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Bob Dylan Redeems A Frequently Scorned Period Of His Career On 'Trouble No More'


This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Ken Tucker has a review of a new box set that chronicles the music Bob Dylan was making during the time he was born again and turned to evangelical Christianity as a theme. The nine-disc release is called Bob Dylan "Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981," and it focuses on a large number of previously unreleased live performances.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Sometimes I feel so low down and disgusted, can't help but wonder what's happening to my companions. Are they lost or are they found? Have they counted the cost it'll take to bring down all their Earthly principles they're going to have to abandon? There's a slow, slow train coming up around the bend.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In the late 1970s, word seeped out that Bob Dylan had become immersed in evangelical Christianity. Raised Jewish, Dylan had undergone a conversion experience and was eager to spread the word of the New Testament. It was in this context that he released "Slow Train Coming" in 1979, followed by the album "Saved" in 1980 and "Shot Of Love" in '81. This trilogy of original gospel music was greeted, as so many of the twists in Dylan's career have been greeted, with extremes - shock, skepticism, adulation, condemnation. Dylan toured extensively during this period, and at the majority of these shows, he performed only his new religious music, not his familiar hits. And he wasn't shy about proselytizing.


DYLAN: We have a request tonight. Somebody shouted out a song called "Solid Rock" - hanging on to a solid rock made before the foundation of the world. Is that the one you mean?


DYLAN: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three, four.

DYLAN: (Singing) And I'm hanging on to a solid rock made before the foundation of the world.

TUCKER: This latest in Columbia Records' official bootleg series consists primarily of in-concert performances by Dylan, a rock band with shifting personnel and three or sometimes four female gospel R&B singers. You can hear them all on a previously unreleased song called "Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody" as recorded in Montreal in 1980.


DYLAN: (Singing) I ain't gonna go to hell for anybody. I ain't gonna go to hell for anybody. I ain't gonna go to hell for anybody, ain't gonna go to hell for anybody. I can manipulate people as well as anybody, bust them and burn them, twist them and turn them. I can make-believe I'm in love with anybody, hold them and control them, squeeze them and tease them. But I know what satisfies the flesh that it feeds. I've been down that road. I know where it leads. And I ain't gonna go to hell for anybody.

TUCKER: I attended one of the shows on this collection, a 1979 performance at the Santa Monica Civic in California. Looking at the review, I wrote at the time, I see that Dylan commenced the show by saying this isn't a concert in the regular sense because we're here to give all praise and glory unto God. Over two hours, the Dylan I observed was severe and terse, more wrath of Jehovah than love of Jesus. His constant implicit message in song after song was I have the answer and if you don't, well, get it because otherwise you're damned.

Onstage, Dylan came to understand that he couldn't just preach. He had to sell this music as a performance. He started tinkering with arrangements and tempo. Listen to the way he takes "Gotta Serve Somebody" and turns it into a "Run Through The Jungle," his voice prowling around the melody as though stalking his prey.


DYLAN: (Singing) You may be the ambassador to England or France, you may like to gamble, you may like to dance, you may be the heavyweight champion of the world, you may be a socialite with a long string of pearls, but you're gonna serve somebody, yes, serve somebody. It may be the devil. It may be the Lord, but you're gonna serve somebody.

TUCKER: It is this sort of reimagining, the necessity to enliven some songs that were near dead on vinyl from excessive piety or hectoring, that makes so much of the music on this collection interesting. Sometimes his powers of artistic resurrection fail him, as on this delightfully terrible version of "Ain't Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody" from a 1980 Oregon show. It starts out as though he wants to sing a different song - it sounds to me like "If Not For You" - and then he only gets more rushed, the keyboards and chorus vocals sounding cheesier by the second.


DYLAN: (Singing) Well, step on a crowded room, and the leaves are dying, all up out the ghetto, far outside the meadow (ph). I can feel it on the rooftops. I see two lovers sighing - Lord and the maker, hammer and a breaker (ph). Oh, my baby, dear, you can't get caught. Gotta keep on rollin' whether you're drugged, beaten or shot.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ain't gonna go to hell for anybody. Ain't gonna go to hell for anybody. Ain't gonna go to hell for anybody.

TUCKER: The ninth disc on this set is a DVD titled "Trouble No More: A Musical Film." It alternates performances during a 1980 rehearsal with so-called sermons recited by the actor Michael Shannon who is billed as the preacher. These sermons, composed by the critic Luc Sante, are both well-written and peculiar, disquisitions on such things as demon alcohol and a tirade against fast-food restaurants. The sermons are in keeping with the rectitude that characterizes so much of Dylan's music during this period. Indeed, sometimes the better stuff arrives when he's working through his anger, as on the very nice slow burn of this previously unreleased track "Making A Liar Out Of Me."


DYLAN: (Singing) Well, I say you won't be destroyed by your inventions, that you brought it all under captivity, and that you really do have all the best intentions but you're making a lair out of me.

TUCKER: As a huge undertaking to redeem a neglected and frequently scorned period of Dylan's career, "Trouble No More" makes an elaborate, sometimes eloquent, argument. If you like your Dylan prickly and righteous and cunning, this is right up your alley.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Bob Dylan "Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be journalist Maryn McKenna, author of "Big Chicken" about how the use of antibiotics in the chicken industry has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The bacteria can make their way into our systems in some surprising ways and can lead to infections beyond gastrointestinal ones, including resistant urinary tract infections. She has a lot of information and some advice. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.