Past installments in the series teach you something you didn’t know about Dylan’s music; this one pretty much tells you what you already knew.
Bob Dylan can be a contrary guy. With the help of director Martin Scorsese, his recent cinematic revisit of the Rolling Thunder years was a sprawling, fascinating narrative that took mischievous liberties with the truth. What’s so contrary about Travelin’ Thru, the three-disc set that brings the Bootleg Series up to volume 15? Covering Dylan’s time spent in Nashville, it gathers previously unreleased material from three albums, two universally considered essential and one whose reputation has only recently recovered from some of the worst reviews of his career. Where do you think the most revelatory material on this set comes from?
The first disc covers the Nashville studio sessions that made up John Wesley Harding in 1967 and Nashville Skyline in 1969. Alternate takes from the 1967 sessions don’t reveal anything new, but how much can you learn from eight tracks that don’t radically differ from the originally released versions? This was a period when America’s ur-song poet went from obscure to downright mystical. Imagine hearing “All Along the Watchtower,” with its strange, biblical tone, for the first time; imagine hearing Jimi Hendrix’s version for the first time; imagine Dylan hearing Hendrix’s version for the first time, the premiere guitarist of his generation taking that acoustic apocalypse and transforming it with layers of shamanistic electricity that permanently altered the way the composer would perform the song in concert. None of that excitement comes through the alternate take heard here. Unlike the radically different versions of Blonde on Blonde material heard on The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, none of the eight alternate takes from John Wesley Harding depart appreciably from the released tracks.
The same goes for outtakes from Dylan’s fabled collaboration with Johnny Cash. There’s one previously unreleased song here, “Western Road,” and disc two and half of disc three are devoted to Dylan-Cash sessions with an all-star band including Sun Records guitarist Carl Perkins. But this is no Million Dollar Quartet. Dylan’s attempt at the Elvis Presley staple “Mystery Train” has nothing of the uncanny energy of the Sun Sessions original. Dylan is clearly having a ball playing with Nashville legends, but the sessions are the work of a pickup band still figuring each other out. Granted, this pickup band features some of the Greatest Musicians of All Time, but they didn’t make magic together.
That magic finally comes on two Johnny Cash covers Dylan recorded during the Self Portrait sessions, which shows you how contrary Dylan was with that release; if he’d added these recordings to the two-LP set, the album might have had a better reputation instead of its near-universal dismissal. His version of “Ring of Fire” transforms the original’s conventional country rhythms to a seething swamp rock. Piercing lead guitars and Dylan’s impish tempo-shifts deliver a performance of complete conviction and reinvention, something that largely absent from the Dylan-Cash sessions. Without his elder looking over his shoulder, Dylan sounds let out of a cage, taking on “Folsom Prison Blues” like it’s a moving locomotive; this is what Dylan’s “Mystery Train” should have sounded like, a choogling vision and revision of Americana, railroads and prisons and back-breaking labor paying off in a fierce rock ‘n’ roll shuffle.
The Bootleg Series has been most exciting when it takes on the material most often dismissed, like Self Portrait or his Christian era. Despite tapping one of Dylan’s most celebrated periods, the latest installment doesn’t change the narrative in a meaningful way. The very title of Travelin’ Thru seems to indicate this is just a stopover, and for the most part, the material may be intriguing historically but doesn’t surpass the canonical studio recordings. There are two exceptions; those may just be worth it for Dylan fans. On the other hand, if you’ve been putting off getting Trouble No More because you never liked those preachy albums much to begin with, it’s best you pick that up instead. That one will teach you something you didn’t know about Dylan’s music; this one pretty much tells you what you already knew.