Is it possible that the latest in Dylan’s Bootleg Series feels … a little slim? Here’s what we get with Springtime In New York: two discs of rehearsals and outtakes from the tail-end of the so-called “Gospel Era”; two discs of Infidels session outtakes; and one disc with a smattering of live performances and studio alternates from 1984 and 1985. It clocks in at well over four hours, but it isn’t quite the immersive deep dive into this Dylan era that fanatics have been dreaming of for many years. What can I say — even at this stage, I want more. (At the very least, I want all of that classic Letterman performance with The Plugz.)
But enough complaining. Springtime is still fantastic, with revelations and pleasures galore. You may read reviews saying that it “rescues” Dylan’s sometimes maligned efforts during the first half of the 1980s. I’m not sure if rescuing is necessary; regardless of how you feel about the production or mix choices, at this stage, the original albums from this period are part of the rich tapestry that is the ongoing Dylan saga. Accept them! Love them for all their weird flaws. What the 16th (!) volume of the Bootleg Series gives us is a chance to explore them further, to watch it all come together and occasionally fall apart. It’s a gift.
I’m still absorbing, to be honest – so here are some early impressions, random thoughts, and favorite moments. | t wilcox
Oddball Covers: Though they’d rarely make it onto his proper albums, Dylan loves blowing off steam in the studio with covers — sometimes the expected folk / blues / country stuff, sometimes not. Here, the oddball stuff is the most fascinating, with Dylan and his killer Shot of Love band tackling Neil Diamond (an almost menacing “Sweet Caroline”), the Temptations (a soaring “I Wish It Would Rain”), and Dion (an absolutely spellbinding duet with Clydie King on “Abraham, Martin and John” previously available on the Trouble No More DVD). These covers are Bob at his most unguarded and joyful.
“Angelina”: One of the highlights of the original Bootleg Series way back in 1991, this Shot of Love outtake is one of Dylan’s greatest visionary epics, up there with “Visions of Johanna,” in my humble opinion. The Springtime version isn’t quite as majestic as the previously released version, but it’s still a masterful performance. By the time you reach the end, you’ll be flabbergasted that Bob heard the playback and thought, “Not good enough,” and left it in the vault.
Lost Originals: Speaking of leaving things in the vault, Dylan famously discarded two of his best Infidels-era tunes: “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride.” The compilers haven’t uncovered anything else of that caliber this time around, but there are some great (and strange) Dylan originals that have finally been added to the official canon. “Borrowed Time” is an extremely fun ramble, conjuring up some of the old Basement Tapes spirit. “Julius and Ethel” is a tribute to the doomed Rosenbergs, oddly done up in a boogie arrangement. “Enough Is Enough,” played live a handful of times in 1984, is a fiery rocker that coaxes some of Dylan’s most wicked vocals of the era. Then there’s “Yes Sir, No Sir” with a riff that seems to be taking its inspiration from late-seventies Black Sabbath. Hmm…
“Emotionally Yours”: Yeah, this Empire Burlesque tune was no one’s favorite Dylan ballad (though the O’Jays did it justice). But against most odds, the version on Springtime is gorgeous, with Bob digging deep into his fragile vocal, finding the song’s lonely heart. “I know this dream might be crazy, but it’s the only one I’ve got,” he croons, and like some magic trick, you start dreaming along with him.
The Infidels Sessions: If I had my druthers, we’d be getting a five-disc set of Infidels stuff a la More Blood, More Tracks. However, Springtime In New York avoids the multiple-takes-of-the-same-songs approach that some Bootleg Series’ have taken, for the most part. So we don’t get to hear Dylan stumbling towards brilliance via several false starts and alternates of “Jokerman” or “Sweetheart Like You.” But the two discs worth of Infidels outcasts are nonetheless a wonderful listen, revealing a confident, engaged singer-songwriter, still searching tirelessly for fresh territory to discover. With the buoyant Sly and Robbie rhythm section and Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor’s tasteful licks, Infidels is a record that sounds like virtually nothing else in Dylan’s catalog — and it’s a pleasure to hear it emerge here … even if I want more.