Bob Dylan – Trouble No More (The Bootleg Series – Vol 13) review

Secret Meeting score: 80

by Ben McLellan

Dylan’s latest archival release in the now, long-running bootleg series, sees the examination of his most contentious period to date. The born again/evangelical Christian period, now shrewdly rebranded the “Gospel Years”, appears in the standard two disc version, as well as in a lavish eight cd box-set, cataloguing two complete live performances, rehearsals and outtakes from the period 1979-81.

In 1979, following years of extensive touring and a marital breakdown, Bob Dylan found Jesus and began writing material for a gospel album and tour. Enlisting a crack band of top session musicians, which included Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, an all-female gospel choir, as well as seasoned R&B producer Jerry Wexler, Dylan recorded and released Slow Train Coming and embarked on a tour which would feature only this new music.

The reaction to the record and subsequent tour was akin to the outrage expressed when Dylan went from acoustic folkie to electric rock n roller over a decade earlier. In retrospect, the content of the new material was not so surprising; Dylan’s songs had, from the start, addressed visions of the apocalypse, sin, morality, judgement and salvation. But, what was most surprising, and galling,to fans at the time, was the particularly firebrand and reactionary stance Dylan, once figurehead of the 60s counterculture, was endorsing with songs like Gotta Serve Somebody and Precious Angel – “You either got faith or you got unbelief and there ain’t no neutral ground.”

The music presented in this collection includes outtakes and early versions from Slow Train Coming, and parallels the release of three studio albums and two world tours – best described as blues, gospel or gospel-rock. Dylan was notoriously prolific during this period with many Dylan scholars, such as biographer Clinton Heylin, suggesting this outpouring of material matched the creative zenith of the mid 60’s trilogy that included Highway 61 Revisited. As such, much that was recorded didn’t make it onto the “Christian Trilogy”. There are many unheard compositions presented for the first time here, such as Making A Liar Out of Me – a wordy, two-chord stomp which will doubtlessly give Dylan aficionados much to analyse.

With hindsight, it seems less surprising now that Dylan would embrace a rich and influential genre of American folk music (secularised gospel became soul music, an immeasurable influence on modern pop). Dylan’s conversion would also coincide with a distinct deterioration in vocal quality, which continues to-date, as his tone becomes more shot and “nasally” and his range diminishes. But, what is clear in the vocal here, particularly on the previously unreleased live tracks, is a renewed vigour; a passion and conviction of belief which imbues these recordings with tremendous energy and focus, something that is somewhat glossed over by production on the initial recordings. A roaring When You Gonna Wake Up from Norway ‘81 is testament to this.

By 1981, and with the album Shot of Love, it seemed Dylan was somehow retreating from the fire and brimstone proselytising, and moving towards a more introspective and gentle representation of his faith through his art. New songs, including the now classic Every Grain of Sand, are represented here by a gorgeous understated acoustic demo, which takes on a wider philosophical tone and an almost zen like quality. But secular material from his 60’s heyday began to creep back into his setlist, albeit with the gospel sheen, as evidenced by the strong live document from Earls Court 1981, included here.

Understandably, both the two disc and eight disc sets feature recordings that barely justify inclusion here. Studio cuts of Pressing On and Covenant Woman are simply not different enough from the album versions to garner much interest, and the deluxe edition features no less than six versions of Slow Train Coming, which is exhaustive for even the most diehard of Bobcats!

This relatively brief phase in Dylan’s storied career not only yielded some fantastic music, but also served to deepen and enrich his mythos and inform key later works, such as late 80’s salvation, Oh Mercy and 1997’s meditation on mortality, Time Out Of Mind. And, for this alone, we should give praise and thanks.