Monday, June 06, 2011

Searching for a Gem: Bob Dylan obscurities

'In this age of fibreglass,
I'm searching for a gem'
– Bob Dylan, Dirge

So you've got all Dylan's studio albums (even Christmas in the Heart), all his live albums (even Dylan and the Dead), all the Bootleg Series boxed sets (including the 3CD version of Tell Tale Signs)… and you still want more. Well, aside from the hundreds of bootlegs available, which are pretty easy to find on the web, there are lots of other official releases which contain a Dylan gem or two, many of which are worth tracking down.

Soundtrack albums
Bob recorded Band of the Hand (1986) with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for the film of the same name. One I wouldn't bother with, but which appears I have on vinyl, is the soundtrack to the dreadful 1987 film Hearts of Fire, starring 'Fiona' and Dylan. It contains three Dylan tracks, one of which is a cover version. A shimmering You Belong To Me appears on the soundtrack to Natural Born Killers (1994). The Tom Cruise film Jerry McGuire (1996) contains an alternative version of Shelter from the Storm (though I believe it's turned up on a Greatest Hits package now). The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000), about the life of the great folk singer Jack Elliot, contains a very early Dylan performance with Elliot called Acne. Waiting for You is from the soundtrack to Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). There's an alternative version of Tell Ol' Bill on the OST to North Country (2005). The soundtrack to the TV crime series NCSI (Vol.2) contains an early version of Outlaw Blues.

Masked and Anonymous (2004), starring Bob as an iconic rock legend, has a great soundtrack featuring four new Dylan performances, a previously unreleased song performed by the Dixie Hummingbirds, and some foreign language versions of Dylan songs. Truly bizarre. I'm Not There (2008), though it is about the man himself, contains only one previously unreleased track, but a definite gem, the sublime and mysterious I'm Not There, an outtake from The Basement Tapes.

Tribute/Benefit albums
Perhaps unsurprisingly seeing as Guthrie was one of Dylan's early heroes, he's contributed to two Woody Guthrie tribute albums. The first was a tribute concert performed soon after Guthrie's death in 1967. Dylan performs (his first live show since his motorbike accident the year before) three incendiary versions of songs of Woody's with The Band (then known as The Crackers): I Ain't Got No Home, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt and The Grand Coulee Dam. After being long-deleted on LP, it's now available on CD as Tribute to Woody Guthrie.

Twenty years later, Dylan's to be found singing a great version of Woody Guthrie's Pretty Boy Floyd on A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, alongside Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson and U2.

George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 contains Dylan's first live performance since The Isle of Wight festival in 1969. He still has some of that country twang in his voice from Nashville Skyline. I get tingles down my spine when George introduces him with 'I'd like to bring on a friend of us all… Mr Bob Dylan'. The 2005 reissue contains a previously unreleased Dylan performance, Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

The Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz, released as a film by Martin Scorsese, contains a few Dylan songs on the 2CD set, and an extra one (Hazel) on the 4CD box set.

On Timeless, a tribute album to Hank Williams released in 2001, Dylan does a fine version of Hank's Can't Get You Off My Mind. On Enjoy Every Sandwich: the Songs of Warren Zevon is a live version of Dylan performing Zevon's Mutineer.

Last but not least, is Dylan's own tribute album, his 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, released in 1997. A great line up, from Stevie Wonder and Lou Reed to Neil Young and Johnny Cash, it's a very mixed bag with Dylan performing a few, rather poor, solo numbers at the end.

On other people's albums
Dylan crops up on lots of albums by other artists – either he's written a song, singing in the background or blowing on his harp (possibly all three).

After the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, Dylan wouldn't play live again until 1974, with the exception of a few (presumably, seeing as he forgets the words) drunken numbers performed with The Band on New Year's Eve 1971. The remastered Rock of Ages CD by The Band contains these songs (When I Paint My Masterpiece, Don't Ya Tell Henry and Like a Rolling Stone) on the bonus disc.

On Leonard Cohen's Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies Man, Dylan can be heard whining on backing vocals for the hilarious Don't Go Home With Your Hard On. Sign Language is a nice, if throwaway, song written by Dylan and sung with Eric Clapton on his No Reason To Cry album. On her Songs For The New Depression album, Bette Midler duets with Dylan on his Buckets of Rain (though they sing it as Nuggets of Rain). Dylan wrote a song on U2's Rattle and Hum double LP.

With the 1980s 'supergroup' The Traveling Wilburys, along with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, Dylan recorded two albums, Vol. 1 and Vol, 3 (there is no Vol. 2). Much of it is great; certainly a lot better than most of Dylan's solo 1980s output. The Rhino reissued version contains a few bonus tracks.

Live at Carnegie Hall 1963 contains six songs from the famous concert. Released as an EP in 2005, I got a free copy from Virgin Records in Oxford Street. HMV likewise gave away Live & Rare EPs 1 and 2, containing three or four live performances from the late 90s-2000.

Mark Ronson's pointless 2007 remix of Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) came out as several Maxi-Singles with the original Dylan version, Ronson's version and a seemingly random live Dylan track from the 2000s, such as Down Along the Cove from June 2004.

Greatest Hits
Greatest Hits and Best Ofs are annoying, for the Dylan fan may be forced to buy them if they contain a rarity or two, which they usually do. But possibly the only one worth owning is More Greatest Hits/Greatest Hits Vol. II, a double LP (the original 1971 American version of which contained the great Milton Glaser Dylan poster inside) and CD containing six rarities: Watching the River Flow, When I Paint My Masterpiece, a live Tomorrow is a Long Time, I Shall Be Released, You Ain't Goin' Nowhere and Down in the Flood (all the Basement Tapes songs are different versions, recorded with Happy Traum in 1971). There's a great transition between the clapping at the end of Tomorrow is a Long Time and the start of of When I Paint My Masterpiece.

Foreign releases
The Australian and Japanese Masterpieces, another Greatest Hits compilation, contains enough rarities to warrant a purchase. Quite rare and expensive nowadays (I got mine cheap when I lived in Sydney), the 3CD set contains a live version of Just Like Tom Thumb Blues (originally the B side of I Want You) from Liverpool in 1966, arguably his most powerful performance ever. The other rarities are Mixed Up Confusion (different mix to the Biograph version), George Jackson, Rita May and Spanish is the Loving Tongue.

Japan's catchily-titled Bob Dylan Live 1961-2000: Thirty-Nine Years Of Great Concert Performances (couldn't they have waited another year to call it an even forty?) has a bunch of live rarities, including three from Portsmouth, England, 2000 (what a concert!), Dead Man, Dead Man from New Orleans 1981, another great concert which needs a Bootleg Series release and Grand Coulee Dam from the Woody Guthrie Tribute.

We English generally wouldn't call something from the States as foreign, but it is, so it gets included here: the Starbucks' Live at the Gaslight 1962 release. Though apparently incomplete, it's great.

Semi-official Bootlegs
There's been lots of these released recently (due to the same lack of applicable copyright as with the recent Springsteen 1975 concert CD), some of dubious quality and value. Transmissions, Re-Transmissions and Classic Airwaves are cheap-looking and priced (got mine at Poundland) containing Dylan TV performance recordings. They get pretty bad reviews on Amazon but I think they're okay. In particular, Classic Airwaves contains three performances from the John Hammond Show, September 1975 (previously available on bootlegs Songs for Patty Valentine and Passed Over and Rolling Thunder). I believe this was the first time Dylan had performed Hurricane and Oh Sister; there's also a great version of Simple Twist of Fate ('She should have caught me in prime / She would have stayed with me') which gets me every time I hear it.

Two recent radio show releases are of great historical value. Folksinger's Choice captures Dylan aged twenty, a complete unknown, chatting away, already mythologising his own past, with Cynthia Gooding and singing eleven songs, mainly covers, in 1962. A perfection companion to this, Studs Terkel's Wax Museum, is just a year later, but now all the songs Dylan sings are originals. He'd just completed his final Freewheelin' session. This, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Eat the Document and Renaldo & Clara are yet to be officially released but Pennebaker's Dont Look Back, Peckinpah's Pat Garratt & Billy the Kid, Scorsese's The Last Waltz and No Direction Home, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There and Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror are all excellent. I have a soft spot for Masked and Anonymous too.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The website contains over 300 web pages, cataloging every Dylan release in the world. I believe it's the work of just one man, Alan Fraser.

No comments :