Makes the convincing argument that such divine inspiration was part of Dylan’s music all along.
You wouldn’t know it from the studio work of the time, but during his oft-dismissed period as an Evangelical Christian, Bob Dylan led a band as smoking as any in his storied, conflicted career. While many releases in the long-running Bootleg Series have offered definitive versions of such fan favorites as The Basement Tapes, there didn’t seem to be much clamor for an era that Dylan himself seemed to ignore, shrugging off That Time He Got Religion as just a phase. Yet Trouble No More, covering a narrow time frame from 1979-1981, proves that Dylan was as vital as ever. And, at least in its eight-disc deluxe version, it makes the convincing argument that such divine inspiration was part of his music all along.
Through a daunting 102 tracks that total more than eight hours, a glance at the track list, with many songs written in the era heard in multiple versions, may seem like a chore. But while the recorded versions of these songs were the respectable work of a professional, in concert, the music sounds much more vivid and personal, sometimes taking on the tone of a man possessed.
Take “Slow Train,” offered in six different live recordings from 1979-1981. On Slow Train Coming, it’s a perfectly solid if relatively inert mid-career song. On the boxed set’s very first track, recorded live in San Francisco in November 16, 1979, the searing leads of guitarist Fred Tackett sell the musical sermon with a conviction far beyond anything that made it to the official recordings. The first of a half-dozen versions of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” recorded in San Francisco the night before, likewise leaves its canonical counterpart in the dust—it helps that this version of the lyric omits the reference to comedian Ray J. Johnson.
But the real revelation comes with a 1980 performance of “I Believe in You.” As heard on Slow Train Coming, Dylan’s voice doesn’t sound any more committed than that of a seasoned professional musician. Live, he’s far more intense, and by the time he hits the end of the chorus, his personal search and yearning for the divine is riveting: “Oh, when the dawn is nearing/ Oh, when the night is disappearing/ Oh, this feeling is still here in my heart.” It doesn’t look much on paper, but there’s something nearly mystical about the heights he reaches with lyrics that are far more direct and obvious than the opacity that had long defined him as the poet and voice of his generation.
Many issues in the Bootleg Series delve into the minutiae of alternate studio takes, but the two discs of rare and unreleased studio material here pales in intensity next to the six discs of live material from the era. What’s missing from these live sets are the sermons that Dylan would deliver between songs. According to a fan transcript from the November 16, 1979 show, he prefaced “Slow Train Coming” with the remark, “Christ will set up his kingdom in Jerusalem for 1000 years where the lion will lie down with the lamb.” Now, Dylan may have been able to deliver the line with a drama that doesn’t leap off the page, but it’s probably for the best that Trouble No More lets his music do the preaching.
Who knew this was such a vital time in Dylan’s career? Who knew that these smoking live shows smoldered with the kind of swampy doom that boiled over with Time Out of Mind, the difference being that in 1979 Dylan did not yet have a voice that sounded like death.
Most of the songs on Trouble No More date from Dylan’s Christian era, and they don’t all work. Did we really need three versions of Slow Train’s “Man Gave Names to All the Animals”? None of them work, however fascinating a concept it may seem. One could have wished for more from Shot of Love, perhaps the liveliest record of the era. But there’s only one version of that album’s paean to comedian Lenny Bruce, and a single live version (in addition to a studio outtake) of one of the few undisputed essentials from the period, “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.”
The final two discs, documenting 1981 live set in London, integrates Dylan’s Christian material with a sample of Dylan’s greatest hits from the ‘60s. The set almost rescues “Animals” by following it with what he introduces as another animal song, “Maggie’s Farm.” But segues from “I Believe in You” to “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “In the Garden” to band introductions to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” make it sound like his defining protest songs were divinely inspired after all. Naturally this all leads to a closing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Eight discs of this stuff may not lead to anyone’s spiritual conversion. But for skeptics who thought Evangelical Dylan abandoned his gifts? The scales will fall from their eyes.