Format: 2 CDs
Of all the many phases of Bob Dylan’s career, his turn to charismatic Christianity in the late 1970s was the most puzzling and controversial, to fans and music critics alike. Dave Marsh, in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (1983), wrote of Slow Train Coming (1979), the first album professing Dylan’s new faith, that the singer-songwriter “seemed to be using religion to front some new found right-wing political views.”
Nonetheless, hardcore Dylan fans bought Slow Train Coming, as well as his two Christian-themed records that followed, Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller, is an atheist and Dylan lover who picked up those records but didn’t bother to listen to them. He wrote an essay for the booklet that accompanies Trouble No More, a two-disc collection of Dylan’s live recordings from this period and Vol.13 of his Bootleg Series. Jillette returned to the records after 35 years and found that “Now Dylan’s gospel records are good.”
These live recordings are just as good as those studio recordings -- and, because of Dylan’s penchant for reinventing his songs in performance, perhaps even better. Disc 1 begins with a version of “Slow Train” from 1979. Fred Tackett’s guitar solo is somewhat reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s playing on the original, while carving out his own identity. Disc 2 opens with another take on “Slow Train” from a show 19 months later, and it’s faster and more aggressive. Dylan sings with even more fire, and Tackett and second guitarist Steve Ripley play slashing solos.
Two versions of “Gotta Serve Somebody,” also from Slow Train Coming and also separated by a year and a half, find Dylan revising the song’s feel. In the first version he sings with righteous fury; in the second he sounds less angry but still full of conviction. The latter is taken at a faster tempo, to drummer Jim Keltner’s shuffling blues groove. “Solid Rock,” from Saved, morphs from a spirited rocker in 1979 into a slower, smoldering gospel blues begun by Dylan’s backing singers.
“I Believe in You,” from May 1980, features a moving, straightforward vocal from Dylan and sensitive backing from his band in an arrangement that follows the original on Slow Train Coming -- but Dylan had already begun to play with the phrasing and emphases of the lyrics. “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” is less emphatically reggae than its original version on Slow Train, but this live version brings out more of the song’s childlike good humor.
Trouble No More includes songs from all three of Dylan’s Christian albums, as well as two compositions previously unreleased. “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” demonstrates how important Dylan’s backing singers were in establishing the gospel sound of these songs and this band -- and at this point, Dylan’s band was exceptional. In addition to Tackett, Ripley, and Keltner, it includes bassist Tim Drummond and, variously, Spooner Oldham, Terry Young, and Willie Smith on keyboards.
I’m a fan of gospel music, but I had some reservations about picking up this set. Perhaps because Dylan’s faith at this point was of a fundamentalist strain, I’ve associated the three original studio albums with Christian Contemporary Music, which varies in quality. One listen to Spooner Oldham’s churchy piano in “When He Returns,” and the band’s stunningly precise playing throughout this set’s 2.5 hours, are enough to allay those fears -- and Dylan himself sounds impassioned, by turns tender and burning with firm belief.
The recording quality varies. Only seven of these 30 tracks were originally multitrack recordings; the rest were “first generation cassette sources,” according to the liner notes. But the music is all entirely listenable, and Dylan and his band come through clearly. As with many installments of the Bootleg Series, multiple versions of Vol.13 are available, including a four-LP edition (it also includes these two CDs), and the Deluxe Edition of eight CDs and one DVD. The latter includes 14 previously unreleased Dylan songs from this period.
After listening to Trouble No More, I returned to the three original studio LPs and found that they hold up remarkably well. They contain surprises -- such as a tribute to Lenny Bruce on Shot of Love -- but the new set reveals, once again, just how free Dylan has always been in the reinterpretation and performing of his own music. The best gospel singers have always done that. Even nonbelievers will find plenty to like here.
. . . Joseph Taylor