The Gospel According to Zimmerman: "Trouble No More" The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981

What always felt like it would be a nasty bump in the Dylan Bootleg Series road turns out to be a smooth walk on the water thanks to a concept the Dylan boot team perfectly executes by covering the mutable artist's evangelical period with highly charged live performances, outtakes and rehearsals that will turn you into a believer, if not in Christ, then in Dylan's absolute commitment to what he then preached and in the power of the songs and especially the supercharged performances he delivered.

The lifelong atheist and high performance audio-hating Penn Jillette speaks for me in his annotation where he writes that he bought Saved and Shot of Love when they came out, but they sat on the shelf gathering dust. Like Jillette, I couldn't face a "Christian Dylan". Like Jillette the fever finally broke with the release of Infidels and like him, listening to this box produced in me a water-to-wine change of opinion.

Also helping was viewing concert footage from this period presented during a press event at Sony headquarters. It's available on DVD only in the deluxe CD edition of this set. Backed by a Jim Keltner, Tim Drummond anchored band, Dylan has that unmistakable unshakable conversion fire in his eyes and in his volcanic vocal eruptions that I'm convinced are at the root of his currently stripped vocal cords. Also onboard were guitarist Fred Tackett (Little Feat), and a revolving cast or keyboardists that included Spooner Oldham and Al Kooper among others. Plus of course a trio and at times a quartet of background gospel singers.

Between November 1979 and May of 1980 Dylan sang only songs from Slow Train Coming and Saved in what was a gospel review that did not include any of his best known and loved back-catalog. Those who attended these concerts (and stayed for the duration) were treated to what's described in the annotation as an "unforgettable experience"—a claim that's backed by the audio, which documents Dylan's use of gospel themes to craft songs that propelled his journey to and through Jesus. Actually it wasn't so much a journey as it was an epiphany. After a concert in Tucson, Dylan told a reporter "Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing”.

Speaking of physical things, this box, like previous bootleg series boxes is a carefully considered, deluxe package starting with a full-sized, perfect-bound book printed on heavy, glossy stock and rich with content, written and visual.

In addition to Jillette’s confessional, there’s an introduction by Ben Rollins that sets up the box’s concept and the programming logic, a concise backgrounder and contextualizer by musicologist Amanda Petrusich, and track-by-track annotation by Bob Bowman author of “Soulsville U.S.A. The Story of Stax Records”—all accompanied throughout by superb photographs.

The sound is variable, some from board mix cassettes that sound remarkably good, and some recorded to an 8 track Otari machine but all of it was surprisingly listenable and much of it very “you’re there live” quality. You get the entire program on two CDs as well as on four records cut by Ryan K. Smith at Sterling Sound. I listened through on CD using a very high quality DAC and then I played the records, which made me feel as if I was witnessing “live” in ways the CDs can’t begin to manage. That drives the digital people crazy but that’s how I heard it. The vinyl is definitely more involving and the MPO pressing quality was high. The French pressing plant is producing consistently good records. (The deluxe CD box includes 31 additional performances and the DVD containing the aforementioned movie).

Live performances by a stellar band produce an excitement level the studio recordings can’t match, but it’s Dylan’s near-frenzied, hyper-emotional fervor and commitment to the material and to his then unshakable belief in Jesus that will make you a believer, if not in Jesus than in Dylan’s sincerity and his desire to get you on board the slow train.

MikeT's picture

I bought the Deluxe CD/DVD box, and was tempted to buy the vinyl (as I did for many earlier bootleg series), but when I saw that most of the live material was sourced from cassettes, I reasoned that a cassette (probably digitized before being cut to vinyl) couldn't sound that much better than what was on the CD. I guess, if Mr. Fremer is correct, I am probably wrong. May re-think buying the vinyls set.

Michael Fremer's picture
Have you watched the movie?
MikeT's picture

I have yet to watch the movie, but will be doing so soon.

azmoon's picture

This is the first BD bootleg I am passing on. I sampled on Spotify and still can't stand this music or the subject. Since Dylan never sings these songs anymore, and hasn't for decades (?), maybe he feels the same way.

Genez's picture

Its understandable that you can't stand the subject. After all.. Its what got Jesus on the Cross where he needed to be.

recordhead's picture

I asked this question once but never got a reply. What is it you hated? Christians? Jesus? I was around 10 when Slow Train Coming came out. I remember hearing Gotta Serve Somebody and liking it a lot. I didn't hear it as Jesus music. I just heard Bob Dylan. Do you skip cuts on Van Morrison or Staple Singers records that have a religious theme? If he made a record about the old testament would you have written it off too? In my opinion knocked out loaded and under the red sky are nothing to brag about.

wozzabear's picture

I have learned over the years never to underestimate anything the bobster puts out, up to and including his nobel address. Re the above comment, I too disregarded Knocked Out Loaded until years later an old friend included "Brownsville Girl" on a mixtape. Doh ! just one of the greatest songs about obsession, memory and hopeless love ever recorded ! I have the vinyl box but haven't listened to it as yet. On Michael's recommendation I shall do so.
On a different tack, Michael, in case you read this, have you listened to/heard/reviewed the 180 gm mamas and papas double that came out relatively recently. It looks like a lot of tracks squeezed onto each of the four sides which may well compromise sonic quality as in the bad old days of budget "best ofs". any comment would be welcomed. Great interview you did with Phill Brown recently by the way.

Michael Fremer's picture
Haven't heard but not happy with much of what UMe is doing. A new reissue of "Days of Future Past" is dullsville.
Chipmanholmes's picture

Right after Slow Train was Released Bob Played A Show in Birmingham Alabama that was a Rehearsal for the Upcoming Tour...Announced at the Last Minute I attended along with about 250 other People. No Background Singers ETC. and More Preaching than Music. I Snuck a Camera In (In My Tube Socks) and got off a couple of Shots till Security started chasing Me...Yelled "Pass The Plate Bob"! at Him a few times...But to No avail.He was Like a Southern Baptist Preacher on Revival Night...I'd Show You The Pictures But I don't see an attachment for That...Anyway Love this CD/DVD Set--Killer Band and Dylan's All In!

audiotom's picture

Dylan never gave up his then found Christian faith - he merely made it less a focal point

Songs like Grooms still waiting at the altar, Man with the long black coat etc are just as thought provoking and based on his faith.