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To fathom the significance of Columbia/Legacy’s latest Bob Dylan box, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981, one should remember the following:
In August 1979, Dylan—who’d been raised Jewish and for 16 years had been the symbol par excellence of rock ’n’ roll’s protean possibilities—released Slow Train Coming, an album bursting at its blues-rock seams with evangelical Christian fervor. It caught everyone, even the musicians and the producers who helped him make it, off guard.
Then, in November, he launched a six-month North American tour, accompanied by a stellar band featuring the drummer Jim Keltner, the guitarist Fred Tackett, the bassist Tim Drummond, and the organist Spooner Oldham. Each show began with a gospel segment by Dylan’s background singers then proceeded to include every song from Slow Train Coming and its as yet unrecorded follow-up Saved, plus a few other equally impassioned and equally Biblical numbers.
Some non-album cuts (“Jesus Is the One,” “Thief on the Cross,” the 1980-tour holdover “City of Gold”) showed up in his summer 1981 shows too, as did a number of his “greatest hits.” Passionately delivered, the latter nevertheless seemed like concessions to his core audience’s growing “gospel fatigue.” “I hope we played something that you came to hear,” Dylan quipped near the end of one show. Indifference and negative reviews greeted Shot of Love, his final Christian recording.
Since then, most mainstream Dylan coverage has either ignored his “gospel period” or dismissed it as little more than an emotional pit stop. But nobody who investigates Trouble No More, especially its “deluxe” eight-disc-plus DVD incarnation, will easily ignore or dismiss that period again because, for Dylan, meeting Jesus was nothing less than a Big Bang, unleashing an unprecedented flood of creativity and an unprecedented depth of commitment. Not only was he experimenting with a wide array of styles (including Polynesian pop and child-friendly reggae), but he was also abandoning his habit of singing from behind masks to sing straight from the heart.
The 30 live songs on Discs 1 and 2 sample the ’79, ’80, and ’81 tours and contain performances of the rarities “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One,” “Blessed Is the Name,” and “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody.” The 18 live songs on Discs 5 and 6 sample three of Dylan’s shows at Toronto’s Massey Hall in April 1980 (minus the Hal Lindsey–inspired sermons with which he led into “Solid Rock”) and boast outstanding sound, as do the 23 performances on Discs 7 and 8 from Dylan’s June 27, 1981, concert at London’s Earls Court.
But it’s the 31 “Rare and Unreleased” cuts on Discs 3 and 4 that make Trouble No More a crucial addition to Dylan’s body of work.
There are soundcheck run-throughs of “Slow Train” and “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” from the 1978 Street-Legal tour, the earliest musical fruits of Dylan’s conversion, and compelling alternate takes (“Trouble in Mind,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”). There’s a CCM cover (Dallas Holm’s “Rise Again”). There’s an anti-divorce country song (“Help Me Understand”). There’s infectious praise (“I Will Love Him”). There’s the fully realized, never-rumored-to-exist “Making a Liar Out of Me.” There’s even a 1980 radio ad for an upcoming Dylan show in Portland, Ore., warning potential ticket buyers of what they’d be letting themselves in for.
Slow Train Coming is now 38 years old, Dylan’s age when he released it. It’s about time that the Oregonians of the world began catching up.