It’s a golden age for Dylan fanatics – and a gluttonous age as well. For the past few years, like clockwork, we’ve been gifted with massive boxed sets that unravel – and somehow deepen – the mystery and magic behind the songwriter’s storied career. Have any of us truly absorbed the 18 discs of 1965-1966 studio recordings that make up The Cutting Edge? Or the hours upon hours of fiery Dylan and the Hawks tapes found on The Live 1966 Recordings? Or the revelatory sounds of last year’s Trouble No More? Even the most die-hard Dylanologist among us may be feeling overwhelmed at this point (and I haven’t even mentioned the so-called “copyright dumps” of recent years). But these archival releases are still vital pieces of the Dylan puzzle – whether you get to them today, tomorrow or five years from now.
So: Have I managed to absorb the new (hilariously titled) More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14? Hell no. But I have listened to it and can share some impressions.
But first, a little background. More Blood, More Tracks expands our view of the initial Blood on the Tracks recording sessions, which took place over the course of a few days in New York City in 1974. Famously, Dylan scrapped the first version of Blood at the last minute, re-recording several tunes in Minneapolis for the LP that was ultimately released in early 1975. Of course, an acetate of the original album was quickly bootlegged, and fans have been arguing over which Blood is best ever since. For a deeper dive into the lore, go here.
By comparison to recent Dylan sets, the latest Bootleg Series release is relatively digestible, coming in at just six discs. Just six discs! It features the complete NYC sessions in the order that they happened, with false starts, fuckups and studio chatter included. It’s basically like hanging out in a corner of A&R Studios, hearing a masterpiece come together (and occasionally fall apart). A privileged place to be, indeed. More Blood, More Tracks is, above all, an extremely intimate listening experience – especially on the set’s first disc, wherein Dylan plays entirely solo. These are raw, masterful performances; the versions of “You’re A Big Girl Now,” “Simple Twist of Fate” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” here are deeply felt, with the singer digging fearlessly into the complexity, anguish and joy of the lyrics. Dylan could’ve released an LP made up of selections from this first session back in ‘75 and we’d still be talking about it as one of the greatest achievements of his career.
Bob had a slightly more ambitious sound in mind, however, and the following disc sees him bringing in Eric Weissberg and Deliverance (so named for their work on the film of the same name) to add color and instrumental nuance to his songs. There are a wealth of previously unheard successes. The creamy first take of “Simple Twist,” with a gently dramatic vocal and sensitive guitar work is just about perfect. The twin blues workouts “Call Letter Blues” and “Meet Me In The Morning” show the musicians starting to jibe with the songwriter. Take five of “You’re Gonna Make Lonesome When You Go” is radically different from any other version heard before; the tempo has been slowed down considerably, which coaxes a raggedly glorious performance out Dylan – and the closing harmonica solo is totally gorgeous. Definitely one of the set’s highlights.
But Bob wasn’t feeling the full band, apparently. The remainder of the NYC sessions see him working with a sparer approach – often just Deliverance bassist Tony Brown, who adds understated, melodic lines to powerful renditions of “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Up To Me,” “Shelter From The Storm” and “Idiot Wind,” among others. The latter song is bolstered in one take by haunting organ overdubs by Paul Griffin, matched only by the gripping intensity of Dylan’s vocal. Blood on the Tracks is often thought of as one of the songwriter’s most personal works, but listening to him work out songs like “Idiot Wind,” I’m struck by his single-mindedness and overall intention; this isn’t autobiography, it’s art. He’s trying out different voices, phrasing and lyrics, all in the effort to get the heart of the composition across clearly to the listener. There may be real-life conflict behind the album, but Bob doesn’t just want to bare his soul. He wants to tell stories.
Complaints? Well, unfortunately, the tapes for the Minneapolis sessions have been apparently lost, so there are no outtakes available; those recordings are represented on More Blood, More Tracks only by remixed versions of the master takes. But oh well. This latest chapter in the Bootleg Series is a rich, rewarding listen. Keep ‘em coming, and we’ll keep trying to absorb them. words/t wilcox