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...

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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All prices correct on 02/07/2015

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