In honor of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, I decided to listen to all of his “official” recordings in order. I’ve now reached “Bob Dylan at Budokan”.
Bob Dylan at Budokan
Recorded: Feb 28, Mar 1 1978
Released: April 23, 1979
I’m pretty sure I know what I would have made of this when it came out – at best, bizarre, at worst, just plain bad. At this point, my holy trinity was The Ramones, The Clash, and Elvis Costello, and while I already really liked Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan” was defined by The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blood on the Tracks. This live album (mostly) didn’t sound like any of that, with its big pop rock arrangements, saxophone, backing vocals, and even sometimes a flute. (Maybe he is just a song and dance man?)
But I didn’t hear this album until about 20 years later by which time my ears had grown (or at least changed). My recollection is that I thought something like “Eh, not bad”, but I may not have listened to it at all since then, until I reached it during this process. I’ve probably listened to it three or four times now. The first couple times my reaction wasn’t all that different from the first time I listened, maybe “not bad ++”. But the most recent time, something clicked, and now I actually really like a number of the performances. (But the flute? I’d still go full Belushi on it.)
The dramatic arrangements work really well for a number of songs: often they seem to be songs whose original records were either sparse or (in my opinion) not all that successful. I think the performance eof “Blowin’ in the Wind” may be (for now at least) my favorite version of this song; the original folk-strummin’ version is a classic, no doubt, but it just isn’t that interesting. Here we have a stirring dramatic anthem (as in a choir anthem… like a lot of what Dylan was doing here, a foreshadow of the gospel performances on the horizon) that really works. I also am not much of a fan of the basement version of “I Shall Be Released” — Dylan’s vocals seem strained — and this performance almost certainly is my favorite ever of this song. “Simple Twist of Fate” also is very nice. And I think “Just Like A Woman” is quite beautiful. The arrangement and Dylan’s vocal performance are very close to the original: sax and backing vocals aside, it’s very plausible he could have done it just like this in 1966.
I’m ambivalent about some of the performances. “Oh Sister” is a novel and interesting arrangement, but I just don’t like it that much. I like most of this arrangement of “Going, Going, Gone” except the interludes where the sax and backing backing vocals get turned up; this almost ruins the song for me. I feel kind of the same about “One More Cup of Coffee”, although I don’t like the main arrangement as much as “Going, Going, Gone”, and the sax parts aren’t as incongruous (the percussion is a bit hammy, though). The least successful performance is “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” — I just don’t get it.
Then there are the reggae arrangements. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is the least successful in my opinion; maybe it just doesn’t quite cohere, it “just don’t fit”. I actually enjoy listening to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, although it completely lacks the somber longing beauty of the original. So: musically attractive, but utterly incongruous with the lyrics. On the other hand, “Shelter From The Storm” is really successful. I would not take this over the Hard Rain version, but it’s completely original and beautiful, and the sax works.
“Is Your Love in Vain?” is good, pretty much faithful to the original. I wish they would have included many more Street Legal songs; obviously, this backing group could do justice to them. (I’m aware that more of the Street Legal songs were performed during the tour and show up on bootlegs. I’ve heard them, but the problem I have is that the sound quality is poor enough that I can’t really enjoy (or even hear) the performances; everything is tinny and muffled. There don’t seem to be any high-quality recordings from the 1978 tour available.)
“All Along The Watchtower” is another dramatic pop rock arrangement that I think works well. While I haven’t listened to the version Bear McCreary version from Battlestar Galactica recently, this performance gives me vibes of that.
Finally, there’s the highlight: “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”. We again have a big pop rock arrangement. The beginning of each verse and the chorus arerestrained, and then the music and vocals swell. The transformation from the original version reminds me of what Dylan did with “Isis” in 1975 and “Shelter from the Storm” in 1976. The original versions had all the intensity, drama, and emotion coiled up and kept in check; the live versions released them; the wind was howling, the snow was outrageous, and there was darkness at the break of noon.
Once again, I think negative and mixed reactions to this album stemmed from people having a set and narrow conception of what Dylan should sound like. This isn’t my favorite live Dylan, but I think it’s important because it served as the first wholesale reconstruction of his songs, which of course he’s now done many times, so now we’re used to it. And I won’t be waiting another 20 years to listen to this album again.—–More Dylan at https://lorenterveen.com/blog/