Bob's Back: Tell Tale Signs of Joy... and A Complete Lack of Judgement
"Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now"
Bob Dylan, "Mississippi"
Tell Tale Signs, the eighth installment of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series, came out earlier this week and after three solid days of listening pleasure, I'm ready to report that it's yet another classic.
This volume focuses on the years 1989-2006. I picked up the 2-disc 27-song version, but there's also a 3-disc collector's version for $200, which, even if I had wanted to spend an extra $175 for the third disc, wasn't in stock.
Now you'd figure that a collection of outtakes and unreleased songs would be mildly interesting at best, but if you figure that then you're clearly not familiar with the magnificent music that is The Bootleg Series.
Being the most bootlegged artist in recorded history, Dylan, and/or his label, Columbia, decided back in the early nineties to start putting out "official bootlegs", beginning with the 3-disc Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 box set in 1991. And it's been an absolute treasure-trove of joy and surprises ever since.
Music just doesn't get much better than this. The simple fact is that Dylan's outtakes and alternate tracks are better than 90% of anything else out there.
And let's get one thing straight right off the bat. I'm not one of those Dylan fans who has absolutely no clue about, or interest in, any modern music other than Bob and a few of his contemporaries who happen to still be kicking around from the sixties, such as Neil Young and The Stones.
I know some people like that, I've even hung-out with them. In fact, I went to a Dylan discussion group years ago when I was studying at U-Vic and there were people there who literally didn't know who REM and U2 were... but they knew every Bob song by heart, both the good ones and the crap.
No, I'm definitely not one of them, but I openly confess to being a Dylan fanatic. However, I'm also into just about everything else of quality being produced today, from Kanye West and OutKast to Alicia Keys and Lucinda Williams, from the Kings of Leon to the White Stripes, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to M.I.A., you name it. But the fact of the matter is none of these great acts have ever written a song quite as magnificent as "Red River Shore".
"Red River Shore" is this collection's haunting, mesmerizing centerpiece. And, once again, it boggles the mind to try and comprehend just how Bob figured it wasn't worth releasing back in 1997 when he recorded it for the Time Out Of Mind album. With the exception, perhaps, of "Highlands", this track is better than anything on that classic album. And I challenge anyone to try and figure out how a song this good, this beautiful, this majestic, could find itself unworthy of release until now.
What's up with that anyway, Bob?
Not The First Time
And this isn't the first time Dylan's refused to release an absolute classic. Who else but Dylan could leave arguably his finest song of the 1980s, "Blind Willie McTell" (check it out here), off of album after album, from when it was first recorded for Infidels in 1983 right up until it finally appeared on the first Bootleg set in 1991? You simply don't leave your best song of the decade in the vaults for no one to hear.
Well, not unless you're Bob Dylan.
And that's what makes these Bootleg Series collections so magnificent. While most artists release their best material immediately after they've recorded it, Bob often doesn't release it at all. And the songs he does release very often have a far superior alternate version sitting around somewhere in the vaults.
Many other songs in this collection are already well known, but the versions that appear here are, for the most part, radically different from those that have been previously released. And many of these new versions are a complete revelation.
Take, "Born In Time", for instance, the best song on Dylan's worst album of the past 20 years - Under The Red Sky (his only less than stellar album from the past two decades). The version here, from the Oh Mercy sessions a year earlier, is far superior in every way to the version on Under The Red Sky. I loved it before, but the song I thought I loved is simply crap compared to this original version.
However, the highlight for me, after "Red River Shore", is definitely the two versions of "Mississippi" that appear here. These are the original versions of the song from the Time Out Of Mind sessions and the first one, the stripped down guitar-and-vocal track that opens the whole set, is absolutely stunning in its beautiful simplicity (check it out here).
The version that eventually turned up four years later on Love and Theft is perhaps my favorite Dylan song from the past 20 years or so. Here it's almost a totally different song... and, man, is it ever good!
Other Highlights Include:
- "Marchin' To The City" and "Dreamin of You", both from the Time Out of Mind sessions.
- A stripped down version of "Most of The Time", much superior to the version that appeared on Oh Mercy.
- A fantastic live version of the old traditional song "Cocaine Blues" from 1997.
- A cover of Jimmie Rodgers "Miss The Mississippi".
- A duet with Ralph Stanley on "The Lonesome River".
- A song called "Can't Escape From You" from 2005.
- And the 8-minute epic masterpiece about the Civil War called "'Cross The Green Mountain", from the Gods and Generals Soundtrack, that closes out the set. Powerful stuff.
To be honest, I didn't expect this installment to be anywhere near as good as it is. After all, the earlier versions, particularly the main box set Vol. 1-3, was taken from earlier years, including his peak years of the 1960s and mid-'70s. You'd, of course, expect outtakes from back then to be brilliant, but you'd expect the pickings to be a lot more sparse in these later years. And I guess they are. This isn't quite as mind-blowing as the box set, but it's still a must-own for all true music fans.
I'm certainly loving this stuff, but, hey Bob, when are the Complete Basement Tapes coming out? That's what I want to know. I've literally been waiting my whole life for those... it's been over 40 years. Release them already!
The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 perhaps?
Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Thursday, October 9th, 2008
To read my follow-up rave about this amazing album click here: Tell Tale Signs of Genius: Dylan's Best Album of The Past 20 Years? (Rave #2)
For much more on all things Dylan click here: The Bob (as in Dylan)
And if you like Dylan then you're probably going to like this guy as well: The Todd Snider "Peace Queer" Rave
And to read my piece on Bob, Neil and Joni click here: Talkin' Prairie Triangle of Inspiration (A.K.A. Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell Make Their Great Escape)
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