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Bootleg Country: Bob Dylan – Live in the ’90s

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Dylan.

The mere name conjures up so much that I can't imagine I'll be able to do it justice, let alone to the man and his music. He's a poet and icon. He's the voice of a generation. A magician. A mystic. An enigma. A mystery. He is quite possibly the greatest songwriter of the last 100 years.

And that's just the beginning.

When I first started writing these columns (rare as they are these days) I knew I was going to have to do Dylan. He's one of my favorite musicians. He has been recorded countless times in countless forms. He's huge on the bootleg circuit (he's even got a whole collection of official live albums dubbed The Bootleg Series.) And I personally own many of his concert recordings.

Yet I never could quite get the courage up to write the darn thing. I never got close. In fact I never listened to the music that I could write about. Dylan looms so large, his fans are so…fanatic, that I was nervous to put something out there about him.

I'm not really sure why I'm doing it now, except that it's time.

There isn't really a time when I became a fan of Bob Dylan. He's seems to have always been here, playing his songs. Sometimes he was in the background, strumming softly to himself while I filled my ears with something else. Sometimes I ignored him and labeled him as music for “fogies.” Mostly though, he has been my muse. My poet. My friend.

My first concrete memory of Dylan is playing “Greatest Hits” on my little compact stereo when I was about 16. It was sweet revelation coming out of those speakers. I had never heard music like this. Not really anyways. I mean I had heard most of those songs before – on the radio, in movies and I'm sure my mother had played that record before. But I had finally hit the age where I was paying attention to music. I was beginning to understand what art was, and meant, and this was it.

Dylan was beyond different. He wrote words that had real meaning. He said something real. Something divine. And the music. That music was out of this world. The guitar. The harmonica. And that voice. That Voice! It aint beautiful, but it was magic.

I've been in love ever since.

Hard Times in Marseilles – Recorded on 6/29/93
Himself, Youngstown Ohio – Recorded on 11/02/92

Choosing a Dylan bootleg was nearly as difficult a task as choosing to finally write about live Dylan in the first place. With a career spanning more than 30 years and most of it being documented on countless bootlegs, it was hard to know where to go. Originally I was going to write about an early show, from the Gaslight in '62. A show from before Dylan was Dylan. It is a magnificent show, in fact and I mentally prepared notes for it, but then I broke from it.

Honestly, some of it kind of grates on me. It is just Dylan, his guitar, and that voice. As it comes before his second album, he doesn't have a huge amount of original material to play and as such he reverts to some old blues numbers. Interesting numbers for sure, but ones I'm not really familiar with, and ones that don't necessarily work all that well for Dylan and my ears.

Sacrilege that might be, and I'm sure if some hard core folks read it they'll let me know about how wrong I probably am. I do understand the significance and ragged beauty of it all, but it isn't what I turn to when I am jonezing for some Dylan, and it isn't what I think about when I think of Dylan, and so it isn't what I'm writing about while I'm writing about Dylan.

The Gaslight was also mostly just released officially, and I prefer to talk about the unofficial stuff.

I then turned to 1975 and the brutal, jaggedness that is the Rolling Thunder Review. Now this I can get into, but again it has been covered officially. It was then that I turned to some shows in the early '90s. The early '90s probably aren't the time period when most folks generally think of Dylan, but the shows prove he was quite on his game.

When my wife and I first decided to move to Shanghai, one of the first things I set about doing was getting my music collection onto my hard drives. I knew there was no way I would be able to take all of my CDs, but I had enough space to put them all on hard disk. Officially released CDs were pretty easy to rip as iTunes automatically connects to CDBD and determines what CD is in the drive and adds all the pertinent information to the file.

Many of my bootlegs worked in the same way. Some kind soul had manually inputted the information and adding the music to my computer was as easy as pressing a couple of buttons. However, many of my several hundred live recordings have not been inputed into the database and as such I would have to manually type them in. With over a thousand disks to rip, I decided any manual work was not worth the time and let them stay home.

This is where these two Dylan shows come in. For reasons I'm not sure of, it seems that the first half of both these Dylan shows were recognized by CDDB, but the second half (consisting of the second disks) were not. Which means only half the shows were ripped. Not wanting to review only half a show, I have decided that I'll review two half shows which kind of makes it one complete concert. Or something.

The early '90s found Dylan in something of a no man's land in his career. He had passed his '80s slump, but not yet reached the rejuvenated heights of his recent comeback.

Both shows sound spectacular, particularly the one recorded in Marseilles. All the instruments are strong and clear, and the band is very much on. As the Ohio show is an audience recording, the instruments are a little more muddled and molded together.

The playing in Ohio is straight on rock. The band kicks and grinds together as a ragged beast. It is all guitars and bass and it explodes right into my ear. In Marseilles the band creates a more jazz sound with each instrument slinking and moving on its own, creating individual parts while maintaining a cohesive whole.

No more are the differences more distinct than on “All Along the Watchtower,” the only song played in both shows. In Ohio it is all rough and ragged. You can hear the hounds of hell on your tail, and feel the Devil's breath on your neck. The apocalypse is now and we're all in it together. In Marseilles, the action is a story being told by a master. Bob is the preacher while the band provides his soundtrack.

If I had to pick a “winner” out of the two, the show from Marseilles wins hands down. The sound quality is better, and the band swings. In nearly every song they expand on the central themes of the melody and create instrumental jams that are stunning. The only real negative is Bob's voice which is often high pitched and more nasal than usual. Bob's voice is rarely a highlight of his performances and here I find myself cringing when he comes back after an extended jam.

The Ohio show has its share of highlights including a simply lovely “If Not for You” and the aforementioned brutal rendering of “All Along the Watchtower.”

Neither of these two shows created any sort of tidal waves of Bobdom. Dylan had long left his significance as the voice of his generation, he was well beyond his '70s glory, he was even past his religious fanatacism. Yet he had not yet become the elder statesmen that has suited him so well this decade.

No, there is nothing revelatory in either of these performances. It is simply Dylan being Dylan – the world's greatest living songwriter shilling his wares in front of the people who love him. He brings with him a world-class band and they perform each show as if it was the most important thing they've ever done. And he's been doing that year after year for decades.

Maybe there is something special in that after all.

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About Mat Brewster

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Great review Mat. As one of those Dylan “hardcores” you reference, I’d only take issue with one thing, and I quote:

    Bob’s voice is rarely a highlight of his performances…

    I have to disagree. What many miss about Dylan’s voice when they focus in on its tonal qualities, is the man’s sense of phrasing. Absolutely unmatched anywhere in music for my money.

    -Glen

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Fair enough Glen. I’m actually not one of those guys who hates Dylan’s voice. It often suits the songs, or at least his performance of his songs, but on certain shows it really irritates me.

    I’ll stand by what I said as the voice is rarely the highlight of a performance (as opposed to song choice, or the backing band which are often the highlights) but I admit I was taking a bit of a cheap shot.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The next time you listen to Dylan Mat, just take note of the way he wraps around a phrase…especially in live performances where he was really “on” (which I’ll be the first to admit can be a 50-50 proposition with Dylan). Its as unique in its own way as somebody like Tony Bennett.

    Anyway, I still thought it was a great article Mat. Very passionate.

    -Glen

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Thanks. Like I said, Dylan is a guy I knew I had to write about, but struggled trying to get it just right.

    Glad you liked it.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    great stuff mat. dang, maybe i gotta figure out this bootleg stuff.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Thanks Mark. It is easy to figure out and I’d be happy to show you the ropes. I warn you though, this stuff creates obsessions, and for a guy like you that might mean the end ;)

  • Mark of SF

    Well the thing is, Dylan always HAS had a lousy voice, but it’s always been WHAT he is saying and the way(HOW)he puts it across (yes, his “phrasing”) that makes the difference between mediocrity and genius. Obviously! Ohherwise he might have been left back at the gate in 1962 and shot down before he ever began.

  • save

    Good Stuff! I’m also a big Dylan fan and and a possessor of a few of his unofficial bootlegs. I think you did well choosing an era to critique. The early Nineties saw Bob coming out oh his creative hibernation with what amounted to his finest band-I was not real keen on GE Smith et al. Also, when Garcia passed away I think it had a real profound effect on Bob and it showed in a bunch of his shows. Remember he did Friend of the Devil a lot back then as a sort of tribute. I always felt the Dead and Garcia channeled Dylan with a great deal of alacrity and style, go back and listen to those live versions on Cold Irons Bound-almost as if Jerry were standing next to Larry Campbell with a pedal steel up on stage…eerie. Good job, look forward to more of the same.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Yeah I was really surprised listening to these disks. In preparation for this post I was listening to a lot of Dylan but kind of skipping over the ’90s stuff as I didn’t figure it would be any good. Then I just sort of let my ipod play and dug a couple of songs, then went ‘oh this is 90s Dylan.” And that was that.

  • http://www.bloodonthetracksnovel.com Tom Grasty

    Matt–

    I got a couple bootlegs, too. But it sounds like you guys got me beat on quantity. But listen to this….

    I just wrote a novel that I think you are going to dig. It’s called BLOOD ON THE TRACKS.

    It’s a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven’s door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture…

    Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they’re all characters in Bob’s songs.

    You can get a copy on Amazon.com or go “behind the tracks” at http://www.bloodonthetracksnovel.com to learn more about the book.

    And let’s stay in touch.