BOB DYLAN Blood On The Tracks (Columbia)

I'll keep my observations brief, since Jon Riley has already written far more eloquently about this album in these pages than I ever could. Suffice it to say that after years of wondering what all the fuss was about over the last few months "Blood On The Tracks" has finally begun to make sense to me. It's light years away from the quicksilver wordplay and conceits that characterise earlier work such as "Blonde On Blonde", of course, but this slow-blooming gem makes much of his pre-accident work look like so much precocious bluster. Maybe you have to be of a certain age to appreciate it fully - after all, Dylan had to be of a certain age to create it - or you have to have been bruised a little before it begins to weave its magic on anything other than a superficial level, but this is Dylan writing about himself for perhaps the first time, and the surprise is (and this must have been a revelation at the time) that he's a real person just like any of us. And it works, whether on the miraculous self-flagellation of "Idiot Wind", or on the sly acoustic observations of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" or "Buckets Of Rain". Even the deceptively simple third-person narrative "Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts" has all the "Pulp Fiction"-style complexity of a Chinese puzzle when you follow it closely.

Of course, next time around Dylan dug even deeper into the wounds that created "Blood On The Tracks", but there's far less universal applicability in the astonishing admissions of "Sara" than you'll find on any track in this collection. If "Blood On The Tracks" has for some reason passed the Dylan fan in you by, try it, but be patient: I listened to it for eight years before I really heard it. (Note that current vinyl pressings also feature Pete Hamill's Grammy winning sleevenotes, which I believe are absent from the CD booklet.)

BOB DYLAN Greatest Hits Vol. 3 (Columbia)

The latest-but-one bulletin to be thrown from the epicentre of the NeverEndingTour (the latest being the hilariously inappropriate "Unplugged" album), "Greatest Hits Vol. 3" appears to be another with designs on Misnomer City, since the former folk hero has hits at the rate of about one every seventeen years these days.

No matter: despite a track selection curious enough to deserve a thesis (and sooner or later one will probably be written on the subject) - only one track each from "Blood On The Tracks", "Desire", "Infidels" and "Oh Mercy", no sign of "Baby Stop Crying" or "Is Your Love In Vain" (two of his few genuine British hits during the period under examination), and what foolishness caused "Dark Eyes" to be omitted? - "Greatest Hits Vol. 3" is actually a pretty passable reminder of what Zim’s been up to for the last two decades.

Compared to earlier compilations, the songs here are generally more narrative and less lyrically obtuse, an approach that can work spectacularly well (e.g. "Hurricane", Dylan’s impassioned plea on behalf of Ruben Carter, the boxer wrongly accused of robbery and murder) or rather badly, as on the so-terrible-it’s-hilarious "Brownsville Girl", where Bob spends much of its eleven minute duration forgetting the names of all the Gregory Peck films he’s seen. (Classic lyric alert: "If there’s an original though out there I could use it right now"!). And at last there’s a way to get "Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door" without forking out for the "Biograph" box or buying "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid" just for one track - the slow and stately, dignified rendition that closes the album serves to remind the listener that despite the ‘efforts’ as some to miscast it as a heavy metal anthem or a reggaeified shuffle, it’s always been, and always will be, a folk song at heart. Also, note the stunning array of talent that’s turned up to pluck or hit things for the Zim: Fred Tackett (sometime member of Little Feat), The Band, Mick Taylor, much of Dire Straits, Ira Ingber (who was Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band for about half an hour in the mid Seventies), Roger McGuinn, Sly and Robbie, Nathan East, Don Was, Benmont Tench, Al Kooper, George Harrison - enough to keep "Mojo" in articles for years! If you haven’t bought a Dylan album since "Blood On The Tracks", this is undoubtedly the least painful way of catching up. Rumour has it that the next archive dredging session should see recordings of his 1965 Albert Hall shows with The Band released this summer (only four years after they were first promised). Here’s hoping.

BOB DYLAN Time Out Of Mind (Columbia)

"Time Out Of Mind" is the Bard of Hibbing’s 29th album, now out as a limited Dutch double vinyl pressing a pretty large number of weeks after its release on cassette and CD. (Anybody else remember the good old days when albums used to come out on vinyl and cassette first, and then the CD would arrive a few months later? Such enlightened times.)

Despite being recorded before Dylan’s near-fatal illness last year, "Time Out Of Mind" is filled with ominously prescient imagery, particularly in the album’s undoubted highlight "Not Dark Yet" ("But it’s getting there", he wheezes). Although producer Daniel Lanois smothers everything in his trademark sonic fog, the result is markedly different to the "Oh! Mercy Part 2" that might’ve been anticipated, because, after a few albums’ worth of death-rattle acoustic folk Bob’s learnt another new trick - this time round he’s got the blues.

Perhaps a better way to describe "Time Out Of Mind" would be as some weird alchemical fusion of "Oh! Mercy"’s coffee-table competence and the off-kilter rumble of unconstrained inventiveness that made "The Basement Tapes" such compelling listening. Despite sounding, superficially at least, mid-paced and relaxed, every now and then you’ll get snagged by a typical trademark Zimmerman verbal thorn, and find yourself halfway to making a case for the likes of "Standing In The Doorway", the aforementioned "Not Dark Yet" and maybe even "Cold Irons Bound" being among the best songs he’s proffered over the last two decades.

"Time Out Of Mind" isn’t "Blonde On Blonde" all over again, though, despite the presence of a side-long closing track, "Highlands". Closer to the timewasting likes of "Brownsville Girl" than epic finales of yore such as "Desolation Row" and "Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" the aimless, road-movie wanderings it describes suggest Neil Young’s "Last Trip To Tulsa" (a connection made more explicit after the great man is namechecked a few minutes after you make the comparison), and the central scene of the narrator discussing art with a waitress will be familiar to anyone who’s heard Terry Allen’s "Lubbock (On Everything)" album.

Despite its imperfections "Time Out Of Mind" is this decade’s Dylan album that you can invest in with confidence. Spooked, weatherbeaten and reverential, this is exactly the sort of music that we should have predicted the acid-tongued, epigrammatic young man depicted in "Don’t Look Back" would be making thirty years later.

BOB DYLAN Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

Is a review really necessary? For once, I’d say it isn’t. Like going to see "Titanic", you know the ending: the ship sinks, Bob blitzes (or possibly deafens) the doubters with wired folk rock. Initially slated for release months after the first mammoth "Bootleg Series" box in 1991 (although a puzzling sleevenote states "Originally released 1985"), seven years later its finally arrived as a lavishly packaged double CD, padded out with a 54-page booklet stuffed with scene-setting essays and photographs (including one of a trailerload of flight cases, captioned "The Offending Instruments", ho ho ho!). There was to be an audiophile 180 gram vinyl issue as well, but word of the lavishness of the project reached Bob, who vetoed it...doh!

The first disc is a politely-received purely acoustic set - mostly shock-free renditions of material from "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Blonde On Blonde" - the second entirely electric, as four-fifths of The Band whip up a maelstrom around some of Dylan’s most poisonous and barbed songs (although none of them as poisonous and barbed as "Positively Fourth Street", sadly absent here). Here you’ll also find perhaps the first seeds of his wayward live reputation (I mean, have you heard "Hard Rain"?!). Let’s be honest, there’s only so much damage you can do to a melody armed with just a voice, guitar and harmonica, but with The Band behind him "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" and "One Too Many Mornings" are taken outside and kicked almost insensible. Throughout proceedings there are outbreaks of slow handclaps and heckling - which at one point Dylan deals with by going off on a rambling, blurred monologue that only snaps into focus with the punchline "If only you wouldn’t clap so hard" - and then, towards the end of the evening...

 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Judas!

DYLAN: I don’t believe you! You’re a liar...

 

...at which point "Like A Rolling Stone" grumbles into existence, and that, in a very real sense, is that.

It seems irrelevant to note that I don’t find "Live 1966" a particularly entertaining musical experience, but in all honesty I’d much rather hear the studio versions of these songs. Divorced from the visual aspect of the concert they seem to add nothing to the legend, and for a more instructive portrait of the rolling thunder that the mid-60s Dylan experience must have been the "Don’t Look Back" film wins by a country mile. And, although the sound quality is generally fine, the mixed provenance of these tapes - some recordings coming from mono Nagra tapes made by D A Pennebaker’s film crew, others from CBS’ own three-track stereo machines running at twice the speed - and the need to ‘fill gaps’ by editing different recordings of the same song together means that once or twice during the acoustic set Dylan seems to lurch from your lounge into next door’s garden (something the booklet euphemistically says "can be detected on earphones by a slight shift in the sound of the hall ambience..."). But don’t let my petty complaints put you off: as a historical document "Live 1966" is essentially self-recommending. He’s an artist, remember, he don’t look back.

BOB DYLAN Live 1966 (Classic Records)

A mere nine months after its CD release, Dylan's landmark Free Trade Hall gig makes it to vinyl, in the form of a luxuriously presented limited edition box set packed with individually sleeved 180 gram pressings of the night's acoustic and electric sets and a hefty 12" square booklet that reproduces all the text from the smaller article that accompanied the CD and shuffles the photos around a bit to make best use of the larger canvas. (Rumour has it that Dylan's prevaricating over the artwork approval was the main factor in this set's elephantine gestation period). The whole is a cherishable package, as you might expect for something that retails at over twice the price of the double CD...

When I reviewed the CD a few issues back I noted that, historical importance aside, "Live 1966" didn't really make it for me in musical terms. The vinyl version helps a great deal, especially on the acoustic set, which sounds as close to having the 24 year old Dylan standing a few feet in front of your sofa as you'd probably want to get. And on the electric sides Dylan's exhortation to the band (or should that be The Band?) to "play fucking loud" following the infamous "Judas!" outburst and the mumbled monologue he launches into in an attempt to quell the slow handclaps both seem a lot clearer. Studying these recordings again also emphasises how important The Band were to Dylan's new wild mercury music, especially Garth Hudson's organ fills which bob (pun unintended) to the surface of the electric maelstrom every now and then.

Classic Records, specialist reissue merchants par excellence, have done this important historical document proud, even to the extent of clarifying the bizarre 'originally released in 1985' sleevenote that puzzled on Sony's CD packaging: that referred only to the version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue", which snuck out on the "Biograph" compilation, the remainder of the album having languished in the vaults until last year. But whatever your format allegiances, "Live 1966" will surely come to be looked on as the kind of essential document no collection of classic rock will be complete without.

BOB DYLAN Planet Waves (Simply Vinyl)

Simply Vinyl's laudable, if apparently random, Dylan reissue program has alighted on his enigmatic 1974 effort "Planet Waves". Enigmatic because none of my reference books seem keen to discuss it, it being airbrushed out of rock history along with the rest of his recording career post-"Nashville Skyline" and pre-"Blood On The Tracks".

Recorded in three days with The Band on backup, and bearing the legend "Cast-iron songs & torch ballads" on the cover, "Planet Waves" is a confused and confusing album. The attempts to inject a degree of jollity into proceedings, for example "On A Night Like This", sound forced and false today, almost as if Dylan is singing through clenched teeth, and the majority of the album is clogged up with uninspiring mid-paged chuggers that ramble inconclusively ("Tough Mama", "Something There Is About You") or unconvincing attempts by the Zim to act the stud ("Hazel"). But occasionally the frayed nerve endings show: "Going, Going, Gone" is the voice of a man wracked with guilt and remorse, "Dirge" belies its unpromising title to emerge as one of the album's few highlights and "Wedding Song" cruelly crystallises the last gasp of his failing marriage ("I love you more than money", he sings at one point, and you wonder whether that line hurts more to write, to sing or to hear), a subject he would return to rather more fruitfully on "Desire" in the form of the magnificent, legend-shattering "Sara".

Of course, by the standards of some of his later work "Planet Waves" remains a veritable treasure trove, and compilers of later Dylan anthologies have singled out "Forever Young" (essayed here in two different versions) and "You Angel You" for inclusion. But listened to in isolation "Planet Waves" smacks of the same mid-70s malaise that seemed to affect many of the elder statesmen of rock, something Dylan would conclusively counter next time around, with the talisman "Blood On The Tracks".

BOB DYLAN Love And Theft (Columbia)

My counting fingers make this Mr Zimmerman's 29th studio album; my ears rate it as the finest music that he's produced in a quarter of a century. What, better than "Oh Mercy"? Better than "Time Out Of Mind"? Well, "Oh Mercy" was more kicked and dragged into the limelight by being helmed by late 80s producing wunderkind Daniel Lanois than for the quality of its songs, and the wave of relief that greeted "Time Out Of Mind" could partly be attributed to the fact that Dylan was still with us and writing songs, after a few years when neither could really be guaranteed. By comparison, "Love And Theft" is in a whole other orbit entirely: more than any other record I can think of it sounds like the ultimate synthesis of 20th century American popular culture, drawing in folk, blues, jazz, rock and country into an immaculately constructed whole hewn by a whipsmart, strictly disciplined quintet. It's almost like the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack divested of its cloak of sepia nostalgia. (And it's equally fitting that one track, "High Water", is dedicated to blues pioneer Charley Patton, himself riding something of a wave of posthumous renaissance at present.) Dylan's lyrics are bejewelled with wit and insight, leaping from one sly, wry observation to the next with the alacrity of a stand-up - Dylan as a comic, who'd've thunk it? Just about every track on this landmark album is worth your time and trouble, but dragging the average up on the fourth side, by which time you'll more than likely be punch-drunk by the audacious verve of the barrelling, gracious music and grinning maniacally at Dylan's court jester act, are the plaintive lament "Po' Boy" and the quietly vicious "Sugar Baby", haunted by the ghost of "Positively 4th Street", which ain't a bad way to be.

Whichever way you slice it, "Love And Theft" is great, significant music, another compelling case study, as was Johnny Cash's glorious "American III: Solitary Man" album of last year, in the continuing assessment of what happens to our icons as they age, and grow old disgracefully.

BOB DYLAN Another Side Of Bob Dylan (Columbia)

Dylan's fourth album, originally released in 1964, finds the angry young man's music brimming over with boundless confidence and a sense of mischievous adventurousness. Having already made the best protest album in the world ever ("The Times They Are A-Changin'"), here he says farewell to the form (appropriately enough with "Chimes Of Freedom") and begins an assault on the territory that would be mapped out by all his remaining pre-motorcycle crash albums. Like the Miles Davis album reviewed above, "Another Side Of Bob Dylan" is basically electric music played acoustically, not in any corporate "Unplugged" sense of retrospective primitivism, but more in the way that the sound and fury of the music is just begging for something to kick it into the stratosphere.

Here Dylan is so at ease with his material that he laces it with comedy touches (the near-yodels on the chorus of "All I Really Want To Do", the "It's just something I learned over in England" close of "I Shall Be Free No. 10"), and you can hear the man snickering to himself throughout the album. Lyrically he explores for the first time the twisted, neo-psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness narratives that would become a staple of the holy electric triumvirate of "Bringing It All Back Home", "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde On Blonde", and lets the mask slip for a rare moment of heart-on-sleeve real life reportage in the remarkably candid "Ballad In Plain D", second only to the magnificent "Sara" of a decade hence in the piercing emotional honesty stakes. The music revels in the challenges of the unexplored, whether it be the jangling piano of "Black Crow Blues" or the sophisticated folk rock of "I Don't Believe You". And even though Dylan scored no singles from this set it was ransacked by The Byrds, Cher and Johnny Cash, so there's plenty here that should be familiar to the new listener.

According to the cover sticker, this new reissue is "limited edition high quality 180 gram virgin vinyl from the analog master", and it certainly sounds passable enough, although that comment must be qualified by the fact that, being an entirely solo venture, there are never more than two things going on at the same time for the listener to concentrate on, something even early 1960s recording technology shouldn't have found overly taxing. (Compare and contrast with the early electric albums, which usually arrive with fairly dreadful sonics on vinyl).

BOB DYLAN Windsor Hall, Bournemouth International Centre 5 May 2002

BOB DYLAN Cardiff International Arena 6 May 2002

Where do I begin…I think the last review of a Bob Dylan concert to appear in these pages was written by Kev about ten years back, and contained the phrase (I don't have the original to hand, so apologies to the author if I misquote) "myself and a few other ex-fans". It has long been the case that you take your devotion in your bare hands attending a Dylan concert, the man's legendary ability to reduce some of the keystones of 20th century culture to flabby pulp making his grouchy old pal Van Morrison look audience-friendly by comparison. So I was reasonably primed as to what to expect from this latest instalment of Dylan's Never Ending Tour when it briefly alighted at venues within my orbit. But even so…

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!" barks the PA, and sure enough there he is, little as life but compensating for his diminished stature with a sizeable white cowboy hat and a backing quartet dressed in matching maroon. Opening song on both nights is something that was unfamiliar to me and everybody in my respective parties, sort of a country skiffle thing that, if I remember rightly, used the word 'hummingbird' quite prominently in its chorus. (I later learn from a glowing review in the Dorset Echo that it's something called "Wait For The Light To Shine".) But from that point onwards the two successive nights' performances diverged so significantly that it's probably easiest to provide setlists to illustrate the point. (Songs are in chronological order of release, rather than performance…I didn't spend the two evenings standing around with a notebook, so these are both painted from memory, errors and omissions expected. I'm also a bit vague as to the titles of the "Love And Theft" selections played, so be warned!)

BournemouthCardiff
Wait For The Light To ShineWait For The Light To Shine
Blowin' In The Wind (first encore)Blowin' In The Wind (first encore)
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna FallMasters Of War
Don't Think Twice, It's AlrightThe Times They Are A-Changin'
Boots Of Spanish LeatherIt's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
Subterranean Homesick BluesIt's All Over Now, Baby Blue
Like A Rolling Stone (first encore)Like A Rolling Stone (first encore)
Highway 61 Revisited (second encore)Positively 4th Street
Desolation RowRainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box HatVisions Of Johanna
Absolutely Sweet MarieMemphis Blues Again
Drifter's EscapeAll Along The Watchtower (second encore)
If Not For YouThe Wicked Messenger
Forever YoungKnockin' On Heaven's Door (first encore)
Mama You Been On My MindTangled Up In Blue
Not Dark YetSolid Rock
Summer DaysThings Have Changed (first encore)
FloaterSummer Days
Honest With Me (first encore)Floater
Cry A WhileHonest With Me
Not Fade Away (first encore)Cry A While
Salivating yet? Wouldn't you just love to see and hear Mr Zimmerman play those songs?! Me too, but unfortunately there are a few hurdles to enjoyment of the contemporary Dylan live experience that need to be overcome. Firstly, there's the voice. Never exactly renowned for possessing an angelic set of pipes, a few minutes spent listening to "Love And Theft" will reveal how thin and ruined his voice has become recently. But, crucially, on record he still sings, his ability to convey a melody arguably no poorer than ever it was. On stage, however, it's a different story, his interpretations being firmly of the "Why use many notes when two will do?" school. He gabbles his lines like a stage-struck schoolchild in a Christmas play, all on the same note before pitching the last two or three words up the stave a piece. Most of the time his (literally) seminal lyrics are unintelligible: my Pa, a Dylan fan from a long time back who accompanied me to the Cardiff gig, likened it to trying to fill in a crossword - you catch a few words and attempt to work the identity of the song out from there. He hoots and hollers: after years of having his singing voice parodied by tenth-rate comedians the world over Dylan has extracted some twisted form of revenge by becoming the performing embodiment of Vic Reeves' deeply interpretative club singer persona. Secondly, having taken unforgivable liberties with his poetry, he seems to have encouraged his backing band (which, as far as I can discern from Dylan's perfunctory, honking introductions during the final number of both nights' main sets, includes "Love And Theft" guitarist Charlie Sexton and legendary session percussionist Jim Keltner, along with a few other faces familiar from the latest album's sleeve photographs) to wreak similar havoc with the music. It almost sounds as if they've rehearsed up a pool of around half-a-dozen basic vamps that can be pressed randomly into service as required, because hardly anything presented on either night sounded as you might remember/expect it to. I even suspect that the same arrangement (a Hendrixian thrash, appropriately enough) and lighting (the band playing in shadow) was utilised on the first night for "Drifter's Escape" and during the second for "The Wicked Messenger", although by that time I'd become so tied and tangled by Dylan's mangling of the source material that I would expect to be proved incorrect! So the question must be, if you can't decipher the lyrics and the tune has changed, at what point does (as a random example) "If Not For You" become a different song entirely? Maybe it would have been possible to withstand either indistinct singing or altered melody, but both at the same time seems like a particularly cruel trick to play.

It has to be said that Bob was generally treated to a rapturous reception on both nights: the question of whether people were applauding the actual 'performance' (an element of the Emperor's new clothes here, perhaps?) or the legend (the ghost of Dylans past!) remains unanswered, but the high density of previous tour t-shirts in the audience suggests that a significant proportion of the crowd knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for. And there were moments that were quite touching, for example when pretty much the entire Windsor Hall offered vocal assistance when the Zim's microphone packed up during the final chorus of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (just about everybody in the place making a more successful fist of it than the song's author!). The newer material just about escaped the worst of the kickings meted out (possibly because he and the band haven't worked out how to play the "Love And Theft" stuff badly yet!), and the Cardiff version of "Tangled Up In Blue" was about as close to musical as the entirety of the two evenings veered. Generally, recognising a song from its introduction telegraphed that a reasonable (all things being relative) version was on its way, although there were occasions (especially during the Bournemouth set) when I was entirely wrong-footed, "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" suddenly becoming "Mama You Been On My Mind", and the harmonica part from "Girl From The North Country" swerving abruptly into "Don't Think Twice" itself. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was welcome, and if not well done was at least medium rare, although Bob's habit of missing great chunks of the lyrics out was a tad disconcerting. (Or was he? It was kind of hard to tell.)

Reactions amongst my different companions on both nights were sharply divided. The Bournemouth attendees seemed impressed with Bob's performance (which, on both nights, endured for around two hours and 20 minutes, representing fine value if you enjoyed what he was doing), accepting the lyrical and musical upheaval as the necessary questing of an artist constantly challenging his audience. At Cardiff (for my money the better of the two gigs, with Dylan's singing being marginally less indistinct and bolstered by a setlist with even greater, albeit largely unrealised, potential) comments included "It'll be better when Dylan comes on!", "He's taking the piss", "Atrocious", "Was there some problem with the microphone?" and "He should be had under the trade descriptions act!". Personally, I was reasonably well acquainted with what I would be getting in to when I bought my tickets, and although neither concert qualified as great or even good in my humble opinion, I'm sure I'll be clamouring to pay homage the next time the Never Ending Tour touches down around here. And as Dylan sets out his bruised and battered stall to audiences the world over, it's probably people like me who are part of the self-perpetuating problem, unfortunately. To paraphrase the man himself a few times, "My friends all say I'm a worn out star", and "You got a lotta nerve".

BOB DYLAN Oh Mercy (Simply Vinyl)

It has been years since I listened to "Oh Mercy" with any regularity. In the face of Dylan's most recent studio career resurgence, documented on "Time Out Of Mind" and, especially, "Love And Theft", my memories were of an album more enjoyable for the lush, warm and fashionably late-80s atmospherics bestowed upon it by hip producer Daniel Lanois than for its rather sparse and sketchy songs. Happily, this superb 180g virgin vinyl reissue - comfortably the best Simply Vinyl release I've heard yet - redresses the balance somewhat, revealing "Oh Mercy" to be a wonderful, multi-layered album. Remember, it was originally released at a time when Bob was almost omnipotent, cramming in a career as a Travelling Wilbury, tours with The Grateful Dead and Tom Petty, cameos on U2 albums and film roles, and maybe the perception that he might have been spreading his talent a little thinly has fallen by the wayside since then.

"Political World" and "Everything Is Broken" are soapbox preachings (and note the "Peter Gunn" background rumble on the latter), all nervous energy and sidelong glances, and not too distant from the work of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, in concept if not execution. "Where Teardrops Fall" is that most unconventional of Dylan conceits, a conventional love song, spiked by the line "Time is beginning to crawl", which suggests an early swoop on the contemplation of mortality that has shaded much of his best work since. Throughout "Oh Mercy" there are low-wattage religious references, although whether they're the last sparks of the born-again zeal that burned through albums like "Slow Train Coming" or some new kind of fumbling and questing is uncertain. "Man In The Long Black Coat" is the closest the album veers to straight narrative. The song's liquid introduction sounds gorgeous, with Lanois' dobro quivers ricocheting across the room.

"Most Of The Time" is a glorious bloom of a song, almost striking some kind of rakish Sinatraesque 'devil-may-care' pose as he forgets to forget about a former lover as the immaculately turned lines "I don't even think about her…Most of the time" and "I don't even notice she's gone…Most of the time" twist the knife. Yet again, Lanois' sparse, clear production only serves to enhance some of the simplest and most direct songs in Dylan's canon. "What Was It You Wanted" is riddled with Judas metaphor, particularly poignant following the official release of the legendary heckling session that is "Live 1966". "Shooting Star" closes the album on what I once perceived as a soggy fizzle, but which now sounds as saintly, wise and wondrous as the rest of this marvellous album, my return to which has been nothing but an immensely pleasurable journey of rediscovery.

BOB DYLAN Bob Dylan At Budokan (Columbia)

Released at a time when a plethora of well regarded live albums were emerging from Tokyo's Budokan Theatre (including "Cheap Trick At Budokan" and Eric Clapton's "Just One Night"), Dylan's entry isn't quite in the same league. Bob's offhand attitude to his own back catalogue was already in effect, and as a consequence very little on this double album escapes his compulsive need to rearrange and restructure. Predictably, the songs that suffer the least damage usually emerge the freshest, for example a charming rendition of the oft-neglected "Love Minus Zero/No Limit". Unfortunately, as with Neil Young's contemporaneous "Live Rust" rendition of "Cortez The Killer", Dylan can't resist the temptation to apply a frankly inappropriate reggae pulse to some of his songs, rendering "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" comic shadows of their former selves. The chosen instrumentation doesn't help matters: caught between the "Desire" and "Street Legal" albums, Dylan and his band of Spiders From Mars clones rather clumsily attempt to emulate both at the same time, with violin, flute, saxophone, mandolin, dobro, pedal steel, recorder and a trio of backing vocalists all jostling for space in the arrangements.

"At Budokan" does have its moments, though. Having broken the back of "I Want You"'s melody he rebuilds it as a genuinely revelatory free-flowing thing, coasting tenderly along on overlapping waves of flute, guitar and organ. Introducing "Is Your Love In Vain?" from the yet-to-be-released "Street Legal" album he quips "Here's an unrecorded song. See if you can guess which one it is!". And a fat booklet contains the complete original lyrics, so the Dylanologist in you can have hours of fun comparing the printed and sung words. (Why, for example, is the hotel in "Simple Twist Of Fate" now 'renovated' rather than 'strange'?) Otherwise, though, "Bob Dylan At Budokan" is probably best avoided, unless you see it temptingly cheap, like what I did.

BOB DYLAN The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 Live 1975 The Rolling Thunder Revue (Columbia/Legacy)

thebootlegseriesvol5live1975therollingthunderrevue.jpg (17615 bytes)This magnificent double CD is comprised of recordings made on the first leg of Bob Dylan's infamous Rolling Thunder Revue, a medicine show-styled extravaganza that rolled covertly around the northern States and Canada in late 1975. Packed with two booklets, one containing copious notes by Larry "Ratso" Sloman, Rolling Stone journalist and official tour scribe, and a slipcase, this issue is, for me, Dylan's first genuinely great live album, having never loved "Before The Flood" and appreciated the previous Bootleg Series volume's documentation of the legendary "Judas" gig more for its historical than musical importance. (Then again, I was always rather fond of the critically lambasted "Dylan & The Dead", which shows how much I know.)

So what, musically, do we have here? Oh, so many treats. It's the opening "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" that really sets the scene for something special. Delivered in a guttural, glorious, hoarse yet full-blooded howl rarely heard from the man outside the confines of "Idiot Wind", it announces the presence of a performer fired and invigorated. "It Ain't Me, Babe" has grown into a weeping, pleading Latino confessional, blessed with some blistering steel guitar work from David Mansfield. Beat-up but not beaten, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is retooled for a tougher, more cynical age (for which arguably Dylan himself can take some of the credit/blame). The anger boiling through "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" is in no way diminished by its electrification here - listen to the throaty roar in the Zimmerman voice as he describes Ms Carroll's lifestyle.

The material from the then almost-released "Desire" album is played the straightest, but even here the version of "Isis" sounds supercharged compared to its rather moribund studio kin. I don't have the version - also culled from the Rolling Thunder Revue - that appeared on the "Biograph" box to hand, so I can't confirm whether it tops this remarkable reading (if memory serves Dylan's exultant closing "Yeeeeeeesss!" therein outranks even the glorious rendition documented here) but nevertheless this is some kind of savage, red-eyed beauty. A clutch of "Bringing It All Back Home" tracks, including "Mr. Tambourine Man", "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" are played sparse and acoustic, whilst a similarly spare "Tangled Up In Blue" is far closer in spirit to the person-switching narrative of the original "Bootleg Series" take than that which opened "Blood On The Tracks". Meanwhile, old folkies will no doubt salivate at the prospect of hearing Dylan and Joan Baez duetting on "Blowin' In The Wind", "Mama, You Been On My Mind" (reborn as a charming country-rock ramble, with more than a hint of the fire and ice partnership of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris) and traditional school choir favourite "The Water Is Wide". There's even the odd smattering of Dylan's elliptical sense of humour: in response to an audience member's bayed request for a protest song, he proffers the unfamiliar romance of "Oh, Sister". Introduced with the plea "If you've got any political pull at all then you can help us get this man out of jail and back on the streets", "Hurricane" is, if anything, even faster and more precise than the album version, the old, wild mercury magic returning with vengeance and purpose. Just listen to Scarlet Rivera's abandoned quicksilver violin playing, somewhat condescendingly denigrated in at least one review of the album as 'gypsy fiddling'. Another of the myriad highlights presented here is a sparse, heartfelt "Sara", apparently performed in the presence of the titular Mrs. Dylan. From here on in all that remains is a slightly lumpen "Just Like A Woman" ("Alright, we'll try it", responds the Zim to a request from the audience) and a country-fried "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" replete with Roger McGuinn and new lyrics, a ragged ensemble conclusion to the festivities patterned on a delicate, intricate tangle of guitars. "Thanks for coming. We'll be in the area a few days. Maybe we'll see you tomorrow night". "I wish", you should rightly be thinking by this point.

What's not great about the rather cumbersomely titled "The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 Live 1975 The Rolling Thunder Revue"? Some of the fade-in/out is rather obvious and intrusive at times. I'm not convinced that the assembled documentation really gets to grips with the key questions posed by the tour, such as Dylan's insistence on modelling white facepaint on stage, and the folly that apparently is "Renaldo And Clara". And "What's the version of "Like A Rolling Stone" like?", you're probably asking. Well, there isn't one. What, do you want your money back? Otherwise, if you're a Dylan fan, maybe even a Dylan fan who has been disappointed by the man's live work, in concert, on record or both, this album is an essential, cherishable purchase.

BOB DYLAN The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 Live 1964 Concert At Philharmonic Hall (Columbia/Legacy)

This latest episode in the Zim's continuing archive trawl, "The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 Live 1964 Concert At Philharmonic Hall", takes as its subject Dylan's New York Halloween show from the titular year. My initial feeling was, surprisingly, one of disappointment, centred, strangely, on Bob's singing voice. After all, no Dylan fan expects choirboy purity, but there was something about his thin, wiry, acidic tone - whether fuelled by his trademark Beaujolais, the excitement and tension of the evening or something more, uh, intoxicating - that rankled. Although undoubtedly light years ahead of the declamatory mumble he keeps especially for concerts these days, his vocals seemed to be almost offhand. The negativity was compounded by keenly anticipated renditions of officially unrecorded works such as "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" and "Who Killed Davey Moore?" which seemed to pale against my memories of the versions from the original big "Bootleg Series" box.

Stick with it, though, and these disappointments fade into insignificance against the multitudinous glories captured herein. Catching Bob at the pinnacle of his acoustic phase, this is really electric music in all but amplification. By the time D A Pennebaker and his documentary crew caught up with Dylan to make the astonishing "Don't Look Back" during his Spring 1965 British tour he had become visibly bored and restless with this material and style. But this is the summation and assimilation of his first phase. Note that the near nursery rhyme simplicity of "Blowin' In The Wind" doesn't get a look in here, and traditional show opener "The Times They Are A-Changin'" sounds like greasy kids' stuff compared to the sophistication of the personal/political satire and reportage that follows.

Also astounding is the devotion of his fans: decades before internet file swapping, years before bootlegging became commonplace (an activity heavily rooted in the obsessive dedication of Dylan's own followers) an audience member calls out for "Percy's Song" (Dylan's recording would remain unreleased for nearly 20 years), and "Who Killed Davey Moore?" is recognised from its opening line, almost three decades before its first legitimate vinyl appearance. Even an unannounced "Mr. Tambourine Man", debuted at Newport three months earlier and yet to be made available for general consumption, is met with applause.

Between songs Bob is on uproarious form. "This is taken from the newspapers. Nothing has been changed, except the words", he says of "Who Killed Davey Moore?". "Gates Of Eden" is introduced before its second public performance as "A sacrilegious lullaby in D minor". What a spellbinding rush of dense, confusing imagery he must have unleashed that night: as on the eleven minute "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" he treads warily, carefully negotiate these tangled verbal thickets. "Don't let that scare you, it's just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on", he chimes, before plunging into the equally unheard comic tale of unbridled sexual freedom (a year before Lennon would explore similar territory on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)") "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night)", lapped up by a delightfully dazed audience. "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)" ambles instrumentally through an entire verse before a befuddled Dylan asks the audience, "Does anybody know the first verse of this song?!". Predictably, he's deluged with responses. Yet, amidst all this brave new material, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" resonates more than ever. I don't think I really fully appreciated the song fully before now, this perhaps being the first of Dylan's performances to completely delineate its apocalyptic travelogue.

Post-interval (the evening's two sets are enshrined complete on a disc apiece - you have to provide your own 15 minute break between them!) he strides back with "Talkin' World War III Blues", lightening the mood with this sublime comedy of post-nuclear armageddon. And this time around, when he turned on his record player "It was Martha And The Vandellas, talking about "Leader Of The Pack""! "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" displays early signs of the kind of back catalogue desecration that would make his later live performances such, erm, uneven affairs, torching it with a deliberate foghorn blare. Yet he still knows when to treat his work with respect: Dylan's move away from protest hasn't dimmed the fiery indignation of "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll".

Tumultuous applause greets the arrival on stage of Joan Baez, and the entwined twosome embark on a ragged and shambolic but endearing "Mama, You Been On My Mind", a song they would perform together again 11 years later during the Rolling Thunder Revue. "Silver Dagger", from Baez's debut album, follows, a gorgeously pure sliver of folk song unsullied by the amelodic honking emerging from Dylan's harmonica. "With God On Our Side" packs a rather more substantial impact, especially in troubled times like these. Lines such as "Now we have weapons of chemical dust" and "You never ask questions when God's on your side" seem more potent today than ever before. When a wag calls out for "Mary Had A Little Lamb" Dylan asks "Is that a protest song?". (Ironically, of course, Paul McCartney would later turn it into one.) And then, after performing "All I Really Want To Do" with a yodel and a chuckle, he's gone.

This being a product of Sony's Legacy division, the packaging is exemplary. A hefty booklet carries a learned, absorbing essay by historian and writer Sean Wilentz who, as a 13 year old, attended his first Bob Dylan concert that night. Other wonderment includes photos of an event poster and signed programme from the gig, a reproduction of Robert Shelton's New York Times review of the performance ("Bob Dylan Shows New Maturity In Program of His Folk Songs"!) and enough mind-altering snaps of the main man on New York's streets to dispel any lingering suspicion that the authority-tussling images on the back cover of "Bringing It All Back Home" were staged. The sound quality is exemplary, and given the poor acoustics of the auditorium possibly even better than being there. But what really astonishes in this set is that, whilst his contemporaries were fiddling tentatively with feedback (The Beatles) or locked in a kitchen struggling with the rudiments of songwriting (The Rolling Stones), Dylan was way ahead of whatever game anybody else was playing.

BOB DYLAN Chronicles Volume One (Simon & Schuster)

In what has to be the music publishing event of the millennium thus far, after over four decades of being analysed and contextualised by others, of alternately owning and attempting to discard the zeitgeist, Dylan finally tells it like it is, according to his lights. Well, kind of. The first book of a projected trilogy, “Chronicles Volume One” focuses sharply on four different phases of his life and career (assuming that the two aren’t one and the same). His early days in New York are covered extensively, working the coffee house circuit and graduating to The Gaslight, visiting Woody Guthrie in hospital and almost acquiring his unrecorded lyrics later bestowed upon Billy Bragg and Wilco for the “Mermaid Avenue” project. A chapter entitled “New Morning” almost completely evades discussion of the album itself, concentrating on the siege conditions he and his family were forced to endure as he vainly attempted to shrug off the generational spokesman tag that had been thrust upon him. The recording of “Oh Mercy” is explored in fascinating, minute detail, although it’s hard not to picture the author laughing up his sleeve as he reels off some frankly horrendous lyrics that he claims were once destined for the album’s songs. Finally, there’s a flashback to his first time in Minneapolis, the sounds of Guthrie and Baez leaving an indelible imprint on the teenager. The structure loosely echoes that of Russell Banks’ novel “The Sweet Hereafter” – essentially the same story, told from four different characters’ viewpoints – except in Dylan’s case all four are one, and the picture of the whole gradually forms, fleshed out from each direction.

Despite the wealthy cluster of detail, there’s still a feeling that Dylan is concealing as much as he chooses to reveal. His 1966 motorcycle accident barely merits a sentence, and he slyly claims that an album many critics purported to be autobiographical (“Blood On The Tracks”, surely) was based entirely on Chekhov’s short stories. Nevertheless, this is a constantly surprising, frequently charming page-turner of a book – even the typeface is deliciously tactile. Read it and you’ll be impatient for the next volume, desperate to discover more pieces of the man.

BOB DYLAN No Direction Home : The Soundtrack The Bootleg Series Vol. 7 (Columbia/Legacy)

Seemingly desperate to stand itself apart from Martin Scorsese’s consistently impressive documentary, “No Direction Home: The Soundtrack The Bootleg Series Vol. 7” is the soundtrack that isn’t. There are performances here that aren’t in the film and vice versa, those that made the cut having been selected to mirror the film’s narrative arc, mostly from a mouthwatering archive of previously unreleased material. In fact, there are two selections here that have long been available from all good record shops, and though that might seem unforgivable for a release from the “Bootleg Series” franchise both the studio version of “Song To Woody” and the Free Trade Hall “Like A Rolling Stone” illuminate key plot points, utterly logical inclusions from the “Soundtrack” angle. Before plunging headlong into the music, it’s probably worth mentioning that the packaging is fantabulous. It’s entirely appropriate, given that the music consists mostly of revealing new slants on familiar material, that the artwork should feature similarly disorientating outtakes from the contemporaneous album sleeves. A chunky 60 page booklet also contains essays by Andrew Loog Oldham and Al Kooper, alongside an insightful track-by-track commentary.

The callow youth hesitantly picking out rust belt blues on the wobbly 1959 home recording is barely recognisable, but you can gradually hear him slipping into the broken mould over the course of the next few tracks. By a live “This Land Is Your Land”, recorded around the same time as his eponymous debut, Robert Zimmerman has truly become Bob Dylan; the distinctive hoarse, honking holler is there, albeit still with the purity of a newborn. Previously bootlegged as “The Minnesota Hotel Tapes”, “Dink’s Song” and “I Was Young When I Left Home” boast an exuberance perhaps missing from his debut long player; the latter is a cat’s cradle of guitar figures, loose and utterly together at the same time, Bob’s voice stoic and haunted. As the enlightening booklet notes point out, “Sally Gal” “was the folkie equivalent of ending your set with “Not Fade Away””. Despite some lovely, semi-audible acoustic bass work, it’s not a great mystery why this crowd-pleasing but slight piece was dropped from “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. A demo of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” recorded for his publishing company features some of Bob’s tenderest guitar work, sounding like he’s caressing and fondling the strings. Taken from the television show “Folk Songs and More Folk Songs”, “Man Of Constant Sorrow” might be slightly blunted sonically but it’s a charming example of a Dylan still closely connected to his roots, blowing long, mournful notes on his harmonica. He opens a 1963 New York Town Hall performance of “Blowin’ In The Wind” by apologising for the versions recorded by other artists, saying “It doesn’t sound much like the way I do it, but the words are the same. That’s the important thing”, before picking his way hesitantly through the song, as if wary of the power it already holds. Great as the 1963 Carnegie Hall takes of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “When The Ship Comes In” undoubtedly are, they’re not revelatory, and it’s at moments such as these that the form of “No Direction Home” begins to labour under its selfless devotion to function.

“Jack, sing on this”, he implores Ramblin’ Jack Elliott ahead of the first complete take of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, allegedly the version that went to The Byrds: folk rock begins here. It seems slower and stiffer somehow than the released version, perhaps of necessity given that it’s a duet. On “Chimes Of Freedom”, from his last acoustic Newport Folk Festival, there’s acid in his voice, slender and amorphous, and check the Robin Williamson-esque cadences all over the phrase “soldier in the night”. The first disc closes the door on the acoustic Dylan with an alternate “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, slightly ragged and imprecise compared to the version that, to be fair, some of us have had upwards of 40 years to acclimatise to.

An alternate “She Belongs To Me” sounds slightly pedestrian denuded of its familiar percussive accompaniment, although it does allow easier appreciation of Bruce Langhorne’s guitar work. Again, it’s around here that the suspicion resurfaces that these mildly different takes add little to the legend, which presumably explains whilst they remained in the vaults when “Biograph” and earlier volumes in “The Bootleg Series” were being compiled, these songs being chosen in service of the soundtrack concept (and on the grounds of their previous unavailability) rather than on their own artistic merit.

And then he opens his infamous electrified appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with “Maggie’s Farm”, and in its howling affront to decency, its determination not to give the audience what they want, it’s as punk as anything Johnnies Rotten or Lydon have ever done. With “Bringing It All Back Home” in stores for barely four months, he’s already rewiring its contents beyond all recognition. The band (including Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper) sound like The Tennessee Two plugged into the mercy seat. And, as the lyrics attest – “I try my best to be just like I am/But everybody wants you to be just like them/They say “Sing while you slave” and I just get bored” – he ain’t going to work on Maggie’s farm no more. Unfortunately it fades out before the catcalls, and the fidelity isn’t quite so high that you can hear Pete Seeger swinging his axe above the power cables offstage. It’s also a shame that the remainder of this legendary three song set couldn’t have been included (perhaps there’s a “Bootleg Series” EP of it in the offing?), especially when it’s followed by an “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” of similar fettle to the version on the first “Bootleg Series” box, if discernibly fuller of throttle. I mean, enough already!

Here “Tombstone Blues” is more clearly delineated than the “Highway 61 Revisited” version, which has always been hampered by that album’s oppressively jangly, bleeding sonics. It carries a fuzz bass line that sounds almost like a saxophone in timbre, and here John’s a blacksmith rather than a baptist. Similarly, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” acquires an extra measure of clarity outside “Highway 61 Revisited”’s fog and fuzz. On “Desolation Row” Dylan sounds hesitant, as if he’s still feeling his way into the song’s labyrinthine plot, this performance being pickled with lyrical differences. “Highway 61 Revisited” itself is presented one take before Al Kooper lent Bob his police whistle, although somebody’s electric guitar swipes are unconsciously prescient of its effect.

This “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” is a thumping Memphis Minnie-referencing blues. Totally transmogrified on its way to plastic, although it became harsher it also lost the slow-rolling lasciviousness it wears here. And it also reminds me, at least, of how utterly free of all traces of influence Dylan’s music was during 1965 and 1966 (and maybe 1964, even); one long, sustained, year zero burst of flame obliterating everything that went before. Heck, even The Beatles were playing catch-up, as “Rubber Soul” demonstrates. “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” is taken at a more relaxed pace than the “Blonde On Blonde” version, yet Dylan still stumbles over its metre, another demonstration of the sagacity of the changes these songs underwent on the path to release, fascinating as these alternates undoubtedly are. He has to yell to be heard over the ruckus kicked up by Al Kooper and The Band as they brutalise “Visions Of Johanna”. Levon’s percussion sounds like he’s working on a building site, and Bob unleashes a primal, cathartic howl over the fade. It’s a long way from the liquid tone poem eventually released under this title.

Nervous, wiry, sinister and stalking, a “Ballad Of A Thin Man” recorded at a 1966 Edinburgh concert neatly frames the tension and paranoia that seemed to surround that tour. Garth Hudson’s keyboard embellishments jeer and mock, and has Dylan himself ever sounded so utterly spiteful? It’s a punk rock classic. Finally, there’s a slight return to Manchester three days earlier: “Judas”, “Play fucking load” and “Like A Rolling Stone” in sonic steamroller garb. Yeah, we’ve heard it all before, but do you really not want to hear it all again?

And that pretty much sums up the cumbersomely titled “No Direction Home: The Soundtrack The Bootleg Series Vol. 7”. It wasn’t designed as a conventional soundtrack, despite its “Bootleg Series” livery it arguably offers the least in the way of striking new insights of any that wear it, and it covers a period in Dylan history already extensively tilled by compilations. And yet it’s nothing short of a delight from start to its 150-minutes-later finish. For an inessential album, it’s pretty darned essential.

BOB DYLAN Live At The Gaslight 1962 (Sony BMG Music)

“Live At The Gaslight 1962” snuck out last summer, under cover of all the publicity surrounding the Martin Scorsese documentary “No Direction Home” and its attendant soundtrack. Perhaps marking a further step in the commoditisation of an artist who, in recent years, has appeared in both a Victoria’s Secret commercial and “The Simpsons”, this album is only officially available through US branches of Starbucks, and the posh coffee vendor’s website won’t ship it internationally.

There are ten songs here, believed to be taken from two performances taped in October 1962, finding Dylan midway between his eponymous debut and the album that began to garner him attention from the world outside Greenwich Village, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. Given the guerrilla nature of these recordings, the fi is remarkably hi, although the phantom engineer, perhaps wary of wasting too much precious tape, shuts off the machinery a little too abruptly at times. Consequently, there’s no audience reaction or between-song banter here, just the music. Still, the occasional honking car horn, rustle, shuffle or cough adds just enough atmosphere to be believable.

A significant difference, to my ears at least, between these recordings and the albums that surround them is that Dylan doesn’t play harmonica at all here, although he’s seen sporting one in several of the booklet photos. (The digipackaging is well-turned, by the way, with an informative essay by Princeton history prof Sean Wilentz.) This disc allegedly contains the earliest surviving versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. The former already appears familiar to the folk club audience, who contribute a ghostly accompaniment on the choruses; the latter still seems a stranger to Dylan himself, humming over phrases that have yet to grow memorable lyrics. “Rocks And Gravel” is listed as a third original Dylan composition, and, if so, makes its first official appearance here. A bluesy thing, he holds notes in a rare attempt at vocal virtuosity, whilst filing away the line “Don’t my girl look fine when she’s coming after me” for later use.

The remainder of the disc consists of rearrangements of traditional fare, but is none the worse for it. His voice wobbles and darts like the titular bird during “The Cuckoo”, yet acquires an acid sneer for the ant-war “John Brown”, a piece that must have informed his own writing round about that time. The first “Bootleg Series” box gave us a studio version of “Moonshiner” (as well as another Gaslight artefact, “No More Auction Block”); here it’s looser, devoid of harmonica, but the same melancholy ode to compulsive destruction. “Cocaine” is a, perhaps understandably, jokier and perkier approach to a similar subject. “Barbara Allen” is a misty-eyed historical romance, familiar in more refined form from Art Garfunkel’s debut solo album “Angel Clare”. Finally, there’s a vicious, string-slashing “West Texas”, the primitive recording equipment overwhelmed by the throat-stripping fury in Dylan’s voice; the seeds of “On The Road Again” are arguably sown here.

Too slender and erratic a body of work to make up a “Bootleg Series” volume, perhaps, “Live At The Gaslight 1962” is nevertheless an important, lovingly-presented document that any enthusiast of acoustic Dylan will find worth tracking down.

BOB DYLAN World Tour 1966 The Home Movies (Wiernerworld)

I’ve categorised this as a Bob Dylan DVD as it’s his name that appears in the largest type on the cover; several times the size, in fact, of the explanatory disclaimer “through the camera of Bob Dylan’s drummer Mickey Jones”. This disc is substantially a 90-minute interview, in which the affable, bear-like Mr Jones talks us through his career (eight years with Trini Lopez, a decade as a member of Kenny Rogers’ First Edition, one tour with Dylan) and his 8mm footage from the 1966 electric world tour, to an accompaniment from Highway 61 Revisited, the world’s only Bob Dylan tribute band. (And why would the world need more than one, given that the genuine article still rolls into your town on a regular basis?)

So yeah, it’s shoddily produced marginalia of interest only to the most obsessive of Dylanologists. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting anecdotes, such as when Jones engineered a meeting between his employer and Otis Redding in the Whisky A Go Go, at which Bob offered him “Just Like A Woman”. Apparently Dylan had no idea that the electric sets were being booed until he later played back tapes of the concerts in his hotel room, and The Band, who were still christened The Hawks when they left for the tour, derived their name from the scathing reviews that declared “the band should go back to America”. The British footage is mildly diverting, with all that 1966 rain and steam, and as a Welsh boy I’m particularly cheered to see the entourage larking about at Ragland (sic) Castle. Mickey also has an alternate theory concerning who was responsible for the “Play fucking loud” comment that fires up “Like A Rolling Stone” at the close of the Manchester Free Trade hall concert (a.k.a. the Judas gig); he reckons that, rather than being uttered by Dylan himself, the (alleged) English accent points the finger of blame at the road crew. Fanciful as it may sound, he was on stage at the time and we weren’t. Jones’ closing plea for the release of D.A. Pennebaker’s official record of the tour, “Eat The Document”, has been rather overtaken by events, though, rendered redundant by the footage included in Martin Scorsese’s masterful “No Direction Home” rockumentary.

Still, however much money you waste on “World Tour 1966 The Home Movies” it’s unlikely to be a lot, and Webberman-level obsessives will be in trashcan heaven.

BOB DYLAN & HIS BAND Cardiff Arena 27 June 2006

…or so it says on the ticket, anyway, unconsciously reflecting the fact that, a shade over 40 years ago, it was Bob Dylan & The Band who were touring Britain.

This evening could have been disastrous. My previous Bob live experiences occurred back in May 2002, when I saw him two nights in a row, in Bournemouth and Cardiff. On both occasions he was dreadful, mangling tunes beyond all recognition and rendering the lyrics indecipherable through his curious two note vocal performance. Yes, he ‘played’ a generous selection of genuinely seminal songs, replacing a goodly proportion of the setlist on the second night, but he did it so badly you might rather he hadn’t bothered, the compulsion to perform at any cost greater even than that of his good friend Van Morrison.

So why have I come back for a third trip through the atrocity exhibition? Well, I was duped into it. My Mother, no Bob fan, phoned up with news of Dylan’s Cardiff show and, thinking my Pa, a fellow victim of that 2002 Cardiff debacle, would never want to repeat the experience I said “I’ll go if he goes”. My own Father called my bluff. And I’m delighted that he did.

Bob wasn’t great tonight, by even the most generous stretch of the imagination. And yet he was so far ahead of the form he’d demonstrated on previous encounters - “About 400 times better than last time” estimated another gig buddy – that I couldn’t help but feel delighted. Stationed throughout at a small keyboard, arthritis having eaten into his guitar-playing ability since 2002, he conjures up thin, wiry, carney sounds from it, occasionally, and sometimes simultaneously, reeling of an ecstatically received fusillade from his harmonica. Admittedly, on a technical level, his voice is shot, his emissions peppered with barks, growls and howls like he’s baying at the moon or something, phrases frequently piled up against each other like some sickening verbal car crash. But who ever listened to Dylan for the purity of his vocals? Only rarely does he lapse into that two-note honk that plagued his previous appearances, and, combined with the relatively untampered-with tunes, he delivers the least gruelling set I’ve ever seen him play. (My delighted Pa remarked three songs in, “I’ve recognised everything so far!”, and that despite the four-to-the-floor overhaul of an opening “Maggie’s Farm”.)

Because his voice is too far gone to convey much in the way of emotion, it’s down to the band to delineate between the tough (the vast majority of the set) and the tender (lovely, semi-acoustic refreshings of “Girl From The North Country” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”). They shoulder the weighty responsibility admirably, especially the gentleman behind Dylan doubling on pedal steel and fiddle. Perhaps the setlist seemed a bit hollowed out, bar an encore-closing “All Along The Watchtower” and “Watching The River Flow” it was entirely drawn either from his pre-motorcycle crash work or his two most recent albums. But as that meant substantial chunks from the immortal electric trilogy of “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” (“Ballad Of A Thin Man” arguably garners the evening’s heartiest cheer) and “Blonde On Blonde”, as well as “Positively 4th Street”, it’s more of an observation than a complaint.

If this had been my first Dylan gig I would’ve left both confused and sorely disappointed. Happily, I’ve had my expectations lowered to almost nothing by the great man in the past and, knowing how egregious his shows can be when he really doesn’t try, tonight was a minor revelation.

BOB DYLAN No Direction Home: A Martin Scorsese Picture (Paramount)

And so Scorsese’s masterful two-part television odyssey became a two-disc DVD, although you have to wonder just how much Marty had to direct given that the programme is constructed mainly from archive footage, even the fresh Dylan interviews being a good few years old. Nevertheless, there’s still so much uncovered brilliance here; the documentary both opens and closes with 1966 performances of “Like A Rolling Stone”, which Scorsese uses both as a framing device and to foreshadow the programme’s conclusion, a point the director and the artist are both hurtling towards, albeit from different directions. As with the first volume of “Chronicles”, as a viewer the feeling is predominately of gratitude that we were afforded this record-straightening opportunity during the artist’s lifetime; perhaps it’s just one part of a larger project by Dylan to demythologise himself, or at least rewrite his biography in his preferred image. (As evidence consider his deadpan envisioning of himself attending West Point, and, when considering his teenage romances, he barely contains a smirk when confessing “Both these girls brought out the poet in me”.)

“No Direction Home” casts its net wide and deep, especially when describing his formative years. There’s footage of the kind of carnivals Dylan would have attended as a Hibbing kid, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters and Gene Vincent in performance (amusingly, Webb Pierce’s performance of “There Stands The Glass” is subtitled, even though he’s singing in English, as are the opinions of some Newcastle concertgoers: “We came to see Bob Dylan, not a pop group” complains one; “Not many groups like that”, rebuffs a perceptive, far-seeing other) alongside clips from “Rebel Without A Cause” and “The Wild One”. It’s gently shocking that someone would’ve pointed a television camera at the frankly eccentric John Jacob Niles in the buttoned-down early 1960s, or to see the New Lost City Ramblers apparently playing in someone’s lounge. In new interview footage there’s Liam Clancy at the end of the bar, gently pickled but poetic – his awed description of Dylan at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, “He was Charlie Chaplin!” taking on new layers of significance in the light of the title of Bob’s new album - alongside Allen Ginsberg and Suze Rotolo contributing to an almost forensic recreation of the Gaslight milieu. It’s the meshing of these new interviews with countless archive snippets that makes the story so compelling: Dylan’s newish interviews function almost like a simultaneous directory’s commentary upon proceedings, as if he’s manipulating other people’s recollections to better serve his own ends.

One minute we’re with Pete Seeger, both in modern days person and archive form, then skating over snippets of Dylan’s radio interviews from 1961 and 1962, so immaculately preserved they plunge the BBC’s treatment of “The Madhouse On Castle Street” into even deeper shadows of shame. A ’66 tour “Ballad Of A Thin Man” courses with vitriol, Bob’s left arm flailing as the other attacks the piano.

The second disc opens with an astonishing real-time example of his verbal dexterity, mangling the wording of an English pet shop sign into the kind of twisted wordplay he revelled in from 1964 to 1966. There’s a recurrent attempt to bridge the gap between protest and non-protest during this episode, whether he’s taunting 1966 audiences with “These are all protest songs” or briefly pacifying them with “I wanna sing a folk song” before ripping into “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat”. Even the press conferences mutate swiftly and savagely from Beatle-inspired lunacy to shrugging disinterest and burnout. One of the funniest moments occurs when, pressed by one inquisitor to reveal how many protest singers there are, Dylan responds “It’s either 136 or 142”. It’s neatly crystallised in a couple of 1964 clips: looking uncomfortable as host Steve Allen reads out a wealth of hyperbolic cuttings, Dylan is tongue-tied and monosyllabic in response to his questions, and at that year’s Newport Folk Festival he’s introduced with the comment “You know him, he’s yours”. It’s not hard to read “All I Really Want To Do” as a reaction against it all. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is premiered at that festival’s topical song workshop, when it’s everything but. In a new interview Joan Baez is especially good at untangling his compulsion to change and his apparent ‘abandonment’ of the protest movement, as well as dropping in some painfully accurate mimicry of his trademark drawl.

The historic performance of “Maggie’s Farm” at the 1965 Newport Festival comes across like an act of sonic terrorism, the old order perhaps not appreciating the message amidst the volume, even those familiar with it surely being knocked out at how it has devolved from the recently released studio version. Hauled back by popular demand to perform acoustically, he pours salt on the wounds he’s inflicted with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, the sourest of kiss-offs. As he says decades later, “ I had a perspective on the booing because you’ve got to realise you can kill somebody with kindness too”.

One minor disappointment with the documentary – one that’s so skilfully worked around that it takes a couple of plays to manifest itself – is that contemporary Bob stays pretty quiet on the subject of his own music. Discussion of, for example, the “Highway 61 Revisited” album involves the likes of key players such as Al Kooper and Bob Johnston, but never Dylan himself. Similarly, no surviving member of The Band steps forward to discuss the 1966 tour, although drummer Mickey Jones – whose DVD of his home movie footage of the trek I reviewed in the last issue – is, as usual, happy to oblige. Although the legitimate footage of that tour – rescued, presumably, from D A Pennebaker’s barely exhibited “Eat The Document” – is technically shaky it’s also – pun entirely unintended, but what other adjective would do? – electrifying. Amidst it all is a brief sliver of him singing Hank Williams with Johnny Cash, and it’s almost too much legend for the screen to contain. In one brilliant, throwaway moment Dylan’s backstage whingeing about his exhaustion is juxtaposed with a live rendition of “Visions Of Johanna”, expertly cued at the lines “He brags of his misery/He likes to live dangerously”. And then, with only the briefest, chilling foreshadowing of his imminent motorpsycho nitemare – “I don’t want to go to Italy no more…I don’t want to go nowhere no more…You end up crashing in a private airplane in the mountains of Tennessee” – we’re at the Judas moment, and back where we came in, “Like A Rolling Stone”, returning to the point we’ve spent the last four hours hurtling towards. Oh, and amidst the credits somebody nabs the role of Hypnotist Collector, which is pretty funny.

And then there are the special features, which some might feel would justify the modest ticket price on their own. There are a handful of complete performances, culled from television and concert footage. A 1963 “Blowin’ In The Wind” sounds like it has some gentle off-camera accompaniment – I think I hear a bass and a banjo in there – and a 1964 “Girl Of The North Country” (sic) from an unaired Canadian TV special is hampered by a somewhat contrived, stagey set-up. There’s a 1964 “Man Of Constant Sorrow”, from the somewhat prosaically named “Folk Songs And More Folk Songs”, and “Mr. Tambourine Man” at Newport, almost a year ahead of its eventual release. A 1965 hotel room rendition of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” must be a “Don’t Look Back” outtake, with a contemplative Donovan in attendance (yeah, “Looked in the closet, there was Donovan!”). A 1966 tour hotel room performance of the otherwise unreleased “I Can’t Leave Her Behind” presages his gentler, mellower post-accident work, but a “Like A Rolling Stone” from Newcastle is predictably combative, especially when he raises his hands to the sides of his mouth to give the line “You used to ride a chrome horse with your diplomat” a megaphone intensity. There’s also a smattering of guest performances from some of the interviewees. Mavis Staples contributes an endearingly unrehearsed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Liam Clancy a gentle “Girl Of The North Country” (sic again). Joan Baez drops more Dylan parody into “Love Is Just A Four-Letter Word”, but only Maria Muldaur ventures outside the set’s self-imposed chronology with “Lord Protect My Child”. Finally, there’s a bizarre and deservedly unused promotional film for “Positively 4th Street”, which manages to belittle one of his finest songs through comically inept lip-synching (the studio recording played against live performance footage) and some spurious vox pops underlining the song’s theme.

Well, you’ve probably already seen the main attraction, but the joy of “No Direction Home” is that it’s that rarefied kind of documentary that it can be watched repeatedly, revealing new facets every time. Given how Dylan’s career happily continues to continue, it’s an important archaeological aide: as he plots fresh twists and turns we can dig this out and uncover where in his tangled up past we’ve encountered them, or at least their formative roots, before.

BOB DYLAN Modern Times (Columbia)

The joke’s in the title, because when has Bob Dylan, now on his 30th studio set, depending on how you count it (I’ve included “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid” in that total, but not “Dylan” or “Masked And Anonymous”), ever striven to be modern, over and above being himself? Maybe during the 1980s and 1990s, when he employed a string of name producers (Mark Knopfler, Daniel Lanois, Don Was) with variable results. Certainly the sound of “Modern Times” is anything but; it’s steeped in blues, jazz, swing and folk, all blended together into a churning, rootsy whole that’s hardly the sound of today or indeed anything in the recent past. And, quietly but determinedly, it’s also a work of, or at least by, a genius.

Does he still have anything to say, 45 years into his recording career? Well, maybe, although there are many occasions when “Modern Times” sounds like a sequence of pegs for Dylan to hang his dazzling verbal dexterity from. And note how the shocked accusations of plagiarism that surrounded “Love And Theft” have mutated (matured, maybe?) into acres of scholarly articles discussing the artist’s alchemical way with an obscure source, which don’t entirely obfuscate the fact that Cream and Led Zeppelin managed to record versions of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break” several decades before Dylan wrote them. Still, his magpie eyes were firmly affixed on any passing lyrical prize even back in the Gaslight, but those were somewhat less litigious days.

One of “Modern Times” most remarkable achievements is that it manages to make a virtue of Dylan’s singing. His grumbling, gargling vocals are perfectly synchronised with the slow-motion rockabilly mountain music of the Alicia Keys-tagging “Thunder On The Mountain”. The album’s immediate high point, “Spirit On The Water”, a luminous slice of moonlight-dappled romance, even manages to coax something like expression out of that sandpapery, rasping ruin of a voice. The band play brilliantly – as they do everywhere else, admittedly – on the locomotive blues of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, and the delicate waltz “When The Deal Goes Down” is spoilt not a jot by Dylan wheezing and coughing all over it.

“Workingman’s Blues #2”, with its titular tip of the hat to Merle Haggard, is delicious. A lifetime away from the protest firebrand of 1962/3, Dylan grapples with globalisation – “The buying power of the proletariat’s gone down…They say low wages are reality/If we want to compete abroad” - and ponders mortality. His attempted croon on the blushing “Beyond The Horizon” is just lovely, quivering with vulnerability, the band backing him like a palm court orchestra. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is a swinging thing, unimperilled by imminent meteorological apocalypse, but a chill wind whips through “Ain’t Walkin’”, its lyric heavy with Biblical import.

A potentially fine-sounding 180 gram vinyl pressing is rather spoiled by the authentic vintage crackling that underpins several of the tracks, but, that aside (and maybe I’ll grow to like the effect, even), “Modern Times” is a great album. Maybe it doesn’t quite boast the shocking excellence of “Love And Theft” but I’d take it gladly in preference to “Time Out Of Mind”, an album I find noteworthy but overrated. It’s certainly the most homogenous of his renaissance trilogy – and I mean that in a good way, incidentally; on “Modern Times” Dylan blends his sources with a painter’s eye for colour and detail, and despite its olde worlde charm perhaps fashions something entirely new from them.

BOB DYLAN Dont Look Back (Columbia)

“Dont Look Back” (and Word can put all the squiggly red lines under the title that it wants to, that’s how it’s spelt in the packaging and during the title sequence, so that’s how I’m spelling it here) is a guerrilla rockumentary from an era when even live albums were uncommon, covering Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, his last as an acoustic performer.

It opens with the promotional film shot by director D A Pennebaker for the contemporaneous “Subterranean Homesick Blues” single, a bunch of images so iconic that, in a piece of far-sighted viral marketing, they were incorporated into a Facebook application that allowed the user to type their own text on the cue cards, whilst subtly promoting the pointless “Dylan” compilation.

Filmed in grainy black and white with an immediacy made possibly only by Pennebaker’s innovative work in camera design and sound recording technology, the film nudges itself into the shadowy corners and numbing reality of the business of show, spending more time backstage than in front of it. Throughout, Bob is a silver-tongued, sharp-eared provocateur, engaged in endless cat-and-mouse games with his would-be interviewees: his carving up of future Chrysalis Records co-founder Terry Ellis (a.k.a. The Science Student) and Time Magazine’s London-based arts and science correspondent Horace Judson have surely passed into legend, although it’s intriguing to note the model of cherubic compliance he presents to a professorial BBC journalist who has clearly done his homework Other put-downs are more subtle: making a guest appearance in the entourage’s suite at the Savoy, Donovan offers up one of his trite little folk songs. “Hey, that’s a good song, man!”, Dylan retorts gleefully, before smirkingly rattling through his protest scene kiss-off “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Follow that! Co-conspirator and tour manager Bob Neuwirth is also devilishly sharp: when a journalist in a press conference asks him “Are you folk?”, he instantly double-bluffs back “No, not me, I’m not folk”.

One of the film’s many surprising aspects is the amount of screen time what is ostensibly a music documentary devotes solely to men in suits, for example a lengthy scene of Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, a benign but bear-like presence for much of the running time, negotiating Dylan’s fee for a television special with tobacco smoke-wreathed showbiz impresario Tito Burns. It’s heartening to see so many scenes of youth hysteria, gangs of teenage girls screaming at Bob (and no, this is before he starts singing). It’s also telling how the film has subtly infected the more knowing end of popular culture: the title of Mick Farren’s autobiography “Give The Anarchist A Cigarette” comes from a line uttered by Dylan at the close of the film after Grossman notes that several newspapers had labelled the singer an anarchist, and It’s Jo And Danny’s lovely debut album “Lank Haired Girl To Bearded Boy” derives its title from a review a Grauniad journalist is seen filing from a call box.

There’s a moment, in conversation with Alan Price, then fresh out of The Animals, when Bob asks him “Aren’t you playing with them any more?”, and you can see Price’s mask of cool slip just a few inches. Everybody in this film is wearing a mask, but Bob always wears another mask beneath his. That’s why “Dont Look Back” is as vital and superfluous a document in gaining an understanding of the real Bob Dylan as his autobiographical “Chronicles”.

The latest Region 2 DVD reissue of “Dont Look Back” arrives in several flavours, but even my poverty spec single disc edition is loaded with extras. There are five previously unreleased uncut audio-only performances, a thoughtful counterbalance to the chopped musical sequences seen in the film itself, an alternate “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video in which Dylan, Ginsberg and Neuwirth frolic in a park rather than an alley and an insightful commentary from the Pennebaker and Neuwirth that, unlike 99.9% of other similar features, is actually worth your attention.

BOB DYLAN Nashville Skyline (Sundazed)

As rock became ever more politicised and, uh, rocky, Dylan retreated even further from the monster that he’d arguably created with 1969’s “Nashville Skyline”, an album that makes its predecessor, “John Wesley Harding”, look like “Kick Out The Jams”. So slender it takes up barely more than a third of a CD, it’s full (if that’s the right word) of short, sweet country pop that would provide his last (to date, at least) US and UK top ten singles, sung in a voice more honey and woodsmoke than (in David Bowie’s words) sand and glue, a vocal trait Dylan attributed to giving up cigarettes before the recording sessions.

It opens with the none-more-country credential of a duet with Johnny Cash on a remake of Dylan’s own “Girl From The North Country”. For a meeting of grand masters it sounds surprisingly tentative, the two legends sounding like they’re circling each other, afraid of stepping on the other’s shadow. “Lay Lady Lay” is perhaps his sweetest – or least acidic – love song, although discovering that it was originally written with the “Midnight Cowboy” soundtrack in mind somewhat sours the romance of the lyrics. “One More Night” arguably inhabits the country and western tradition more completely than anything else on the album, born of a genuine love for the music: no New York hipster confidence trick, this. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” sounds almost sedate in this incarnation: compare and contrast with the volcanic version that opens “The Bootleg Series, Volume 5: Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue”.

Johnny Cash’s Grammy-winning sleeve poem matches Dylan’s early 60s back cover doggerel for opacity, but Sundazed’s vinyl reissue (“Nothing sounds as wondrous as a well-made record…it’s exactly how the artist wanted you to hear their music”, proselytises the cover sticker over a picture of an elderly autochanger that I would baulk at the idea of entrusting any of my vinyl to) is a model of clarity in comparison. It’s warm and woody, like a log fire, where an earlier Simply Vinyl reissue I examined had a great deal of extra (extraneous?) treble but a horrible distortion on Bob’s voice that effectively rendered it unlistenable. (Yeah, yeah, make the jokes.)

BOB DYLAN The Bootleg Series, Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989~2006 (Columbia) 

Is this the largest outpouring of previously unreleased Bob Dylan songs since the original Bootleg Series box set was issued 18 years ago? It certainly feels like an embarrassment of riches, one breathtaking performance following another to the extent that it’s less like listening than eavesdropping, part puzzle, part privilege, especially when  contemplating why these performances might have been hidden from hungry, appreciative ears for up to twenty years.

The first of two alternate “Mississippi”s swings like a hammock; on the second Bob sounds positively heavy-lidded. A solo, acoustic “Most Of The Time”, denuded of Daniel Lanois’ sonic fog, in both sound and content could pass for an outtake from the original, unreleased version of “Blood On The Tracks”. The hoarse, rasping holler of a piano demo of “Dignity” is potent moonshine compared with the neutered, contemporary production values of the released single. A stately, accordion-tinged tango treading gingerly on Buena Vista Social Club territory, “Red River Shore” is one of the many otherwise unreleased songs rescued from the archives of oblivion by this set, and listening to Bob’s vocals on “Tell Ol’ Bill” he sounds haunted, confessional, vulnerable and almost feminine. “Born In Time” is a lovely moment from what were by most accounts miserable sessions for a miserable album (“Under The Red Sky”, where you can find an inferior take of this song if you’re really, really dedicated) sounding like “Oh Mercy” with the blush of romance replacing Lanois’ sonic obfuscation. The chaotic spontaneity of Bob’s music making is demonstrated by “Can’t Wait”’s mumbled instruction “If we do it in…how about B flat?”, although the resultant “Time Out Of Mind”-era trudge is one of the least impressive moments here. “Everything Is Broken” is alternate, but not too alternate; maybe it has more of a manic, serrated edge and a more prominent “Peter Gunn” bassline, but though the lyrics differ the sentiment remains the same. Similarly similar, the second Bootleg Series appearance of “Series Of Dreams” pushes Bob’s vocal way up front, the clattering arrangement keeping its respectful distance behind him. How come on “Huck’s Tune” Dylan’s singing sounds so seductive whilst singing such desolate words? And, considering its presence on the “Lucky You” soundtrack, how come he contributes such jewels to films that quietly bury themselves? A mangled but vital live version of “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is made notable (or frightful, depending on you hear it) by Bob’s hooting, hollering, howling delivery, and “32-20 Blues” is a raw, wiry Robert Johnson cover that scorches the “World Gone Wrong” album it was excluded from. “God Knows” is jolly, jiggly and upbeat, and a second “Dignity” has a playful, loping lollop. Between them, though, “Can’t Escape From You” is part Hank Williams and part Tom Waits, weary with resignation at being locked into something he can’t leave behind. A “Ring Them Bells” recorded live at New York’s The Supper Club in 1993 is frankly staggering; even with that corroded edge to his voice Dylan sounds hushed and tender; it’s Bucky Baxter’s pillowy pedal steel part that really makes the performance, the crowd exhorting the band as they gently build to crescendo after crescendo. “The Girl On The Greenbriar Shore” is a speedy live sketch of the template for “Red River Shore”, and a somewhat primitive concert recording of “Lonesome Day Blues” finds Bob in death-rattle voice, sounding like he’s chewing brimstone. “’Cross The Green Mountain” is possibly the highlight of the box it closes, a sad, slow, soulful Civil War epic, a “monstrous dream” written for the soundtrack of TV movie “Gods And Generals”, maybe more remarkable even than his late career renaissance non-trilogy.

The chronology is scattered here, not that it matters: it all sounds as old as the hills and fresh as tomorrow morning’s dew. It almost sounds like a new album (and I have the luxury of typing that a fortnight ahead of a real new proper Dylan album hitting the shops); in fact, you could sequence your pick of the new songs and make your preferred elpee’s worth. A booklet essay by fellow traveller Larry “Ratso” Sloman makes a pretty compelling case for why these readings (and indeed the seven volumes that precede them) matter. But, note to designers responsible for that booklet: red text on a black background is a brilliant idea only if you don’t want people to be able to read it. 

Yeah, the price of the triple CD is a scam, the poverty-spec single disc version pointless, and the 70 sting of the vinyl box set is hardly softened by the discovery that it’s sourced from CD-resolution masters. (This latter point perhaps explains why it’s the first Bootleg Series vinyl since the first box to be produced in-house at Columbia, rather than subcontracted out to audiophile reissue specialists Classic.)  It sounds lovely, nevertheless, with oodles of space between instruments, but accentuates the edge on Bob’s voice to an unpleasant degree at times. Still, this is a feast for the senses; buy and savour.

BOB DYLAN & HIS BAND Cardiff International Arena 28 April 2009

 

Speaking of Dylanesque, nobody has embodied the adjective longer than this man, and, 68 next month, he shows no sign of letting up. At a modern days Dylan gig his rusty croak is a given, along with the accompanying bafflement at how the quality of his singing mysteriously plummets as soon as he leaves the recording studio. You’d be wise to expect a musically mangled setlist as well, yet tonight he’s almost in song-and-dance-man crowd-pleasing mode. On the songs that deviate the most from their enshrined versions – chiefly those with the sparsest original accompaniments, such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” – he at least has the good grace to enunciate key phrases with relative clarity so we can all gather on the same page. Unfortunately, the louder and bluesier his brilliant quintet get – a flexible, muscular musical powerhouse, even if they don’t exactly ooze visual charisma - the more Bob sounds like he’s got a mouthful of mothballs, so the likes of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” and “Lonesome Day Blues” find their lyrical nuances garbled beyond comprehension by his sea lion bark. As with his last Cardiff concert in 2006, Dylan performs perpendicular to the audience, stationed behind his little fairground organ, so there’s not a great deal to see there, either.

              

 An inspired setlist lends almost equal weight to the two non-trilogies of 1965-6 and 1997-2006, although it’s a surprise (but then again, given Bob’s contrarian tendencies, not really) to hear more from 1990 dudfest “Under The Red Sky” (the nursery rhyme title track) than his day-old new album “Together Through Life”. “Highway 61 Revisited” is volcanic, practically punk rock, but the set’s biggest shock, and a pleasant one at that, is a rendition of Gaslight-era anti-war tirade “John Brown”, probably the least garbled song of the set. Other highlights include, inevitably, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”, “Tangled Up In Blue”, still undergoing lyrical development 35 years after its first recording, and a Hendrix-styled “All Along The Watchtower”.

               

At his worst, Bob can have you leaving the venue shaking your head in disbelief at his wholesale desecration of one of arguably the top two catalogues in 20th century popular music. Happily, tonight isn’t one of those nights. Allowing for the variable nature of his singing – all the more frustrating because, as “John Brown” proved, he’s still perfectly capable of getting his message across when he can be bothered – both me and my Pa agree that this is the best Dylan gig of the too few we’d experienced. That he’s still improving as a performer (from a pretty low baseline, admittedly) after nearly 50 years of practice is a sobering thought indeed.

BOB DYLAN Lyrics 1962-2001 (Simon & Schuster)

 

No alarms and no surprises with a title like that, this book collates Dylan’s lyrics from “Bob Dylan” to “Love And Theft”, with diversions and offcuts from “The Bootleg Series” and other places given their rightful chronological location. Tantalisingly, in doing so the early albums are appended with lyrics for many songs that were totally unknown to me, some of which aren’t even archived on Dylan’s own website. On the other hand, there are omissions from the readily available catalogue: “All The Tired Horses” and “Jet Pilot” are hardly major works in the artist’s canon, but as Bob Dylan compositions on Bob Dylan albums they really should be included.

               

None of this detracts from the sheer, surprising pleasure of reading Dylan’s lyrics en masse. Perhaps inevitably, it’s the protest years that resonate the most; in the likes of “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” and “Only A Pawn In Their Game” Dylan’s effectively writing news reports that rhyme. The gleeful wordplay of 1965/6 is almost as entertaining on the page as on record, although the nursery rhyme nonsense that constitutes much of “Under The Red Sky” has no place to hide here. Conversely, it’s fascinating to discover that three-quarters of the 12 songs on “John Wesley Harding” have three verses of six or eight lines, the kind of pattern that only becomes apparent on seeing the printed lyrics in close proximity.

BOB DYLAN Together Through Life (Columbia) 

Of course, it’s great that “Together Through Life” has given Bob his first UK number one album in nearly 40 years, but consider that the last time he topped the chart was with “New Morning” (and before that “Self Portrait”) and a case presents itself that critical and commercial success are not always congruent for Dylan. Given that his last dozen years of activity have provided such an abundance of high quality product – five riveting “Bootleg Series” volumes of concerts and outtakes; three studio albums that suggest an artist fully in command of his spectacularly renewed creative powers; a documentary assembled by Martin Scorsese, no less, that in three-and-a-half hours forensically examines barely a ninth of the artist’s recording career; that tantalising, mesmerising first volume of autobiography; and of course the tour that never ends, with Bob still capable of spellbinding an audience on the right night – he deserves a number one. But not, alas, for this.

The main problem with “Together Through Life” is that Bob has, partially at least, ceded lyricist duties to Robert Hunter, formerly wordsmith for the Grateful Dead. Whilst his writing might have been perfectly adequate when Garcia and crew were around to distract the listener with stratosphere-scraping flights of instrumental fantasy, combined with Bob’s clumping non-melodies the album all too frequently seems to congeal.

The southern-sounding  “Life Is Hard”- the soundtrack song request that catalysed the entire album – is a relative bright spot; Bob gets as liltingly romantic as his croaky voice and mordant lyrics permit, cradled by steel guitars and mandolins. “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” is also rather pleasant, albeit seemingly a diluted version of his last album’s highlight “Workingman’s Blues #2”. Note how here he subtly works in one of his musical namedrops; as with Neil Young and Alicia Keys on previous records, here he’s “listening to Billy Joe Shaver”.

But then there’s the rest of it. Willie Dixon co-write “My Wife’s Home Town” attempts to invoke the spirit of New Orleans before the flood, but ends up sounding empty and charmless. On “Forgetful Heart” he brings a phlegmy passion to lyrics that, frankly, aren’t worth the trouble. I mean, how is “The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door” not going to rankle every time you hear it? There’s something unpleasant about the songs on which he turns lascivious – perhaps because the horny pensioner act isn’t actually an act – as he does on “Jolene” and “Shake Shake Mama”, which has to be his worst song title since “Wiggle Wiggle”. “It’s All Good” is a sardonic shoulder-shrugging companion piece to “Oh Mercy”’s “Everything Is Broken”: everything is still broken, but he doesn’t care, because it’s all good.

Oh, but it isn’t all good; far from it. Two reasonable songs do not a good album make. Yes, the band fashion an agreeable, rootsy, rustic noise, akin to a spicier version of Ry Cooder’s sound circa “Chicken Skin Music”, and the sonics are fabulous – not quite band-in-the-room standard, but it’s getting there. The packaging is agreeably lavish, too (as well it should be at 30 for the vinyl edition) with the album spread out over two 180 gram discs and a copy of the CD thrown in too. (One quibble: given the short sides why wasn’t it cut at 45rpm for even higher fi?) But otherwise, “Together Through Life” is hardly a work that reaches the high standards he’s set himself over the last dozen years. Given that his Christmas album is ready to roll any day now as I type this, I wonder if we’ll ever see their like again.

BOB DYLAN The Original Mono Recordings (Columbia)

As the title suggests, “The Original Mono Recordings” collates all the Bob Dylan albums that were released as dedicated mono mixes way back in the 1960s, from “Bob Dylan” through to “John Wesley Harding”. (Later Dylan albums, up to “New Morning” in 1970, were also released in mono form, but these were fold-downs, essentially giving the same effect as playing the stereo version with an amplifier’s mono button engaged.)

As the album I was least familiar with in this set, Dylan’s eponymous 1962 debut is arguably one of the box’s biggest revelations. Yes, it’s a jigsaw jumble of influences he would rapidly outpace, and wears a fictional backstory on its sleeve that he would later disown, but here’s the folk, blues, country and early twitchings of protest that he built a career upon. Everything this side of the wailing electric guitar that opens “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is rooted in these two sides. For a young man’s first record, there’s a deal of death here (“In My Time Of Dyin’”, “Fixin’ To Die”, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”) and, with weird prescience, Dylan also sows the seeds of his first career self-destruction in the sleevenotes: “If I had a lot of money what would I do? I would buy a couple of motorcycles…”. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” is probably the most famous of these Dylan performances, making it onto the “Biograph” box set compilation, and “House Of The Risin’ Sun” the most notorious, The Animals borrowing the arrangement for their later version just as Dylan had borrowed it from Dave Van Ronk. 

A replica of the original inner sleeve catalogues some of Columbia’s other contemporary offerings: “Sketches Of Spain” and “Time Out”, Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis, Percy Faith and Ray Conniff, “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound Of Music”, in stereo, regular fidelity and two- and four-track tape.

168 seconds into his sophomore effort, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, and it’s game over as far as the competition’s concerned. That’s how long it takes “Blowin’ In The Wind” to rewrite the rules of songwriting. It takes the personal, cryptic and enigmatic and imbues them with a universal resonance, something he’d do time and again both on this album (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, for instance) and beyond it (the revolutionary electric trio of albums he recorded during 1965 and 1966). And then he follows it with the wistful, tender regret of “Girl From The North Country” and it seems his eloquence is expanding in all directions. Allied with the unambiguous fingerpointing of “Masters Of War”, the bluesman of “Down The Highway” and the humour of “Bob Dylan’s Blues”, that’s a whole heap of different Dylans enshrined on one side of vinyl.

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is a kiss-off more sour than sweet; indeed, he would sing it with a monstrous, jubilant relish in later live performances, compared with the restraint it’s presented with here. The cooling youthful optimism that haunts “Bob Dylan’s Dream” like a ghost and “Talking Wold War III Blues” are the album’s hidden masterpieces, the latter’s comic apocalypse the flipside of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. “Corrina, Corrina” quietly verges on the bizarre; it takes the blues form, but Bob almost croons it, singing in a voice he’d put back in a cupboard between then and “Nashville Skyline”, accompanied by a polite, chamber-pop backing band.              

His third album opens with another cultural firebomb in the form of its title track. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” topped a record that epitomises the peak of the protest songs that Dylan was so adamant he didn’t write. It’s an austere album that gives the listener nowhere to run to, from the black and white photograph of the frowning singer and the hard, harsh block capitals on the front cover (itself fashioned from  grid-textured paper that might, at a pinch, suggest the bars of a cage) to Dylan’s frankly unreadable “11 Outlined Epitaphs” sleeve note that takes up much of the back and an insert. It’s all unnervingly appropriate for an album recorded in the months and weeks before John F Kennedy’s assassination and released in its wake, when The Beatles were America’s comfort blanket but Dylan was its conscience.  Even amidst the gloom there are echoes of his previous work: the craggy, jagged tumble of sound that is “With God On Our Side”, valedictory in falsehood, maps onto “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, and both “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “One Too Many Mornings” serenade the music and the muse of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” and “North Country Blues”, though, are blasted and bleak, and there’s no succour to be had from the ripped-from-the-headlines likes of “Only A Pawn In Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”. The latter, in particular, is scathing of the old guard and the young privileged, its withering denunciation rooted in callous, bloody fact, reportage of the sharpest kind.

Perhaps their sheer unrelenting mercilessness is what makes these songs so great, but those who criticise the album for its remorseless grimness might be choosing to ignore “When The Ship Comes In”, although it’s easy to see why, what with all that blackening oppression crowding it out. Its raggle-taggle joyousness posits it as a more poetic twin of the title track, a revolutionary call to something other than arms.  

Released later in 1964, “Another Side Of Bob Dylan” was where all the goofy humour that didn’t make it on to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” ended up, an album as woozily unbalanced by its single-mindedness as its predecessor wasn’t. Some great songs are scattered amongst the slapdash results of a sozzled single day’s recording session. The overwhelming feel is of electric music being played acoustically, the artist morphing before your very ears, but into what? Time alone would tell, it perhaps being no coincidence that The Byrds found a quarter of their debut album here.  

A flip album, it’s entertaining enough in its offhand way, documenting what the voice of a generation does on his day off; pleasuring himself, mostly. “Black Crow Blues” finds Dylan playing piano for the first time on one of his albums, providing a barrelling, honky tonk backbeat.

“Motorpsycho Nitemare” anticipates the founding father Armageddon to come on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” next time around, and his delivery of “My Back Pages”, a final goodbye to his activist audience, is like being repeatedly smacked in the face with a slab; he brooks no doubt.  For me its sort-of highlight, though, is “Ballad In Plain D”, one of those rare mask-slipping moments he permits himself about once a decade (see also “Sara”) when all the allusion (and illusion, maybe) cracks and the desperate hurt comes flooding out. I doubt there’s a song in this box set that he regrets more than this forensic analysis of the breakup of his relationship with Suze Rotolo. But perhaps not: he’s an artist, remember, he don’t look back.

The opening track of his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home” is the fulcrum about which this box set pivots. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” divides the whole of “The Original Mono Recordings” into a before and an after. “She Belongs To Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” play like abstract translations of the Suze songs he used to write, except now they were about someone else entirely. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is the electric, anarchic culmination of the shaggy dog nitemare whimsy begun with  “Talkin’ World War III Blues”. The album’s second side is his restless farewell to acoustic folk, yet even here he’s pushing the form the farthest he can, and arguably further than anybody else has managed since. “Mr. Tambourine Man” invented psychedelia even before The Byrds wrapped their Rickenbackers around it, and the snarling vitriol of “Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is punk in all but voltage. The album closes on one of Dylan’s inimitable sweetly sour notes. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is not so much an anti-love song but a send-off to his folk audience, those who looked to him for answers (to questions such as “How many roads must a man walk down?”, perhaps) and demanded he be something/anything more than a song and dance man.

“Highway 61 Revisited” is where Dylan’s upward trajectory goes supernova, best summarised by the explosion of “Like A Rolling Stone”, that 20-page “long piece of vomit” made song. Mike Bloomfield’s lead guitar interjections during “Tombstone Blues” sound like somebody spluttering incandescent with rage, and the title track typifies the shocking, primal, ragged noise that oozes through the album. The cat-calling asides from Al Kooper’s fairground organ seen more mocking of “Ballad Of A Thin Man”’s Mr Jones than ever. Nevertheless, it’s the ballads that make the album for me: “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the epic “Desolation Row”, for now, at least, Dylan’s longest recorded statement, become immersive experiences, cynical as I am at the “360 sound” logo on the labels of these mono records. Interestingly, Dylan’s usual nonsensical sleevenote babble contains, within its first four lines, the titles of two distant-future compositions, “Slow Train” and “Solid Rock”. 

One thing that’s notable about the mono version of “Highway 61 Revisited” is that it finally solves the mystery of why the printed track timings are incorrect on every version of the album I’ve owned previously, lopping about three minutes off the album in total. It appears that they’ve just blindly reprinted the times of these shorter mono mixes, with their more concise fades. I’m not sure I’d be able to identify the musical differences without having a stereo version of the album on hand for comparison, but that’s the reason.

“Blonde On Blonde” grapples with the same audacity as “Highway 61 Revisited” but applies it to a somewhat broader, more modulated canvas than its somewhat restrictive, clangorous predecessor. There’s the stoned Salvation Army band of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, “Visions Of Johanna”’s  derivation and development of the second-side ballads of his previous two records, the shaggy dog storytelling of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” (a title it’s gradually settled into after being named several different variants of it on early sleeves) and anarchic mutations of the blues (“Pledging My Time” and “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”) featuring stinging, paint-stripping guitar and harmonica work. “One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later)”, “I Want You” and “Just Like A Woman” seem like parlour game attempts to see just how much drama and intrigue he can cram into the confines of a pop single.

And that’s just the first disc: “Blonde On Blonde” so bursts with exponential expansion in all directions that one record can’t hold it all, becoming one of rocks first doubles (alongside The Mothers Of Invention’s “Freak Out!”; the exact release date of Dylan’s album is sufficiently vague as to make declaring a winner impossible) . “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine” makes for a lolloping tumble into previously uncharted third side territory, offhandedly together. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is an astonishingly complete, compact rock song; if Dylan were singing about smack or sadomasochism it could sneak onto “The Velvet Underground & Nico”. “4th Time Around”, his inscrutable parody of “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, was recorded on Valentine’s Day 1966, not three months after The Beatles released “Rubber Soul”. Finally, there’s that side-long allusive, simile-rich eulogy to new wife Sara, “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, which, perhaps understandably, has never been performed in concert, and for me the most dazzling song on this ever-remarkable record. Perhaps it’s a fitting tribute to its ungraspable, shape-shifting self that “Blonde On Blonde” has, over the years, been released in nine distinct (if only to bat-eared Dylanologists) versions. Is it his greatest artistic statement? Well, it’s certainly one of them.

And then, in at least the second spectacular volte-face of his recording career (still barely six years old at this point), post-motorcycle accident and Woodstock retreat he breaks the then-unthinkable 18 months of vinyl silence with “John Wesley Harding”, an album whose biblical cast, archaic language and primitive instrumentation could hardly be more contrary to the prevailing psychedelic trend. It’s perhaps unsurprising that these songs have proved fertile ground for cover versions (for instance “All Along The Watchtower” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”) as, in Dylan’s hands, they almost sound like demos, stark and malleable, waiting to be recast in somebody else’s image. “John Wesley Harding” is that rare album whose every note seems to be weighed and measured for its impact. “All Along The Watchtower” sounds like a stark and ominous warning, Charlie McCoy’s bass playing incongruously funky; “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest” could be a cryptic Beckettian morality play, like many of these songs come to think of it. The wretched and dispossessed haunt these songs: the lonesome hobo, the poor immigrant, the wicked messenger, the drifter and the landlord. At least some of these characters might have been seen as fellow travellers to the Dylan of his first two albums, yet here they seem to attract some of his hardest, nastiest lyrics, words which make “Positively 4th Street” seem like a nursery rhyme in comparison. 

That’s the music: wherefore mono? Well, at the time some of these albums were first released, record companies were prone to over-emphasising the possibilities of this new-fangled stereophonic sound in order to justify the extra dollar retail over the equivalent mono discs. Consequently, the stereo versions of the early, acoustic albums, the de facto way this music has been presented for the last 40 years, find an octopus-armed Dylan playing guitar through one speaker, harmonica out of the other and singing in the centre. Listen, for example, to the stereo “Blowin’ In The Wind” and hear the opening notes of his first post-vocal harmonica blast slide across the soundstage. In binding all the music together in the middle, the mono versions de-colorize these works of art. By “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, however, the situation has calmed itself to the extent that the stereo version, in keeping with the album’s austerity-package aesthetic, is practically mono. (There’s some irony, then, to the fact that, with the original master tape long lost, the curators of this box had to reproduce a mono mix from the session tapes, using a copy of the record as a reference.) The electric albums I’ve always found to sound disappointing in their stereo incarnations on vinyl, hard, harsh and jangly. The mono mixes concentrate all that distended sound into a tight ball of AM fury, and whilst it’s different (and quite lovely in places, “She Belongs To Me” for example) I’m not convinced it’s a universal panacea. My uncertainty is heightened by comparison with a recently purchased circa 1965 copy of the “Like A Rolling Stone” single. I’ve never heard the song deliver such a knockout punch as that little 7” manages, and even in this box that same mono mix is a little underwhelming.

Where these mono albums were once exclusively the preserve of second-hand record shops, even outside of this box there are currently two competing complete releases of the individual mono albums on vinyl vying for your Dylan dollar, so they’re hardly the coveted obscurities they used to be. The box, though, wraps the set up in thoroughly attractive, collector-baiting fashion. The albums are presented as close to their original release forms as practicable, with pasted-over cardboard covers and company inner sleeves, inners and posters where appropriate. (You don’t get the original, withdrawn tracklisting for “The Freewheelin’”, more’s the pity with it being “considered the most valuable and rarest record in America”, or the Claudia Cardinale photo removed from the gatefold of “Blonde On Blonde” after being used without her permission.) Also in the box is a voucher offering high bitrate MP3 downloads of the whole kit caboodle and the “Positively 4th Street” single and a big booklet full of  period photos and Greil Marcus’ effusive commentary, all designed to make the purchaser feel good about shelling out the better part of 200 at current Amazon prices on music they almost certainly already know intimately. Well, I’ve bought much of this music before, some of it three or four times, on vinyl, CD and SACD, yet, for me, its purchase was a no-brainer. I’ve known and loved some of these songs all my life, and have no plans to stop enjoying them during the rest of it. The records themselves are pressed at RTI, one of America’s finest vinylmakers, so no complaints on that score. If rumours that it was the success of “The Beatles In Mono” that inspired this set are to be believed, it sets the bar pretty high for the perpetually rumoured upcoming Beatles vinyl box sets and, given how Bob and The Beatles continually upped each other’s ante during the 1960s has a pleasing symmetry to it. 

The last words, though, should go to the text that, with minor variations, graces the back cover of all the albums in this set up to and including “Highway 61 Revisited”: “This Columbia high fidelity monaural recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old. If you are the owner of a new stereophonic system, this record will play with even more brilliant true-to-life fidelity. In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of it becoming obsolete in the future.” May it always be so.

BOB DYLAN The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (Columbia)

Alongside the lavish outpouring of single-channel loveliness that was “The Original Mono Recordings” came more box set Bob in the form of the ninth volume of “The Bootleg Series”, this one concentrating on the demo recordings lodged with his music publishers Leeds and Witmark between 1962 and 1964.

 These 47 performances were never intended for public consumption, but were designed to interest other musicians in covering Dylan’s songs, many of which he never officially released himself. (15 of these compositions are making their Dylan debuts here.) Consequently, they’re as rudimentary as the songs can support: a fragmentary “Man On The Street” breaks down with the mumbled comment “Jesus Christ…I can’t get it…I lost the verses”, “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” is dismissed with “Do you want this? It’s awful long…it’s just a drag, I’ve sung it so many times”, whilst on other songs Dylan’s self-corrections are like footnote annotations, as if he wasn’t sufficiently concerned about the recorded result to perform them twice. Yet you can also hear him ingesting, synthesising and discarding his influences just as he does his own compositions: these are the offcuts and rough drafts shed from the relentless forward drive of creativity, and no less fascinating because of it.

 “Ballad For A Friend” is a bluesy precursor of “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, “Standing On The Highway” powered by a restless, almost uncountable freight train rhythm. “Blowin’ In The Wind” arguably has more impact in this demo form than as the opening track of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, presuming that it was this rendition – functional as it is, just voice and guitar, without the familiar sliding harmonica refrain – that Peter, Paul & Mary would have heard before taking it, and Dylan, to the world. Dark and sardonic, “Long Ago, Far Away” might be something of a blunt implement but so appropriate for its troubled times it’s surprising that it’s mouldered in relative obscurity until now. Arguably the whole of the album “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, with its terse, correct reportage and comment, sprung from “The Death Of Emmett Till”; its “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” is introduced by Dylan here as “a true story”. Goofy, five-finger exercises such as “Baby, I’m In The Mood For You” and “All Over You” (“Let’s just put this one down for kicks!”) presage the other side Dylan would turn towards the microphone on “Another Side Of Bob Dylan”, and the doomsaying of “I’d Hate To Be You On That Dreadful Day” is somewhat undermined by the artist’s barely suppressed giggles and closing comment “That’s my calypso-type number!” “Long Time Gone” sings the alternate biography Dylan put about during his early years in New York in which he was a pre-teen runaway and carny traveller, and the sardonic “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” is rendered more jittery by the ghostly distant wail of a partially erased harmonica.

 “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is practically fully formed as the autumnal madrigal of its album incarnation, and he barrels through “Bob Dylan’s Dream” as though he can’t get to the end of it soon enough. In contrast, “Boots Of Spanish Leather” and “Girl From The North Country” are both given slow, steady, measured renditions, almost as if he’s not singing about himself. “Seven Curses” outlines a kind of biblical justice that’s partway between “Gallows Pole” and “John Wesley Harding”, but “Hero Blues” is an uncharacteristically bawdy sliver of a song. “John Brown” is another of those blunt implements whose lessons he would recast more eloquently elsewhere, despite releasing it on live albums from both ends of his career. Already loosed legitimately upon the world in the first “Bootleg Series” box, “When The Ship Comes In” floats unsteadily upon the constant seasick lap of Dylan’s piano rhythms. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” is something of an anomaly here, given that the already released version on his first album credits the arrangement to Eric Von Schmidt. The rocking horse melody of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is nowhere near as sprightly as the canonical recording, almost as if he wants it to be heard without revealing its full potential, not that it prevented The Byrds from making an entirely different beast of it, of course.

 It would be fair, or perhaps not unfair, to say that there’s little unheard here whose wayside status is a puzzler, with the songs Dylan or others developed further clearly the wheat. The chaff, however, further contextualises the prime picks; these are the work tapes of a songwriter practically swatting away ideas, each a step along his revolutionary journey, and therein lies their fascination.

 In its vinyl incarnation “The Witmark Demos” arrives as a big box containing four, individually sleeved, LPs, a download voucher and a big booklet containing contemporaneous photos of a baby-faced Bob and Colin Escott’s evocative commentary on how Dylan laid a one-man siege on the Tin Pan Alley business model. Even allowing for the unsteady sonics of the source material, some of the discs sound much better than others, with the worst being plagued by rasping distortion from the get-go.

BOB DYLAN / MARK KNOPFLER Manchester Evening News Arena 10 October 2011

 

I can’t recall seeing a support act garner a standing ovation before now, but tonight’s was no run-of-the-mill struggling outsider. Knopfler guided his seven-piece band serenely through a lengthy opening set filled mostly with the kind of considered songwriting that’s been his stock in trade since quietly but definitely retiring the Dire Straits b(r)and. He opened with a song that must, subliminally at least, have been known by a goodly proportion of the audience, his “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” theme tune “Why Aye Man”, but “Cleaning My Gun” was rather trampled upon by its four-guitar frontline. “Sailing To Philadelphia” maintained the grace of the studio version, even in the absence of James Taylor, bearing the first suggestion that Knopfler was somehow able to hold this voluminous enormodome in rapt attention, as later proved when he enthralled the place with just the sounds of acoustic guitar and plucked fiddle and double bass. He managed startling experiments in timbre with the help of his talented, multitasking band, who also wielded tin whistles, uilleann pipes and mandolins during the evening. The crowd-pleasing coup, though, was to finish with a couple of songs that in this country are as familiar as rain, “Brothers In Arms” and “So Far Away”, and it’s a measure of his subsequent songwriting that both sounded a little forced, obvious and mechanical compared with what had gone before them.

 

Forced, obvious and mechanical are not words that could be applied to tonight’s headliner. Perhaps the sightlines were more than usually advantageous, but I’ve never seen Bob so vital and animated in my near-decade of Dylan gig going. He didn’t dance, exactly, but he was definitely wiggle wiggling it, striking Elvis-as-gunslinger poses when firing up his harmonica and even, briefly, playing guitar during “Simple Twist Of Fate”, although much of the set found him stationed perpendicular to the audience behind his little fairground organ.

 

If you’re a believer, it’s the singing that gets you. Of course, he doesn’t really sing these days, although he does try, bless him, but the way his bullfrog bark eviscerates his sacred texts is as punk rock as anything John Lydon put his various names to. Some songs, particularly those freshly bedecked in rockabilly regalia – “Things Have Changed” and “Honest With Me” – remained mysteriously elusive until the end of their respective choruses, and it was only the Alicia Keys namedrop that clued me into the fact he was performing “Thunder On The Mountain”. Many more, though, announced themselves with stomping authority. On “Ballad Of A Thin Man” he played horrorshow tricks by selectively applying reverb to his vocals; during a nuclear blast along “Highway 61 Revisited” he sang the Georgia Sam verse twice in succession, yet set highlight “Tangled Up In Blue” found its narrative almost viciously pruned. And the band actually managed to make these great songs danceable, believe it or not.

 

It wasn’t a perfect evening, or a perfect set: I mean, really, “Forgetful Heart”? Although, being relatively new, it was the song that cleaved closest to its recorded form. With only one song from “Blonde On Blonde” (spirited opener “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”) and a big fat zero from “Bringing It All Back Home”, it lacked some of the excitement of the admittedly unbalanced nights when Bob concentrated on his epochal early electric trilogy. Compared, too, with the delicious clarity of Knopfler’s performance the sound had the hammer down and the needles welded into the red, possibly not to its benefit.

 

But there’ll be other nights. As it was, it might not have been the best Dylan gig I’ve been to ever, but it was definitely the one that best showed the drive, the energy, the zeal, the compulsion, the need to do what he still does, even at his advanced age.

 

BOB DYLAN / MARK KNOPFLER Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff 13 October 2011

 

Three days later, and Mark Knopfler’s support slot is pretty much as previously, excepting the substitution of “What It Is” for “Why Aye Man” as opener. He appears to have chosen his bandmates based on the tour itinerary such that the audience have a local boy to cheer at every stop: in Manchester it was the uilleann piper, tonight it’s the drummer who’s playing to a home crowd. An impatient one at that, the string-plucking breakdown during “Marbletown” provoking heckles of “Get on with it!” Otherwise, it’s what we already know, although sitting at the back we’re forced to trade the good, if distant, sightlines for a muddying thrum that, combined with Knopfler’s tendency to mumble, renders the lyrics even more cryptic than at the MEN.

 

Complaints about indistinct lyrics are kind of missing the point with a modern-day Dylan set, of course. If you can claim to understand more than about 30% of his guttural, slurred rasp I’d say you were beating the odds. As expected, it’s a substantially different set from Monday’s. Banished are any traces of “Blood On The Tracks”, “Forgetful Heart” (no great loss), “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Honest With Me”.  In their stead it appears to be an “Oh Mercy” theme night, with “Shooting Star” (albeit sung, “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”-style, to the tune of “Mississippi”) and a forceful recasting of “Man In The Long Black Coat” represented. There’s something of an aqueous subtext courtesy of a rough and tumbling “Watching The River Flow” and “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, but tonight’s highlight is “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, as close to smooth and sublime as you might reasonably hope to expect from Bob these days. “Highway 61 Revisited” loses the possibly erroneous repetition of its second verse, and “Like A Rolling Stone” and “All Along The Watchtower” are transposed and played without the band leaving the stage, there being no encore tonight.

 

Enjoyable though it is, I think the MEN show just shades tonight’s, although I could understand fans who prefer “Oh Mercy” to “Blood On The Tracks” (presuming such creatures exist) ranking them in the opposite order. It’s a shame that the shorter sets Bob’s playing these days (14 songs each night, compared with 17 when he last played Cardiff in 2009) necessitate this kind of either/or cherrypicking.

BOB DYLAN In Concert: Brandeis University 1963 (Music On Vinyl)

As Dylan biographer Michael Gray attests in his sleeve notes, “This is the last live performance we have of Bob Dylan before he became a star”. Professionally recorded at the Brandeis Folk Festival in May 1963, the tape was unearthed in the collection of the late critic Ralph Gleason 46 years later. Originally offered by Amazon.com as a bonus disc to purchasers of Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964” or “The Original Mono Recordings”, it’s subsequently been issued as a standalone release. 

The guerrilla nature of the document is apparent in the abrupt edits that open and close the sets – “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” has “(Incomplete)” appended to its title because of this, although in truth the recording doesn’t miss a great deal from the beginning of what was a minor item in the Dylan canon even back then – and the grainy and blurred cover photograph, its deficiencies made all the more glaring by being blown up to album size. If anything, though, these are characteristics rather than drawbacks. What surprises is that, in a performance staged in the interim between the recording and release of kingmaking second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, the brief setlist avoids almost all of its big hitters. There’s no “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “Girl From The North Country”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or ”Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. It’s especially puzzling as the show is filled out with the too-topical-for-vinyl “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”, and “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”, whose bleak, blank blues wouldn’t be released until his next album, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.

The point at which this relative unknown conclusively wins the audience over is clearly the deliberate, pointed rendition of “Masters Of War”. He balances the bleakness with the post-apocalyptic comedy of “Talkin’ World War III Blues” (it’s Fabian on Dylan’s record player in this instance) and the wistful nostalgia for long-gone youth evoked by “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, all the more astonishing in consideration of the fact that the singer was a fortnight shy of his 22nd birthday at the time.

Sonically, despite occasional raggedness this recording gives a good account of itself, presented in genuine mono (after all, you’re not going to get much stereophonic effect out of one man , a guitar and a harmonica, despite what the stereo version of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” suggests). Music On Vinyl’s pressing is just fine, without exactly being of the audiophile standard the cover sticker boasts, and arrives with a free download of the album.

Traveling Wilburys

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