Don’t think twice….it’s actually alright
The album of Dylan live at Budoken is one of, let’s be honest, quite a few Dylan albums which divide opinion – recorded during the Japanese tour of 1978 it presented Dylan’s music in a different light to one we’d become accustomed to. Whether it was a reaction to the legendary rough and tumble of the Rolling Thunder Revue, it was certainly a very different approach which could be, lazily, characterised simply as “super slick”. Everything on it sounds so great – in the sense of being crisp and professional, adorned by flutes and with a strong female vocal backing section. Organ swirls on song after song, the tempo is pushed up, and Dylan himself…are these the best – the conventionally best – vocals he’s ever produced? Many songs sound so happy, it’s the concert as entertainment, there’s no preaching just track after upbeat buoyant track showcasing what looks awfully like a greatest hits package. Slick, professional, glossy, a big band – no wonder it divides opinion. The tour itself has had many unpleasant names attached to it – alluding to Elvis’ Las Vegas performances, or picking up on Dylan’s divorce and the associated financial hit he had taken. Fingers have been pointed – this was Dylan’s third live album in a space of four years, and he hadn’t put out a studio album for two years. Hang on – a studio album, the Rolling Thunder Revue, a divorce, the largest worldwide tour Dylan had ever undertaken including these first dates in Japan, a couple of live albums with ‘Street Legal’ also soon to be in the can – that’s a pretty heavy workload for two years. However, it’s that near-omnipresent saxophone howling, melodically, all over the place that marks this album out as different the most. Well, maybe Dylan had just been looking around at the “new Dylans” and had figured that a big rock and roll band with a prominent saxophone contribution wasn’t working out so badly for Springsteen. When the times they are a changin’, and all that – Dylan’s innovation was always in the kind of songs he wrote, he didn’t actually invent folk-balledeering, or rock and roll, and if the late Seventies choice seemed to be between punk (too old), disco (too terrible a thought to contemplate) and a big rock and roll outfit then perhaps we should just be grateful this was the path he took.
This new release takes the original double LP to an impressive quadruple CD package. The original album is all there, naturally, and alternative, but mostly quite similar, recordings from other nights of some of the already familiar songs are part of the new material. There are also a few songs that didn’t make the original release, including a couple of covers. It’d be easy to take one of these, the chunking of ‘Repossession Blues‘, as an oblique riposte by Dylan to any potential critics of this new direction as he sings “I ain’t got no money / I’m going to lose everything I own / …they got my television now they’re coming for my radio / they don’t like the way I’m doing.” Well, maybe. The album opens with a new arrangement of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall‘, a vocal free band workout with each band member taking the lead in the place of the words. It is…peculiar. Undeniably well played, if someone said “Muzak” then a robust counterargument might be “Booker T and the MGs.” It is, however, a blessing that this wasn’t the original release’s opener.
There is much, though, and indeed very much to appreciate about these performances. ‘Shelter From The Storm‘ is given a ‘Street Legal‘-like makeover with every line heavily punctuated by Ian Wallace on drums and with the backing vocalists wailing behind Dylan in competition with Steve Douglas’ saxophone. ‘Love Minus Zero – No Limits‘ is just pure joy – it’d be a hard heart that couldn’t smile at the persistent flute lines, and there’s a thrill when Dylan cuts across them with his hard blown harmonica. Not everything is so wonderful – the cod-Reggae of ‘Don’t think twice it’s all right‘ is just laughable, it always was. But ‘Maggie’s Farm‘ is superb completely reshaped and retuned as a pure funk workout, with some sensational guitar work from Billy Cross.
Amongst the new tracks ‘You’re A Big Girl Now‘ is a slow and smoky rendition, part blues and part cabaret with Dylan speak-singing the words, it’s almost a foreshadowing of the recent “Sinatra Covers” series of albums. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’‘ from the March 1st concert plods along in an elephantine way, but ‘Going, Going, Gone‘ switches from a low key arrangement to one of wild abandon that is both unexpected and truly thrilling, the version from February 28th is rougher and all the better for it. Both versions of ‘All I Really Want To Do‘ revel in a glam-rock stomp and a very prog-rock combination of this with a mandolin play-out as a finale. Maybe it had been Jethro Tull that Dylan had been listening too after all, it’d explain the flute.
There’s one more distinctive feature of these recordings – Dylan appears to be having a great time. He makes little jokey asides, he open heartedly thanks the audience, he teases the band during their introductions, he laughs. It must have been a real surprise to find the mixed reception the album received – the band were having a great time, and the actual audience were more than appreciative. And they were right, throw away preconceptions of what Dylan should sound like and what is an appropriate reinterpretation of his songs and you too can have a great time.