Monday, August 26, 2013

Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Volume 10 Another Self Portrait

Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Volume 10 Another Self Portrait

For the first 20 or so years of its life, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait was the subject of much derision by the critical and fan community. Somewhere in the last 20 years it has gone from derision to acceptance by some and downright adoration by others. As usual the truth lies somewhere in between. I always found the original album to be the perfect accompaniment to a stoned Sunday afternoon of rootsy pleasures. It had a real country authenticity and the comfortable relaxed vibe that characterized Dylan’s late 60’s/early 70’s material. After the societal crucible of Dylan’s 60’s material this more pastoral take on life and music was a jarring change of pace and thus the cries of sellout and schlock-merchant started to dog Dylan’s steps as they have at every juncture of his career. As he said himself “Everybody wants me to be just like them…I just get bored.” Another Self Portrait allows the listener to evaluate this pivotal album in a new historical and musical context. The deluxe version is made up of several components.

First, and perhaps most importantly are the unvarnished work tapes from spring and early summer of 1970 that finds Dylan accompanied by David Bromberg on guitar and Al Kooper on various keyboards. They run through a gamut of material that would find its way on to Self Portrait and New Morning six months later, as well as some songs that have never seen the light of day until now. None of these versions have been heard and it is safe to say that they are a revelation. Dylan is in fine form, strumming guitar and trying out the different voices from the era - swoon, croon, hick and folkie - and he lends each an authority that can only be born from genuine love and knowledge of the subject. On most of these cuts, David Bromberg shows himself to be a priceless accompanist as he unfailingly finds the melodic heart of each song giving Dylan the freedom to really explore his vocals and the material. Al Kooper as well offers such insightful arranging and keyboard service that one might start to think of him as an almost “Zelig”-like figure in Dylan’s career. The next pieces are a handful of assorted odds and ends from the period that help fill in the gaps and more fully illustrate the sound Dylan was striving toward. There are a couple of cuts left off Greatest Hits Volume 2, a session with Dylan intimate George Harrison, and some other tasteful rarities. The third element of the set is the first legitimate appearance of Dylan and The Band’s entire performance at The Isle Of Wight Festival on August 30th 1969. Finally, there is a meticulously remastered version of the original Self Portrait. Self Portrait may have been a head-scratcher at the time of its original release for many people, but Another Self Portrait makes everything crystal clear. It’s all about context. When one looks at Self Portrait as the follow up to Dylan’s unprecedented and incomprehensibly accomplished mid-60’s work it is hard to understand. However when one looks at it with the helpful clarity of 40+ years it makes perfect sense. Within the context of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Doug Sahm, The Blasters, X, Uncle Tupelo, Drive-By Truckers etc, etc. it makes perfect sense. In fact it predicts, executes and beats the lot of ‘em at their own game before they even thought of it. Per usual Dylan was, and remains on the cutting edge of his own universe - we’re just lucky he let’s us listen in. Here are my thoughts on my first two listens.
Disc 1
1) “Went To See The Gypsy” - The New Morning song as it was meant to be - a spare, spooky mystery - Bromberg shines.
2) “Little Sadie” - stripped of overdubs, the menace and elastic p.o.v. of this traditional narrative are returned to Dylan’s original vision.
3) “Pretty Saro” - an outtake from Self Portrait that shows Dylan penchant for sentimental folk balladry. Just beautiful!
4) “Alberta #3” - A fabulous take of the song that appears on Self Portrait twice. This is by far the best version as Dylan offers the most straightforward vocal and a nice simple acoustic setting highlighted by Kooper’s subtle piano fills and Bromberg’s dobro.
5) “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” - another outtake that did appear on A Fool Such As I but here is just Dylan solo at the piano showing a real vulnerability and a horrendous Spanish accent.
6) “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” - A Tom Paxton song that finds Dylan in a relaxed voice for this poignant song fragment.
7) “Time Passes Slowly #1” - a song from New Morning, here with George Harrison adding guitar and background vocals, it has a totally different effect than the original album version.
8) “Only A Hobo” - originally slated for Greatest Hits Vol.2 this wonderful duet with early Dylan associate Happy Traum is a shining outing for this rare Dylan song.
9) “Minstrel Boy” - a Basement Tapes outtake with The Band. This nugget begs that a full Basement Tapes Bootleg Series entry be forthcoming.
10) “I Threw It All Away” - A less cluttered take of the Nashville Skyline standout where Charlie Daniels, Norman Blake, Charlie McCoy et al really shine like the Nashville pros they were.
11) “Railroad Bill” - a sweet vocal on this folk classic that was probably one of the first fingerpicking songs both Dylan and Bromberg learned.
12) “Thirsty Boots” - Dylan really gets to the emotional and melodic heart of this fully realized Eric Anderson beauty. It is hard to understand why this was left off the original. Maybe it was too much like a Dylan song.
13) “This Evening So Soon” - One of my favorites on the set. This is a fantastic arrangement with Dylan using what sounds like his “real voice” and showing genuine emotional range on this traditional number. He plays a couple of lovely harmonica breaks and Bromberg and Kooper are perfect. A real gem.
14) “These Hands” - a country hit that probably would have been schmaltzed-up if it had made it to production on Self Portrait, but here is an absolutely charming, intimate duet between Dylan and Bromberg’s guitars while Dylan sings it beautifully straight.
15) “In Search Of Little Sadie” - another version from the original album that has been stripped of overdubs and thus offers a Masters class on why Dylan is one of the greatest interpreters of traditional American folk and blues. He has a deep understanding of the material and his vocal here, unadorned by production distractions, is miraculous.
16) “House Carpenter” - another total gem. Dylan takes hundreds of years of British and American folk music and boils it down to one bluesy distillation of tradition. He owns it with such authority.
17) “All The Tired Horses” - to me this was always the most perfect moment on the original Self Portrait. Like few other pieces of music this one line proclamation of…of…of something has a complete “otherness” to it that defies description. Here, it is stripped back to just Dylan, Bromberg, Kooper and the female voices and the result is no less hypnotic than the album version.

Disc 2
1) “If Not For You” - a mind-boggling alternate of New Morning’s hit, this version finds Dylan alone at the piano save for an unknown violin player providing an aching accompaniment. A major find.
2) “Wallflower” - already one of the great “lost” songs of Dylan’s catalog, this version is simply Dylan strumming acoustic, blowing harp and singing in what again sounds like his “real” voice while sole accompanist, steel master Ben Keith wails.
3) “Wigwam” - no overdubs again reveal the simple melodic beauty of this Self Portrait cut. What was once difficult to get out of your head is now impossible.
4) “Days Of’49” - what was always one of my least favorite songs on the original album is made highly enjoyable by the uncluttered mix. Bromberg! - what a tasteful player, and Al Kooper seems to have some kind of telepathic instinct for what each song needs.
5) “Working On A Guru” - a funny little number featuring George Harrison playing nice lead guitar and a rhythm section of Charlie Daniels on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums making this a supergroup that never was. Good fun.
6) “Country Pie” - alternate version of Nashville Skyline’s most light-hearted song. Really shows the connection between the sessions that connected the three albums of this period.
7) “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” - live at the Isle of Wight from the second day’s performance finds the band giving enthusiastic backing.
8) “Highway 61 Revisited” - again from Isle of Wight. A bold re-imagining that hints at Dylan’s modern performance style.
9) “Copper Kettle” - another Self Portrait song that is a complete revelation without all the overdubs. The Dylan-Bromberg-Kooper ensemble is perfect for this gorgeous bootlegger’s tale. One understands much better why Dylan chose the material he did for the original album.
10) “Bring Me A Little Water” - a fully realized New Morning outtake of this song Dylan probably learned from listening to Leadbelly, this bluesy number finds Dylan using a gospel-inflected rasp that he would exploit at great length in the late 70’s and 80’s. Very interesting and forward-looking.
11) “Sign On The Window” - interestingly, this New Morning song is an example of the opposite effect of most of the material on this set. Here we have a familiar song with extra orchestral overdubs arranged by Al Kooper. The lush result is fascinating. It is safe to say if you were a big fan of the original Self Portrait concept you will find this to be an extremely rewarding addition.
12) “Tattle O’Day” - one of the most enticing and mysterious fragments on the entire set. Left off Self Portrait this traditional lyric is a riddle wrapped in an enigma much like many songs passed down by oral tradition with layers of cultural meaning and folk wisdom. I have listened to this dream-like piece of music over and over and it won’t leave my imagination. Much like the first time I heard “Blind Willie McTell,” “Abandoned Love” or “Series Of Dreams” this song is an immediate, magical favorite in Dylan’s catalog. Even though he didn’t write it, it occupies the same country as his greatest songs. Worth the price of admission alone!
13) “If Dogs Run Free” - along with “Sign on The Window” the most radical re-imagining of a familiar song. A slowed down, beat-poetry recitation, that really changes your understanding of this New Morning classic.
14) “New Morning” - another very different take of the title song. This version has punchy, Van Morrison-like horns arranged by Al Kooper. Priceless!
15) “Went To See This Gypsy” - another version - this time with just Dylan alone at the electric piano. This is chilling, essential Dylan. A real highlight.
16) “Belle Isle” - another Self Portrait song that benefits so much to hear Dylan’s humble vocal in the perfect two-guitar setting provided by his own strong strumming and Bromberg’s heavenly fills.
17) “Time Passes Slowly #2” - a total rager. You will be amazed at how different this take is than either of the others you have heard. Charlie Daniels lays it down fat on the bass, Bromberg and Ron Cornelius are fabulous on guitar and Dylan taps into the solid rock energy he would demonstrate during The Rolling Thunder Review a few years later. Another major keeper.
18) “When I Paint My Masterpiece” - much will be made of this solo piano version of a Dylan classic. Not only is it a different and affecting version, it contains a different lyric that is uncharacteristically demonstrative for Dylan - rhyming “Victrola” with “rock and rolla” - very fun indeed and a perfect way to end this part of the set.

Disc 3
This disc contains the entirety of the Isle Of Wight Show from August 30, 1969. Dylan is accompanied by The Band, who, as expected, shine with authentic chops and sympathy with the material. Dylan’s set is a 17-song overview of his best material wrangled into manageable, tight, country-ish interpretations. It is the set that many modern fans wish Dylan would deliver. It is well-recorded and entirely enjoyable. If it didn’t follow the majesty of the previous two discs it would be considered a major addition to his catalog. In this context, it makes sense and it is really the only live performance from this period of Dylan’s career, yet it feels like a somewhat more careful outing - closer to the vest than the totally new experience of the first two discs. One is spoiled by the excitement of new discoveries. That shouldn’t take away from this important milestone in Dylan’s performing career - yet, in some way, it does.

Disc 4
The remastered Self Portrait. The previous three discs have also had an affect on this listening experience. They make me realize what singular and groundbreaking albums Self Portrait, Nashville Skyline and New Morning were, and they also help contextualize them –especially Self Portrait - in the arc of Dylan’s career and the history of modern music. I always enjoyed this album, and hearing it after further scholarship makes it sparkle with renewed interest. This set is also joined by two books that really do define the idea of deluxe; an essay by the dean of rock journalism Greil Marcus is insightful and down-to-earth and scores of beautiful photos bring the era to vivid life.
- Paul Epstein

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