Bob Dylan has gone through so many stages in his five-decade career that there's bound to be some bumps along the way. Take your pick, there are several to choose from: the Self Portrait era, that period right before his late-career comeback, almost all of the '80s.

But no stretch is more outright rejected, and in some sense as misunderstood, as his Christian period of the late '70s and early '80s, when he released a trio of gospel albums that mostly confused longtime fans. After all, what was a 38-year-old Jewish guy doing converting to Christianity and preaching to fans about their sins? Friends were baffled. Fellow artists were perplexed. And those fans, for the most part, had little interest in hearing their generation's greatest songwriter singing about being saved.

Dylan's excellent ongoing Bootleg Series tries to make sense of the era with the nine-disc Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981. Like the earlier Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), Trouble No More puts a neglected period into more perspective; unlike that earlier volume, this one mostly focuses on live material under the assumption that even if Dylan's records weren't all that great at the time, his concerts still were.

But the big problem here, and it's the set's hugest hurdle, is the fact that many of the shows were populated by those gospel songs. And there's really no way around it: Many of those songs aren't very good. So, if you're not a fan of, say, "Slow Train" (which is included in six different live or rehearsal versions on the eight CDs), Trouble No More can be trying to say the least.

Still, Dylan speeds up some takes, slows down others and varies his performance from disc to disc (the box also includes a DVD). His gospel years were a work in progress, and the nightly shows, along with the three albums released during this period -- Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) -- confirm both his commitment to the material and to the subject at hand. By the time Dylan and his band played Toronto for three nights in April 1980 (documented here on two discs), they weren't too far removed from the best groups he had taken on the road with him in the past.

Live tracks make up the bulk of Trouble No More. In addition to the Toronto performances, the set includes two discs cherry-picked from various 1979-81 shows and a 1981 concert from Earl's Court in London. (The Earl's Court show is the only time earlier songs from Dylan's career -- like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Like a Rolling Stone" -- appear in the box.) Scattered throughout are a handful of previously unreleased songs (the scorching and self-reflecting "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody" is the best of them) that turned up in set lists night after night during this period.

Even the two discs of rare and unreleased songs contain mostly live tracks, soundchecks or rehearsals, rather than studio outtakes (though there are 10 from the era included here). And it's easy to hear why so much of Trouble No More's focus is put on stage recordings: Dylan came to life there -- something he rarely did in the studio during this time. Just compare the breathless version of "Precious Angel" from Toronto with the relatively staid take found on Slow Train Coming.

There's a lot of that here -- even among the same songs as they appear again and again throughout the Deluxe Edition (there's also a two-CD version available). Some offer improvements over the familiar studio takes; others can be just as off-putting in their rigid and single-minded allegiance to the message.

As a document of Dylan's live shows as the '70s turned into the '80s, Trouble No More certainly belongs alongside other Bootleg Series concert volumes like The Rolling Thunder Revue and the 1964 Philharmonic Hall sets that collect some of his popular live periods. And it certainly makes a case for his shows vs. albums at the time. But there's the nagging possibility, even after almost 40 years, that Dylan's born-again phase was a crucial misstep that creatively sidelined him for nearly two decades. And no amount of historical revision can disguise that.

 

 

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