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...

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

35. MTV Unplugged (1995)

During the early 1990s stars as big as Clapton, McCartney and Rod Stewart benefited from their appearances on MTV's Unplugged series, both in terms of sales and how they were perceived by the generation below, so when Dylan was asked to take part it must have been an easy decision for him to make.  But of course nothing is simple in Bobland, and his desire to perform a solo set of traditional music à la Good As I Been To You/World Gone Wrong was rejected by MTV bods as not being suitable for a mainstream television audience.  Instead he brought the hits, with a couple of curveballs thrown in for good measure.

In another typical Dylanesque move, he turned up to record his episode of a show entirely based on acoustic values with what can only be described as a semi-electric band; we have John Jackson playing acoustic-electric guitar, Bucky-Baxter skillfully switching between pedal steel, dobro, steel guitar and mandolin, Tony Garnier on upright bass, Winston Watson thwacking a full rock drum kit, and Brendan O'Brien sat behind a vast Hammond.  Bob himself sticks to his trusty acoustic guitar and gob iron.  These musicians constituted his touring band at the time, and this shows in the almost effortless way they gel, and there's the sense that they know exactly what Bob is about to do at any point.  After the Dead's all-at-sea floundering on the previous live album, it's absolutely heavenly.

They begin with Tombstone Blues.  Although I love the garage-band original, the country flavour given to it here suits it well, and the swirling organ is wrapped round a surprisingly good lead vocal.  Dylan is clearly in fine voice right now, and sounds engaged and energised.

We hop from 1965 straight to 1989 next for a beautiful Shooting Star, the final track from Oh Mercy.  Bob provides a decent enough harp solo, and the instrumental outro from the band as a whole is just gorgeous, O'Brien's Hammond gently tangling with Baxter's weeping slide.  With no pause for breath, they're straight into a rendition of All Along The Watchtower that's midway between the acoustic original on JWH and the searing electric Hendrix reading.  Dylan's lead guitar is impressive, but his voice sounds as though it's beginning to falter.

The Times They Are A-Changin', once sung in youthful defiance, is transformed into a country ballad delivered with the weary resignation of a man now on the other side of the generation gap. But Bob is able to reach into his guts for a bitter performance of anti-war song John Brown, which he first recorded in 1963 under the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt for a compilation called Broadside Ballads.

An otherwise dreary version of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 is elevated by drunken lap steel replicating the woozy brass of Blonde on Blonde, and a truncated Desolation Row replaces Charlie's McCoy's delicate counter-melody with a rich, busy sound that's able to remain suitably mellow. The pace picks up again with Oh Mercy outtake Dignity, first heard on Greatest Hits Vol. 3 in its original rockabilly incarnation.  This rockier MTV version was released as a CD single.

The set isn't marred by the annoying audience noise that plagued Neil Young's Unplugged episode, but the European version of Knockin' On Heaven's Door was apparently overdubbed with a section of whooping and whistling, on a repeated loop.  Luckily the CD in the BobBox is the US album, so is free from the 'whoop loop'.  Dylan sounds pretty nasal here, but at least he decided against doing a reggae version.  There's a nice harmonica break, and the heavily textured backing is glorious.

On Like A Rolling Stone he bunches the words up at the beginning of each line, and the phrase "do you want to make a deal?" seems like it's reluctantly forced out - quite amusing from the former King of counterculture as he sells his services to a cable channel.  (I wonder how that feels?)  The remainder is sung with more intensity, and goes on to fill over nine minutes.

The set was recorded over two nights in November 1994 in NYC's Sony Music Studios, and final track With God On Our Side is the only recording from the first night used on the album.  Like Desolation Row it's shortened by a couple of verses; in this case the ones mentioning the Holocaust and the Russians are omitted, and like 'Times' there's a resigned weariness in Bob's voice.

As well as being a relief after the horrors of Dylan & The Dead and Real Live, it's good to hear Bob in full-band mode after two pleasant but rather minimalist studio albums.  The public seemed to feel the same way, rewarding him with his first gold album for six years; I expect the fact that there were no wildly altered melodies or arrangements had something to do with it.  Other songs recorded at the sessions but not used included Hazel, Absolutely Sweet Marie and My Back Pages.  The concert DVD (of course I bought it, I'm not MAD) boasts an additional performance in the shape of a fairly underwhelming Love Minus Zero/No Limit (also included on the European CD release) which again sees him bunching up his words at the beginning of each line.  There's almost no between-song chat and Dylan remains inscrutable behind his shades for the duration. The 80s mullet and designer stubble are gone, and with his spotty shirt and dark jacket he rather resembles his mid-60s self, much as the mixture of organ and Nashville twang resembles his mercurial mid-60s output.

Verdict: A highly enjoyable set of mellow but stirring country rock. More plugs than expected. Opt for the DVD if you can.

*****BobBox price check***** - £115.00 (free postage)
Discogs - from £84.66
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
All prices correct on 27/10/2015


  1. I feel your relief, I felt the same back when this first aired... "wow Dylan gave a competent live performance!" Listening now though I think it's the worst disc in the box. Dylan and The Dead may have been awful, but it was uncompromisingly awful. This sad spectacle though has compromise written all over it. The lowest to the common denominator that Dylan ever got. The retro polkadot shirt and shades say it all really.
    It was truly a miracle when he released TOOM after this.

    1. Rather a harsh assessment in my view, but I see where you're coming from! TOOM next, I hope my expectations haven't been raised too high...

  2. Keep em' low!
    Still... you're in for a treat.