) and “Shot of Love” (1981).
The deluxe set from Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings encompasses eight CDs and one DVD with director Jennifer Lebeau’s new documentary, “Trouble No More: A Musical Film.” An abridged two-CD set and a four-LP vinyl version are also available.
The deluxe set comprises 100 tracks: alternate studio versions, rehearsal takes and live performances. Only one has been previously released: “Ye Shall Be Changed,” which appeared on the first installment from 1991, “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3.”
Until now, this has been a relatively under-investigated and certainly misunderstood chapter in the long history of Dylan’s music, one in which many accused him of abandoning his artistry in favor of demagoguery. In fact, he was challenging listeners’ preconceived notions as he often had.
Surveying the set brings up a realization that hadn’t crystallized back when I first heard the studio albums: Then, or today, I never doubted Dylan’s sincerity in the expressions of faith he wrote at that time.
Now, however, it seems clearer that another major impetus for him in heading down the path of spirituality had to be the opportunity to tap into the higher power of a great rock-gospel band.
The talent he assembled, both for the studio sessions and the concert tours were respected then, revered now: guitarists including Mark Knopfler, Steve Soles and Fred Tackett; keyboardists such as veteran Muscle Shoals session player Spooner Oldham, Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Dylan’s old Chicago-blues circuit pal, Al Kooper; bassists Tim Drummond and Jerry Scheff; drummers Jim Keltner and Ian Wallace and drenched-in-the-spirit singers Clydie King, Regina McCrary, Carolyn Dennis and Regina Peebles among others.
Roots music aficionado that he’s always been, Dylan has long understood the power gospel music has to move and inspire listeners.
In turn, Dylan served up some of his most impassioned, electrifying performances with these gospel-steeped songs.
The first two discs of the “Trouble No More” set are drawn from various tour stops from 1979-81, while discs 3 and 4 collect rare versions of songs from the studio albums along with several that didn’t wind up on any of those releases.
The fifth and sixth discs contain his full show from April 18, 1980 in Toronto, while CDs 7 and 8 offer up another full concert from June 27, 1981 at Earl’s Court in London. (For Dylan completists, the singer-songwriter’s website is offering two additional discs with yet another complete performance, this one from his Nov. 28, 1979 tour stop in San Diego.)
Discs 1 through 4 are framed smartly, each of the four opening with markedly different renditions of the same song: “Slow Train Coming,” displaying how Dylan’s restless artistry was always in search of the right feel, tempo and attitude for a given song.
An alternate studio take of one of the “Slow Train Coming” album’s higher profile songs, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” features a livelier bounce in the rhythm section of Drummond and drummer Pick Withers, while keyboardist Barry Beckett pushes the song forward with beat-anticipating piano interlaced with funky clavinet parts. The backing gospel singers on the released version are absent.
The fidelity of the live versions varies noticeably in places, which makes for some compromises. The performance of “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” on the first disc, recorded in 1980 in Portland, Ore., benefits from a more fluid reggae-ized lilt by the band, and is buoyed further by a break where the gospel singers are featured.
But Dylan’s vocal is low in the mix, rendering certain lines difficult to discern, especially to anyone not already intimately familiar with his clever roster of creation stories he cooked up for so many critters.
With the distance of nearly four decades, it’s possible now to look back at this period and recognize that yet again, the Bard from Hibbing, Minn., was doing what he’s done so consistently through all phases of his career: challenging orthodoxy.
What made this manifestation of the impulse to prod and provoke so intriguing is that it was an unexpected orthodoxy Dylan chose to put under his microscope: the orthodoxy of rock ’n’ roll.