Recorded: Various dates 1978-1981
Released: November 3, 2017
The importance of identifying Bob Dylan as a performing artist, as distinct from the popular perception that he’s a songwriter and recording artist, is immediately clear when one has a chance to hear his fall 1979 concerts. “What Can I Do for You?,” “Solid Rock,” “Saving Grace,” “Covenant Woman” and “In the Garden” as performed at these shows are some of the finest works in Dylan’s oeuvre, but you’d never know that from listening to Saved, the 1980 studio album that features these compositions. The Saved performances are technically adequate, but they fail to put across the essential character of any of these songs, which I suppose tells us that that essence is not automatically present in the words and music of a song; it is possible (and in this case it happened) that these elements can be in place and yet whatever it is that makes the song meaningful can still be missing.
Which is to say, your awareness and appreciation of Dylan’s greatness is incomplete until you hear these songs (and “When He Returns”) as (fourteen shows November 1-16) and in southern California, Ari performed live in the fall of 1979, in San Francisco zona, and New Mexico (twelve shows between November 18 and December 9).
Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, Vol. 2: The Middle Years 1974-1986, by Paul Williams, p. 151
First, the title: “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist”. Not a poet, songwriter, “voice of a generation”. Critics and Dylan fans have long rejected the old cliche of Dylan writing great lyrics (and serviceable melodies), and others doing better versions of the songs. With Dylan’s music, it’s the way the lyrics, vocals, and instruments all come together to form his art.
Or sometimes they don’t come together. That brings us to the body of the Paul Williams quote. The album Saved was recorded after Dylan had been performing the songs live. I agree with Williams’ take on Saved: the performances there don’t do justice to the songs, they are “flat”, “dead”, or however you want to characterize that essential lack.
And without these live performances, there we’d be. But with them, I think a handful of songs-as-performed enter Dylan’s pantheon. My list would be slightly different from Williams: I’m less touched by “Saving Grace”, but would add “Pressing On”. These performances are alive with passion, but perhaps passions that are not common in Dylan’s work: joy, reverence, gratitude. Honestly, you should just listen to the November 27, 1979 performance of “What Can I Do For You?” from San Diego. The performance concludes with amazing singing from Dylan, perfect background vocals, and then a brief but beautiful harmonica solo:
You have given all there is to give
What can I do for You?
You have given me life to live
How can I live for You?
I know all about poison, I know all about fiery darts
I don’t care how rough the road is, show me where it starts
Whatever pleases You, tell it to my heart
Well, I don’t deserve it but I sure did make it through
What can I do for You?
Williams called this the “supreme achievement of this astonishing song cycle”. Yes.
I could go on about many of the other Saved performances, but I’ll limit myself to the November 6, 1979 performance of “Pressing On” from San Francisco. The instruments are barely present: mostly Dylan’s voice and the background singers, with many repetitions of the chorus. But what makes it unforgettable is Dylan’s singing of the second (and last!) verse, which starts about four minutes in:
Shake the dust off of your feet, don’t look back
Nothing now can hold you down, there’s nothing that you lack
Temptation’s not an easy thing, Adam given the devil reign
Because he sinned I got no choice, it run in my vein
But I’m pressing on
Dylan’s vocal performance brings the brief biography and admonition to blazing life: temptation to do wrong is inescapable: it runs in his veins, but thanks to Jesus, there’s nothing he (and you) lacks, so. Just. Keep. Pressing On.
The Saved songs are the real revelation of Trouble No More, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other treasures. First of all, there are many great versions of the Slow Train Coming songs, live performances, rehearsals, soundchecks, and alternative studio takes. I find nearly all of them appealing, and of course it’s fascinating to hear the sometimes subtly, sometimes fundamentally different ways Dylan can conceive of a song. Just to pick one, I love the live version of “Gotta Serve Somebody” that’s the third track on the second CD. (I believe it’s from July 15, 1981, but on YouTube Music it’s mislabeled as from June 27, 1981). The studio version is laid back and bluesy, featuring Dylan’s sly, conversational vocal. But the live performance is pure driving hard rock, guitars slamming and screaming, throbbing bass, and hey! a couple of rewritten or wholly new verses. Yeah, you really better serve somebody.
Wait, how can I pick just one Slow Train Coming song when the definitive version of the ultimate song from this era is included: “When He Returns” from the 1980 Toronto show. When I wrote about Slow Train Coming, I linked to Tony Attwood’s appreciation of this performance from the essential Untold Dylan site, and really, he says it better than I could.
Second, there are many songs that never saw an official release (although widely bootlegged, and some versions have appeared on earlier official Bootleg Series releases). Again, this release is an almost overwhelming embarrassment of riches, so I’ll just mention a few that I personally enjoy the most. Among live performances: “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Nobody” (simplistic, but fun, maybe deeper than it seems), “City of Gold” (sounds like an old fashioned hymn to me), “Thief on the Cross” (this is a good one), “Cover Down, Pray Through” (this is powerful, and deserved wider notice). Among outtakes: “Trouble In Mind”, “Yonder Comes Sin”, and “Making a Liar Out of Me” (as far as I recall, this had not been previously bootlegged, and it’s a major major find… a near Dylan classic).
Third, there are Shot of Love alternate versions, outtakes, and live versions. I don’t find these as revelatory as the performances I’ve discussed already, but: I love to hear all the various live and studio versions of the great “The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Caribbean Wind”. And I’m a big fan of the warm live version of “In The Summertime”.
Fourth, we get some performances from June 1981 where Dylan started including his older secular songs again. I’m glad that he started doing this! And these are fine performances. But none of them seem particularly insightful or innovative compared to earlier (and later) versions of these songs.
So to wrap up: most of the Bootleg Series sets are great, but I think this and the first one (Volumes 1-3) were most revolutionary for my understanding of Dylan’s music. The first one established beyond any doubt that Dylan had a bunch of great songs and masterpieces that he’d never chosen to release: astonishing. Trouble No More establishes that Dylan was on fire in 1979 and 1980 (and to a lesser extent in 1981), songs flowing out, effective arrangements and rearrangements, and passionate live performances. As I said when I discussed his studio albums from this era, you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate these songs. And I can’t recommend highly enough the Paul Williams chapter that I quoted at the beginning of this post for deeply appreciative insights that may transform your own understanding of this music.