News and Commentary – Bob Dylan: Trouble. No. More.
The release of the spectacular Trouble No More provides a fitting moment for our third Bob-post of retrospectives following Dylan receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature. The first included a general overview and guidelines for following his Bob-ness; the second featured our user’s guide to (almost) all of his studio albums; here, as previously promised, we consider his concerts and tours.
Trouble No More is bursting at the seams with live material. The nine (you heard me, nine) disc set includes eight CDs (two discs of live selections from 1979 to 1981; two discs of “rare and unreleased material”; two concerts of two discs each—selections from Toronto 1980, and the London show of June 27, 1981), plus a DVD of the new documentary Trouble No More, which includes blistering live footage from this period. (There is a two disc version of selections from this larger set, if you are not ready to dive into the deep end.) These three years capture a high water mark in Dylan’s performing career.
They are, however, among the least appreciated. These were Dylan’s overtly “born-again” years (although despite the fact that they clearly reflected a very distinct phase, we are among those who see considerable continuity across his output both before and after). In any event, Dylan wasn’t fooling around—like any serious artist, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the experience. And the subject matter of many of the songs, and (this bit was admittedly unfortunate) his at times hectoring fundamentalism, sent legions from his core audience of secular liberals fleeing in droves. A mistake—they closed their ears to some epochal material.
We are not members of the god squad here at Mid Century Cinema, but that doesn’t stop us from appreciating engagements with divine themes, which, after all, motivated millennial masterpieces by many of our favorite artists. (Consider Robert Bresson’s greatest films, for starters—or check out this number from the legendary bluesman Reverend Gary Davis, who was an important influence on The Grateful Dead . . . and the young Bob Dylan.) And so, short of the objectionable (and it must be acknowledged that the magnificent song “Slow Train Coming” has an ugly verse Bob eventually dropped from his performances), we’re perfectly comfortable with artists’ spiritual engagements, and assessing them on their merits, and not their conformity with our own notions. Which is why the born again years should find their place as a valued passage along the Dylan time-line.
As noted, the live material from 1979 to 1981, to use the technical term, like totally rocks. And following our own manifesto, we consider them in their place in the balance of this essay, which offers our inevitably idiosyncratic and invitingly contestable take on Bob Live. An “album guide” follows for officially released live recordings (it would be impossible to even begin to catalogue unofficially circulating recordings).
The Early Years, from 1961 to 1963, feature mostly folk gigs, principally in New York City. Astonishing is Dylan’s rendition of the nineteenth century spiritual “No More Auction Block,” performed at the Gaslight Cafe in late 1962, when Bob was all of twenty-one years old. Another mind-blowing experience is the seven-minute spoken-word “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” from April 12, 1963 (and included in The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3); we’re also partial to “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” from a show at Carnegie Hall on October 26 of that year.
On Top of the World. Dylan was at the height of his fame from 1964 to 1966, and toured extensively during those years. The 1964 Halloween concert at Philharmonic Hall is justly celebrated; moving on, let us set down the combative marker that we strongly prefer the performances of 1966 (mind blowing) to those of 1965 (very good). Documentary Filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker captured much of the 1965 tour of England in Don’t Look Back, he also shot footage in 1966 for the aborted “Eat the Document” project – fortunately much of that material found its way into Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home. (Bits of 1965 and 1966 can also be seen in Murray Lerner’s Festival.) But the point is, sure, “It’s all over Now Baby Blue,” as performed in 1965 was something special; but “Visions of Johanna” in 1966 will change your life forever.
The Quiet Years. After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan took an eight year hiatus from regular touring, but would occasionally show up here and there, say, for a Woody Guthrie tribute or The Concert for Bangladesh. It was a long time, but it turned out to be worth the wait, for . . .
The Mid-Seventies Resurgence. Very busy years here, starting with an American arena tour in 1974 with The Band, followed by the more intimate, and most wonderful, “Rolling Thunder Review” in 1975, and then its echo, subsequently nicknamed “Distant Thunder” in 1976, so we could tell them apart. (NBC aired a TV special of the May 23 concert in Colorado that September.) It would be nice to consider Dylan’s appearance at The Last Waltz on November 25 1976 as neatly bookending this period, but we must at least acknowledge the frantic, forgettable globetrotting of 1978 that became known “the alimony tour”—and it sounds like it.
The Gospel Years. 1979, 1980, 1981—the stuffing of Trouble No More, with live performances that are invariably better than the album versions. In particular, songs from the album Saved, especially “Solid Rock,” “In the Garden,” and “Pressing On” have an extraordinary intensity in live performances from this era – this stuff is the real deal. There are gems littered throughout this period; at the Fox Warfield Theater on November 16, 1980 (Jerry Garcia sat in with the band), Dylan let loose with our favorite version of an already-great song (“The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”) featuring some dazzling alternate lyrics (too rich for my blood/and I needed a transfusion). In case we hadn’t mentioned this, we think these years are worth checking out.
The Unhappy Eighties. Dylan returned to more traditional material in 1982-1983, but did not hit the road much for the first time in a long while. He resurfaced in 1984 with an undistinguished tour of Europe before rebounding in mid-decade with fine shows alongside Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but then seemed to lose his way in a series of unfocused appearences with the Grateful Dead in 1987.
Phoenix from the Ashes. Just when you least expected it, Dylan embarked on one of his greatest streaks of live performances—shows up there with the best of 1966, 1975 and 1980. One can speculate that the experience of playing with The Grateful Dead, however limited a success in the moment, encouraged Dylan to rethink his relationship with live performance. What came to be known as The Never-Ending Tour boasted more varied set lists featuring a seemingly inexhaustible potpourri of gems, covers, and obscurities that were mixed in with reinterpretations of old favorites and selections from recently released albums. We’ll try and contain ourselves and mention only a few unforgettable personal favorites: “San Francisco Bay Blues,” (Greek Theater, Berkeley June 10, 1988), “One Too Many Mornings,” (Radio City Music Hall October 17, 1988), “Most of the Time” (Boston Opera House, October 25, 1989), and all fifty songs at the Toad’s Place bash (January 12, 1990), if with a soft spot for “Been all Around This World.”
The never ending tour went on – and goes on – with no end in sight. It has not yet received an official release (or multiple releases) that are surely essential. But The Bootleg Series continues as well; surely its time will come. (We would certainly snap up nine more discs from those great old days.) And Bob is still touring. Some nights are better than others. That’s the way it is.
Our User's Guide to Dylan's live albums (by date of performance), plus some important tours currently without an official live release:
Live at the Gaslight 1962 **
Bob Dylan in Concert at Brandeis University 1963 *
Live at Carnegie Hall 1963 *
Live 1964 (The Bootleg Series, volume 6) ***
[1965 Tour of North America and Britain] **
Live 1966 (The Bootleg Series, volume 4) ***
Before the Flood (1974) **
Live 1975 (The Bootleg Series, volume 5) ***
Hard Rain (from 1976) *
Bob Dylan at Budokan (1978)
Trouble No More 1979 – 1981 (The Bootleg series volume 13) ***
Real Live (1984)
[1985-86 Tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers] *
Dylan and the Dead (1987)
[First Leg of The Never-Ending Tour, 1988 – 1991] ***
Trouble No More
New Songs, Familiar Moment