Volume 8 in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Tell Tale Signs offers an amazing collection of songs from the latter third of his legendary career, covering the years 1989 through 2006. The two-CD version presents 27 songs in the forms of alternate versions, demos, concert performances, and previously unreleased material. The majority comes from recording sessions for Oh Mercy (1989), Time Out Of Mind (1997) and Modern Times (2006). Although there is no material from the sessions that produced Under the Red Sky (1990), Good as I Been to You (1992), and “Love and Theft” (2001), some elements from the songs here made their way into songs on Under the Red Sky and “Love and Theft.” Also collected are rarities from the soundtracks of Lucky You and Gods and Generals as well as a duet with Ralph Stanley, a legend in his own right.
What is so fantastic about Tell Tale Signs is that it works no matter what the listener’s knowledge of Dylan is. The songs are so strong and well crafted the album makes a great introduction. You don’t need to know the released versions to enjoy this; you just need to sit back and listen. Of course, it will be more appealing to hardcore fanatics who will pore intently over these songs, comparing and contrasting versions. Filling with pride for correctly recognizing one part only to be frustrated at the inability to explain why another sounds so familiar. They will hold off for as long as they can stand before cheating with the informative detail of Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s liner notes. Plus, it’s not only the fanatics that have the opportunity to examine Dylan at work. There are two different versions of “Mississippi” and “Dignity,” each feature Dylan accompanied by one instrument (Daniel Lanois playing guitar on the former; Dylan on piano on the latter) on Disc One and later with a full band on Disc Two.
Three songs find Dylan performing in his Woody Guthrie persona, just the man, guitar, and harmonica. Over a roughly four-year period, he recorded an alternate version of “Most of The Time;” was live in France 1992 playing “The Girl on The Greenbriar Shore,” a traditional 17th century song; and during the only contribution from The World Gone Wrong sessions, a great cover of the Robert Johnson classic “32-20 Blues” that makes clear Dylan would have made a fine living if he had solely focused on the blues.
Dylan and his musicians play loosely with other genres. There’s a touch of western swing on an alternate version of “Tell Ol’ Bill’” from the North Country soundtrack. With Dylan “sitting in church” at the opening of “Marchin’ to The City,” it makes perfect sense to flirt with gospel. This song eventually became “Till I Fell in Love with You.” Two classic covers in a row find Dylan passing through similar terrain. Dylan goes country on an unreleased version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss The Mississippi” that finds him yearning for the river and his gal. Taken from Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Country, Dylan is matched with Stanley and bluegrass band; in this song he makes his way to the shore along “The Lonesome River,” but his heart is still wanting. The music of “Series of Dreams” sounds more like U2 than Dylan, which isn’t surprising considering Lanois has produced and played with them.
I was surprised to get a glimpse of Lucky and Boo Wilbury. During the period between the two Traveling Wilbury albums, Dylan worked on Oh Mercy and two tracks show a distinct influence. Anchored by wonderfully subdued Dick Dale-esque guitar, “Everything Is Broken” finds Dylan singing over surf music. It’s the one of the most energetic songs on the Disc One and will make you want to “hop around the room/ In your underwear” as you dance a slowed-down version of the Wilbury Twist. “God Knows” is another jaunty number and every time I play it I expect the rest of the brothers to join in on the vocals because that is surely George Harrison and Jeff Lynne on guitar no matter what the song credits state.
No doubt Tell Tale Signs will cause debate as fans argue over which version they like better. Thankfully, Dylan and his producers aren’t easily pleased and keep striving for more. The alternate version “Can’t Wait,” which Dylan can be heard suggesting they play in B Flat, sounds very good with different lyrics, and Dylan on piano and delivering a different vocal intonation, but the right choice was made with the released version, especially the dynamic organ that drives it.
Of the five live tracks, “High Water (For Charley Patton)” from 8/23/2003 at Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada is the best. The band sounds fantastic as they rock the house. A bootleg release of this evening deserves to be Volume 9. The vocal isn’t clear on “Lonesome Day Blues,” but the band still sounds great.
Tell Tale Signs could have been subtitled “Best Of” instead of “Bootleg Series.” While by no means comprehensive of the best of the era, a reasonable argument could certainly be made that this is Dylan at his best: an artist trying out different ideas, proving it’s the journey not the destination. Most of these songs other musicians would gladly have released. It is rare for songs that don’t make the cut to be this good.
The only disappoint with the release is knowing there’s third disc of similar material, which has to be just as good, but it’s in a ridiculously priced deluxe set that comes with a 150-page book. Some editions include a 7″ vinyl single with two tracks from the set. It’s extremely frustrating and sure to be bootlegged. Feel free to pass it along to me.