Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

24. Shot Of Love (1981)

When I first pressed 'Play' on Shot of Love my immediate reaction was to wonder whether I needed to adjust my stereo, or check that something hadn't come loose; I really couldn't believe that this horrible tinny, thin sound, like it was coming out of laptop speakers, was what I was meant to be hearing.

My second reaction, as the title track danced through my headphones, was to echo the first sentence of Greil Marcus' 1970 review of Self Portrait, and ask myself "What is this shit?".  If anything needs a shot of love it's this song, which is basically four and a half poorly recorded minutes of sub-Rolling Stones claptrap where the take home message can be summed up as "drugs are bad, mkay?"  Unbelievably produced by veteran Bumps Blackwell (Sam Cooke, Little Richard) this paranoid, angry rant is entirely devoid of love or empathy.

I read that Shot of Love was recorded in a variety of locations with a variety of musicians and producers, and I presume Heart Of Mine, if not recorded in the same place as the preceding track, was taped in a similar sized barn.  Like many songs on the album, it's based on scripture, in this case Jeremiah 17:9 on the deceitful heart, here Bob's own.  According to the sleevenotes it boasts an all-star (or all-Starr) cast of Ronnie Wood, Donald 'Duck' Dunn and Ringo.  Dylan says that several good takes had been achieved with other musicians, but he chose this one because these guys were on it "...and we did it in like ten minutes".  No kidding. There's a discernible tune, but it sounds like it's being played by a bunch of learners, except for the organ, played by Benmont Tench (who wins the prize for Best Ever Name In Rock, as well as Musician Who Sounds Most Like A Geological Feature).

Shot of Love was recorded mostly live with few overdubs, and although compared to his previous two albums it sounds extremely ropey, Bob succeeded in capturing the raw feel he was looking for.  It certainly has an immediacy, and by third track Property of Jesus I decided to think of the album as a live bootleg, which improved things no end.  This gospel-tinged rocker with rather self-satisfied lyrics is a swipe at those who'd criticised or questioned his faith, apparently including one Mick Jagger.  Rather suitably (and deliberately?) it's the most Stones-y song here, and with its sneering vocals, corking bluesy guitar solo and soaring chorus wouldn't be out of place on Sticky Fingers.  I dare say the phrase "heart of stone"  was no coincidence either.

Accompanied by just simple guitar and piano, on Lenny Bruce Is Dead Dylan lionises the satirist and comedian, portraying him as some kind of hero/martyr type in the same way he did Billy The Kid and Hurricane Carter.  Apart from the questionable lyrics, where it seems he's comparing Bruce's life to his own and even to that of Jesus, the song is a tiresome dirge that feels much longer than its 4:36 running time.  Bob displays his occasional tendency to use lazy, crap rhymes, the worst of them being:

"They stamped him and they labelled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts".


Watered-Down Love expands upon 1 Corinthians 13:7 "Love.. believes all things, hopes all things", and seems to suggest that the love others seek is not pure enough and therefore not good enough in Dylan's opinion.  This song could have been so much better if it weren't for its paper-thin sound, and what should have been a decent rock-soul crowd-pleaser is instead a watered-down version of one.  As a result, the outgoing refrain becomes annoying and can't be over soon enough.

The b-side to the single version of Heart of Mine was a session outtake called The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar.  Like many other songs Bob has inexplicably left off his records, Groom is superior to many of the tracks picked for the album, and it was added onto the cassette and CD versions of Shot of Love in the mid-80s after radio play proved it popular.  A frenetic, ramshackle garage-blues with pounding piano from Carl Pickhardt and Steve Douglas doing his thing on sax, it would have slotted nicely onto Highway 61 Revisited were it not for the harsh, dry production. Still, it's a fabulous song and I can even forgive Dylan for trying to (and almost succeeding in) rhyming "January" with "Buenos Aires".

Doubt and self-loathing rear their heads on the lilting, sort-of-reggae of Dead Man, Dead Man, where an exploration of the conflict between Bob's lifestyle and his faith are accompanied by Douglas' sax farting away in the background and some unfocused backing vocals from a similar, but less intrusive version of the female trio on Slow Train Coming and Saved.  It's one of the weakest songs here, the human fallibility described in the lyrics matching that of his songwriting.

Either In The Summertime is a vast improvement in terms of sound quality, or I was just getting used to it, but I really liked it immediately.  It opens with the welcome sound of Dylan on harmonica, and his voice here is warm and affectionate.  A love song that could be interpreted as being addressed to a former lover or to God, the final verse (before an oddly abrupt fade-out) is terrifically moving, ending with:

"And I'm still carrying the gift you gave
It's a part of me now, it's been cherished and saved
It'll be with me unto the grave
And then unto eternity".

The electric blues of Trouble, which is all about, erm, trouble, is the track that sounds most like a demo.  The scuzzy guitar riff is suited to the rawer sound, but the repetitive nature of the song renders it boring.  There's a disconcertingly loud "yeah" at around 3:43, as if Bob's fallen face-first into the mike for a second, the thought of which is most entertaining, possibly more so than Trouble itself.

Like he so often does, Dylan saves the best for last.  After two albums of mostly dogma he's finally able to express his faith in his own terms, uniting his gift for imagery with his new-found beliefs.  Every Grain of Sand borrows from Blake's Auguries of Innocence:

"To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour".

Using this idea as inspiration he reflects upon the question of whether the events of his life are within his control, consoling himself with the belief that even when he feels alone and despairing, his god is close; "That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand".  It's one of his most beautiful, transporting pieces of work to date, the introspective, spiritual lyrics elevated by cooing bvs, piano and ringing guitar.  The sound is much better and more intimate than on the rest of the album, and the overriding feeling of hope reminds me of Forever Young.  Best of all are the two harmonica solos; they are soft, gorgeous and full of emotion, and if an instrument could ever convey a man's belief, acceptance and frailty all in a few bars, it is this one, in the hands of Robert Zimmerman.  On the demo version on the Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 the second to last line goes "I'm hanging in the balance of a perfect, finished plan", but here it has changed to "I'm hanging in the balance of the reality of man", signalling the ongoing struggle between the spiritual and the earthly.  As well as summing up his feelings about his faith, from what I gather Every Grain of Sand also draws a line under his overtly Christian period in terms of his musical output.

After displaying his versatility by writing some very decent gospel songs, on Shot of Love Dylan has returned to more familiar territory with a mostly rock sound.  That he used several different studios over a longer recording period than usual shows in the varying sound quality across the album, with some potentially great songs spoiled by poor production.  It seems that Chuck Plotkin, who co-produced the bulk of it, fought a losing battle over both mixing and song choice, failing to get superior works such as Caribbean Wind and Angelina onto the record.  Dylan rejected most of Plotkin's "nice mixes" according to drummer Jim Keltner, who claims that "most everything you hear on that Shot of Love album turns out to be the monitor mixes".  I believe him, but Bob was obviously happy with its sound, citing it as one of his favourites.  That he wouldn't budge on the track choices is a shame; even less good outtakes like Need A Woman and You Changed My Life would have been preferable to Dead Man, Dead Man and Trouble.  Some remixing or remastering wouldn't go amiss; according to Shot of Love has "never received a sonic upgrade to date".  Other sources disagree, so I'm unsure whether it was one of the albums to be remastered for the BobBox like Street Legal and Saved were, among others.  If not, they've missed a trick.

Even so, I enjoyed Shot of Love more than I'd expected to (the sleeve art wasn't very encouraging), and the stronger tracks make up for the weak ones, especially the transcendent Every Grain of Sand, which after the tangible anger running through the album, and the dominant theme of spiritual bankruptcy, acts as a soothing balm.  If this song is a sign of where things are headed, the future looks bright indeed - but of course word of Bob's 80s reputation is unavoidable and it looks like the next few albums in the BobBox could be a struggle to get through.  I do hope you can join me.

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All prices correct on 29/07/2015

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

23. Saved (1980)

After the less than positive response to Slow Train Coming, Dylan displayed typical stubbornness by releasing the equally fervently religious Saved in 1980.  But this is no mere drawn-out genre exercise; in fact the rougher edges of this hastily recorded album served to convince me of his commitment to his new-found saviour.

Like STC it was recorded in a few days, and like STC it boasts Tim Drummond on bass, a trio of female backing vocalists (all but one the same members as before) and Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett on production duties.  Musically, it couldn't be more different.  Gone are the gentle piano grooves and tasteful Dire Straits guitar solos, to be replaced with the kind of rollicking gospel rock and modern spirituals that wouldn't seem out of place at a revival meeting.

Finally, the joy of the believer has made an appearance; Saved is a celebration of Bob's faith and personal redemption, filled with praise and gratitude rather than the serious, bland sermonising of its predecessor.  That's not to say it's sermon-free, but Dylan's message is much better suited to the gospel idiom (it's one I'm used to hearing it from, at least) and therefore the pill is much sweeter.  There's Hammond organ and gospel piano galore, courtesy of Terry Young and the legend that is Spooner Oldham (Saved is another Muscle Shoals production), and Jim Keltner's looser drumming style replaces that of the metronome that was Pick Withers.  Fred Tackett's rockier guitar style takes over from the often antiseptic stylings of Mark Knopfler.

Things begin with a version of the country classic A Satisfied Mind, here acting as an introduction to the title track.  Guitar doodles, a few piano chords plus lots of "mmms" and "yeahs" fill out this brief sketch, before the launch of Saved, a driving, sanctified rave-up co-written with Drummond. A twangy guitar riff and lively piano combine with Dylan's elation at being saved "By the blood of the lamb".  As he tells us over and over how glad he is, there's even some tambourine shaking. It's the fastest-paced song on the album, designed to raise a roof or two, and while Bob is busy thanking God, I'm thanking him too, for letting Bob lighten up at last.

We're able to catch our breath as the tempo drops for the next two tracks.  Covenant Woman is one of his most touching compositions to date, a song of love and gratitude featuring a beautiful vocal and sympathetic playing, particularly on the organ.  This is followed by the startlingly heartfelt What Can I Do For You?, which with its silky backing vocals, emotional harmonica solos and undoubtedly genuine sentiment would easily make my Dylan Top Twenty list should I ever get round to compiling it.

We go back up a gear next for the upbeat Solid Rock, whose title perfectly describes its contents. Dylan articulates the strength of his faith with the help of the riff from the Allman Brothers' Midnight Rider and a great blues-rock guitar solo, his vocals enthusiastically mirrored by the female trio.  It's at this point I have to confess a little prior familiarity with this album, which I rescued from a car boot sale last year:  In fact I liked Solid Rock so much that I used it as the opening track on my last cloudcast, which can be found here: 

Although Saved is less preachy than Slow Train Coming, biblical quotes abound.  Pressing On references original sin, and also addresses those who doubt the existence of God.  It's a stirring gospel belter with glorious backing vocals, although as the song builds, the ladies begin to wail and over-emote rather, drowning out Bob's own vocal.  On the covers album 'Gotta Serve Somebody - The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan', the music and bvs on the Saved tracks are more muted, allowing the words to be more easily discerned. Still, Pressing On is a strong track, and the last of these to be found on Saved.  That's not to say the final three songs don't have their good points, but they took a lot longer for me get into than Pressing On and the whole of Side 1.

Perhaps putting three plodders in a row was a bad idea.  In The Garden discusses the story of the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and the betrayal of Christ, from the Gospels.  The accompanying organ, smooth church choir backing vocals and pounding drums make a pleasant noise, but they aren't enough to compensate for the lack of melody.  Saving Grace suffers similarly, and bluesy closer Are You Ready makes for a disappointing finale, letting the album just fizzle out, when Dylan usually finishes with something much more memorable.

Despite this unsatisfactory ending, I enjoyed Saved very much.  I prefer its grittier, less 'produced' sound, and although the simplicity and directness of the words and the constant refrains might be uncomfortable for some, they certainly get the message across, and if you already enjoy gospel music this shouldn't present any new challenges.  The personal lyrics make for a more inspired feel, and the fewer threats of damnation - less evangelising, more testifying - result in a more inspirational experience.  Dylan's lingering 'holier-than-thou' self righteous attitude, as if he's feeling a bit smug for being specially selected over others to serve his god, can be irritating too, but this was not to last; it seems he mellowed a bit after the release of Saved, and the next concert tour featured many of his old secular songs mixed in with the new, billed as "A Musical Retrospective" that must have come as a relief to lots of fans.

Overall, I think that Saved is his most honest record yet.  Whatever the cost to his career and image, Dylan made an album that expressed the way he really felt at the time, and his songs of worship are unselfconscious and instinctive.  And that's the Dylan I like best.

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All prices correct on 22/07/2015

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

BobBox Price Drop Alert - Amazon Prime Day

As of a few minutes ago, the Complete Album Collection, aka the BobBox, is available to UK Amazon Prime users for a staggeringly low £62.99.  This runs out in less than 2 hours time, so if you've been dithering over the decision to get the set, now might be a good time!

This has been a special BobBox Price Check.

Edit: Wow, that sold out FAST.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

22. Slow Train Coming (1979)

Whether the surreal, drug-fuelled turmoil of the electric trilogy, the domestic simplicity of the country phase, the almost unbearably painful soul-bearing of Blood on the Tracks, or any other period you'd care to mention, whatever Dylan is currently into, or going through, is somehow reflected in his work.  A recent magazine article* used an old quote by fellow Greenwich Village alumnus David Blue; "His songs were always true to the life they were written in".  Slow Train Coming is no different.

If you're a fan of Dylan you'll already know the official story of his conversion to Christianity; something along the lines of an audience member throwing a silver cross onto the stage in late 1978, Bob picking it up after the concert, and a couple of days later retrieving it from his pocket while in his hotel room and undergoing a divine visitation.

This was apparently an experience so real and intense ("Jesus did appear to me as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords") that it led him to become a born-again Christian, under the wing of actress and girlfriend Mary Alice Artes (credited on the sleeve of Street Legal as 'Queen Bee') and an LA organisation called the Vineyard Fellowship.

Where on Street Legal Dylan seemed to be searching for something, on Slow Train Coming he's found it, although the answers weren't so much blowing in the wind as residing in the pages of the Book of Revelation.  This transformation in Bob's faith is immediately apparent just by skimming through the song titles, Gotta Serve Somebody being a strong contender for the most pious. When Janet Maslin wrote in a review of At Budokan in Rolling Stone, "The fire and brimstone are behind Dylan" she couldn't have been more wrong.  Arriving on Barry Beckett's slinky electric piano riff, this album opener informs us in no uncertain terms that as far as Bob is now concerned you either serve the Lord or the devil.  He goes into list mode, detailing folks in high and low places (including himself, "...a rock 'n' roll addict prancing on the stage") who must choose whom they obey, prompting John Lennon to express his disgust with the parody 'Serve Yourself'.  Serve Somebody won Bob his first Grammy and the single sold well, providing him with his last chart hit, but it also made no. 2 in a 2013 Rolling Stone readers poll of the worst ever Dylan songs, just above 'Wiggle Wiggle' (of which I've yet to have the pleasure - coming in just ten albums' time!).

Listening to Precious Angel on my first play through STC, I was surprised to hear it kick off with a very Dire Straits-y guitar riff, and a quick Google revealed that Mark Knopfler appears throughout the album, specially requested by Dylan who admired 'Sultans of Swing'.  Also present is Straits bandmate Pick Withers, who provides a nice crisp drum sound on this song praising both earthly and heavenly love, the earthly passion probably being Artes, who was instrumental in bringing Christ into Bob's life.  The version of Christianity here is not of the happy-clappy variety; as well as proclaiming "Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground", he sings about a darkness falling from above where " will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die".  I imagine that for many of his fans this quite ugly, heavy-handed rhetoric was hard to stomach, but I dare say that in parts of his home country it also brought him a new fanbase. Lyrics aside, Precious Angel came to be one of my favourites on STC (maybe because it sounds a bit like If Not For You), although it's perhaps a tad over-long at more than six minutes.

Acoustic strumming introduces I Believe In You, which describes his 'coming out' as a born-again Christian and the doubt and rejection this provoked in those around him.  It's heartfelt but the words are cringey at times, particularly when he croaks out "...even through the tears and the laughter", a lyric that would be more at home on the Fame soundtrack.  It ends beautifully though, with a trademark Knopfler liquid solo.

Like Knopfler, producer Jerry Wexler had no inkling beforehand of the overtly religious emphasis of these new songs.  The employment of his polished style, mixed with the dexterity of the Muscle Shoals Horns and the restrained input of the backing vocalists may have been an attempt by Dylan to to reach a wider audience with his new important message.  The pill certainly needed some sugaring; on the title track, as well as addressing unbelievers and proclaiming the unstoppable Second Coming, he turns his attention to world hunger, false idols, foreign energy and the general shoddy state of America as he sees it.  This new kind of finger-pointing sounds rather xenophobic in places, but musically Slow Train is the best song by a mile.  As well as some righteous backing vocals and a few soulful MK licks, like all of the better songs on STC it features a decent guitar riff and a funk-lite groove.  The 'damned or saved' blues of Gonna Change My Way of Thinking has both of these, although the prominent horns sound perfunctory, lacking the swing you'd expect of Muscle Shoals pros.  A welcome bit of blues smut about the "Georgia crawl" isn't enough to counteract the sanctimonious tone.

Another listy song comes next with Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others), a look at the universal ethic of reciprocity the Golden Rule, which sees Bob telling us how he doesn't "wanna judge nobody", hilariously enough.  A sparkling, sexy electric piano groove and some fine acoustic picking lift the repetitive lyrics and mediocre melody out of the doldrums.  An equally great groove is completely flattened by a boring drum sound on When You Gonna Wake Up, which like its predecessor lacks any backing vocals or strong melody.  As well as railing against greed and hypocrisy, more constructively Dylan calls for the listener to strengthen those basic values that can overcome evil.

At this point the album has begun to sound samey, i.e. hectoring fundamentalist preaching set to glossy gospel-funk, but this changes with the last two songs.  Man Gave Names to All the Animals is a Sunday school song in a playful reggae-gospel style that made no. 4 on the aforementioned list of worst ever Dylan songs.  Like Forever Young and bizarrely If Dogs Run Free it's been made into an illustrated childrens' book.  
The last verse of the song foreshadows the fall of man, and the listener is left to fill in the final line for himself.

Like Slow Train, closing spiritual When He Returns concerns Armageddon and the return of Christ.  Accompanied by just Beckett's piano, Dylan gives his most impassioned performance on the album, and his evident sincerity is genuinely moving.  It's a shame we had to wait until the end of the record before this tender, less zealous side of the new convert was revealed, but it makes for a splendid sign-off.

Almost immediately after his conversion Bob stopped playing all of his old songs for a long time, performing only those 'given to him by the Lord'.  Whether this was a display of courage or just his usual bull-headedness is hard to say, but he's claimed in later interviews that he didn't really want to write and sing these songs himself, but felt he must.  As well as playing just the religious songs, he took to sermonising on stage; the brand of conservative Christianity he preached was that of a vengeful God, lacking mercy and forgiveness.  It must have felt like a kick in the teeth to some fans, coming from the bloke who in 1965 urged them not to follow leaders.  The man who once stood for freedom of thought and expression was still following his own path but demonising the paths of others, and this proved to be a hard sell, alienating many.

Putting aside the lyrical content for a second (not that easy), the music on STC is mostly as purified as its maker; the sound is clean, tight and unexciting, with an airless quality that leaves me a bit queasy, much like the work of Steely Dan tends to.  It's more LA smooth than Muscle Shoals grit, and I'd expect to hear more joy from someone who's just found God, although Precious Angel has uplifting moments.  Musically it's bit too 'tasteful' for my palate, like a less spirited version of the Street Legal style.  If only he'd put as much feeling and conviction into the medium as he did the message, Slow Train Coming might have been a classic album.  It may indeed be true that the devil has all the best tunes.

*Mojo 60s Issue 3, June 2015

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All prices correct on 14/07/2015

Thursday, 2 July 2015

21. At Budokan (1979)

The only thing I'd heard about Bob Dylan At Budokan before I began listening to it, was that it sucks.  Mightily. Recorded at the beginning of the year-long 1978 World Tour, it was originally intended as a Japan-only release to commemorate the eight-night run of concerts at the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo.  The popularity of the record in the form of imports and bootlegs convinced Columbia to release it next in Australia, then finally worldwide in the spring of '79.  The version in the BobBox was newly remastered for this set. 

Street Legal, recorded after At Budokan but released first, was described (or slammed) by critics for its supposed 'Las Vegas' style, which I wasn't really buying, but during my first listen to AB, at which the same accusations were levelled, I had to admit they had a point.  Most of the songs are radically reimagined using the same eight-piece band as on SL, so as well as Billy Cross's excellent lead guitar we get sax and violins, plus soulful backing from three female vocalists.  In addition, saxophonist Steve Douglas brings along a couple of other wind instruments, and David Mansfield adds pedal steel and dobro to his armoury.  All this, coupled with the fact that Dylan is still in great voice at this point, gives us a double album of flamboyant, energetic, grandiose and occasionally unhinged renderings of 22 of his best known songs; a brand new Greatest Hits package, if you like.  I flipping love it.

The Japanese promoters had sent Dylan a list of the songs they wished him to play, and surprisingly he seemed to co-operate, though I can't help thinking that there was an element of mischief in him playing the songs they requested in these new, unexpected ways.  Then again, Bob is his own folk tradition and has never treated his work as sacred relics, frequently altering his songs throughout his career.  But I bet he got a kick out of it.

From the first 30 seconds of opener Mr Tambourine Man, with it's chiming electric guitar and frisky 'Bod' flute (one for UK kids of the 1970s there), it's clear that all bets are off and anything might happen.  Going, Going, Gone is sped up and given a showbizzy makeover; I Want You is slowed right down and turned into a lonely paean.  The reggae version of Knockin' On Heaven's Door comes as no surprise after Clapton's similar 1975 cover, but this strategy is also applied to a thumping take of Don't Think Twice, It's Alright.  Ballad of a Thin Man is the most 'cabaret' song on the whole album, the spooky organ of the Highway original augmented by the showy, dramatic 'dah-dah-DAH-dah' of the horn section and a skronking sax solo.

Most fun is the marching band glam-rock stomp of All I Really Want To Do which oddly enough benefits from the prominent brass and echoing bvs.  It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) becomes an excitable Wings soundalike, with Bond-theme orchestral stabs and fiery guitar licks, whilst All Along the Watchtower is heavily indebted to the electrified Hendrix version, albeit with violin taking some of the histrionic strain. Less good are the two representatives of Desire; Oh, Sister is a dreary misfire that grew on me a little once I banished the gorgeous original from my mind and treated it as a completely new song, and One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below) is a staccato bongo-laden sax-fest that haters of the hook-shaped instrument (and I know there are many) should avoid studiously.  Another disappointment is the version of Shelter From the Storm, here re-shaped into a monotone, plodding chant, where the only musical relief comes from the dreaded (not by me, I hasten to add) sax.

To add to all the excitement, Bob surprises and confounds us (I should be used to this by now) with his between-song patter, something that hasn't cropped up on a live album so far in the BobBox.  After a raucous Maggie's Farm, complete with a Fame-inspired Bowie guitar riff, he thanks the audience and tells them the name of song (presumably just in case they didn't get it from the dozen or so times he yelled it during the performance).  It's not the only 'thank you' on At Budokan; Dylan returns the good manners of his Japanese fans with a fair amount (for him at least) of polite, gracious chat.  He introduces the complex Simple Twist of Fate with an ironic "Here's a simple love story....happened to me".  Like several of the songs on AB, it has some lyrical changes; "he" becomes "she" in the first verse, and the "strange" hotel is now a "renovated" one, much like the lyrics and melody, which is also slightly different.  The latter verses are almost completely re-written, but the sense of loss and faint hope remain.  Bob is unable to resist allowing a little sax warble after the line "A saxophone somewhere played", and equally forgivable is "He hears the ticking of the clocks" followed by a 'tap-tap-tap' on the snare. In a cheeky nod to the bootleggers, he announces Is Your Love In Vain? with "Here's an unreleased song.  See if you can guess what it is".  The  lyrics of this still grate on me, but overall I've really warmed to it since Street Legal, even though the Budokan version is much the same.

Two of Dylan's biggest anthems are sensibly left unchanged in terms of melody, but Like A Rolling Stone is rocked up further, with the rush in the chorus provided by both organ and sax (blimey, how many times have I typed "sax" so far?), and a nifty guitar solo near the end.  Blowin' in the Wind kicks off Disc 2 with tinkling piano and gentle "ooh-oohs" from the backing singers. The anger of the original is gone and it's now a soft lament with a decent instrumental section in the second half that boasts some gutsy playing from Billy Cross.  I Shall Be Released was never one of my favourites and the melody and arrangement changes in the AB version doesn't make it any worse or better to my ears.

Also given a straightforward reading are my two absolute favourites here.  Just Like A Woman is the loveliest I've ever heard it, with sympathetic and emotional playing from all, and the sweetest bvs from the ladies.  Love Minus Zero/No Limit is an absolutely brilliant, poppy revamp, featuring a harmonica intro (I've really missed this instrument on the last couple of albums!), and a combination of violin, flute and recorder that works to great effect.

Things get sentimental for the encores; a shmaltzy, overblown but ultimately enjoyable Forever Young comes first, and clearly goes down well with the audience.  This is followed by a relatively unvarnished The Times They Are A-Changin', before which Bob resumes the patter by first thanking the crowd again, then telling them "I wrote this song also, about fifteen years ago.  It still means a lot to me, I know it means a lot to you, too".  It's quite weird to hear him so good-humoured and nostalgic; my cynical side tells me he's probably taking the piss a little, but my naive simple-headed side makes me want to believe he's sincere, and that's the part I'm going with.

At first I wasn't keen on the kitchen-sink approach of At Budokan - especially that flute! - but I quickly came to love it.  I already have the studio versions of all of these songs, so really, why would I want carbon copies of them on a live album?  Dylan has been quoted as saying "...a good song should be able to stand redefining, or else it's dead", and he's quite right of course.  With the help of guitarist Steven Soles (to whom Bob gives credit for many of the arrangements), he's managed to give his fans practically a whole new album of songs.  That many of those fans disliked them didn't seem to worry him at all - it certainly hasn't stopped him re-jigging his work in a live setting over and over since.  On AB he sounds like he's having a great time, which for all its good points is more than I can say for Hard Rain two years earlier.  I'm still not entirely convinced by the 'Vegas' tag - AB is more E-Street than Fremont Street - and although not all of the makeovers work, the exuberance, musicality and sheer sense of FUN on these two discs means that I'll definitely be pulling this one out of the BobBox more often than Before The Flood or even Hard Rain.

What do you think of Bob Dylan At Budokan?  Love it?  Hate that bloody sax?  Let us know in the comments below.

Note: This is album no. 21 in the box, marking the halfway point.  If you've been reading since February, thanks for sticking with me this far!

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