Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Bob Dylan - The Eighties And Beyond (1984-1995)



This era in Bob Dylan's career began with some questionable eighties-style synthesiser-drenched albums but ended with some rootsy folk and some signs pointing to a coming renaissance. Hidden in there too is a classic Dylan album.

The albums covered are:-

Real Live (1984)
Empire Burlesque (1985)
Knocked Out Loaded (1986)
Dylan And The Dead (1987)
Down In The Groove (1988)
Oh Mercy (1989)
Under The Red Sky (1990)
Good As I Been To You (1992)
World Gone Wrong (1993)
Live At Woodstock (1994)
and Unplugged (1995)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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REAL LIVE (1984)

1. Highway 61 Revisited
2. Maggie's Farm
3. I And I
4. License To Kill
5. It Ain't Me Babe
6. Tangled Up In Blue
7. Masters Of War
8. Ballad Of A Thin Man
9. Girl From The North Country
10. Tombstone Blues

This sometimes unfairly maligned Bob Dylan live album as, in my opinion, much better than many say, containing solid rock versions of some of his well-known songs, plus a couple from his 1983 Infidels album. It features ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on guitar and ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. The band is a comparatively small one - Dylan, McLagan, Taylor, Gregg Sutton on bass and Colin Allen on drums. The band delivers a tight rock sound. Personally, I prefer it to Hard Rain, by far, and the sound is so much better too.

The album begins with a superb, rocking Highway 61 Revisited, with Dylan really "on fire" vocally. This is as impressively as Dylan has ever rocked. He almost sounds like The Stones. I guess Mick Taylor helps. I have never been a huge fan of Maggie's Farm but this is as powerful and lively as I have heard him do it live. I And I from Infidels does not have the reggae-ish backing that Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare provided on that album, but it still has an infectious slow-paced, seductive rock beat and another great Dylan vocal. There is a great Taylor solo near the end. License To Kill is a great song anyway and here it is performed anthemically.



It Ain't Me Babe is done acoustically but is somewhat blighted by the crowd's braying singing along. Nothing worse than a crowd! Excellent Dylan harmonica at the end though. Tangled Up In Blue is also performed acoustically and is given some new verses, which makes for an interesting listen. I have to say I prefer the version on Rolling Thunder 1975 though. The originally sombre Masters Of War was never a particular favourite of mine, but here it is given a superb bassy rock makeover. This is definitely the best version of the song. It positively bristles from beginning to end. Great stuff.

 

Ballad Of A Thin Man also gets a new revitalisation and rock veneer, featuring more excellent guitar. Girl From The North Country" once more sees a vibrant Dylan singing as clearly as he has before or since, in many ways. For Tombstone BluesCarlos Santana joins on guitar and we get another pounding, bluesy rock rendition. It is this, along with tracks 1, 2 and 7 that are the real rock cornerstones of this most enjoyable. vivacious album. Recommended.

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EMPIRE BURLESQUE (1985)

1. Tight Connection To My Heart
2. Seeing The Real You
3. I'll Remember You
4. Clean Cut Kid
5. Never Gonna Be The Same Again
6. Trust Yourself
7. Emotionally Yours
8. When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky
9. Something's Burning Baby
10. Dark Eyes                 

The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney.....they all succumbed to the synthesised curse that was mid-eighties music. Bob Dylan, seemingly, was no different, and this album has been roundly criticised ever since for being an appalling, over-synthesised waste of time. Every time I listen to it, I expect the worst because of this, and I am always pleasantly surprised, to be honest. Yes, it is not the match of 1983's Infidels, but it is nowhere near as bad as some say, nor even quite as synthesiser-dominated as it has been accused of being, either. He did don an awful eighties jacket for the cover though!
                                    
Tight Connection To My Heart is a lengthy, gospelly call-and-response number with hints of the previous album, Infidels. The upbeat Seeing The Real You is also a bluesy reminder of some of that album, while I'll Remember You is a delicious, yearning love song with some excellent piano and organ breaks, big drum sound, addictive bass and Dylan on fine vocal form.

Clean Cut Kid is a barroom bluesy rocker that has Dylan sounding as if he is having a good time. The sound is good, crystal clear and the backing vocals and lead guitar are top notch. Dylan could still rock and here was the proof. This is not a bad track, by any stretch of the imagination. I really like it. An enjoyable, underrated song. Never Gonna Be The Same Again is, admittedly, though, pretty blighted by its eighties keyboards. It is a bit of a throwaway, both musically and lyrically, unfortunately. Elton John put out a lot of material like this in the same period.

 

Trust Yourself is no lyrical masterpiece but it does have a big, bassy insistent groove and another strong, impassioned Dylan vocal, like something from his "preaching" years of 1979-1981. There is an intoxicating bass line that runs throughout it, too. Because I don't listen to this as much as other Dylan albums, listening to it now I am almost enjoying it as I would a new album. That can only be a good thing. Emotionally Yours is an orchestrated, tender love song apparently written for Elizabeth Taylor(?). Its chorus definitely taps into Forever Young but it does suffer from over-the-top eighties production.

When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky is the album's tour de force. Again, though, its contemporary production overshadows it somewhat. A far better version of it can be found on The Bootleg Series 1-3, where Dylan is backed by Steve Van Zandt on guitar and Roy Bittan on piano from Bruce Springsteen's E St. Band. They truly rock it up E St. style and you can almost sense Dylan feeding off it and really enjoying himself. The version on here is far more trundling and, in comparison, lifeless. Not that it is bad, but that version just cooks, big time. There are some excellent percussion parts at the end of this one, though.

Something's Burning, Baby is another hark back to the devotional material, even though it is a love song. Dylan's vocal is good and the electric guitar chops are good, but there is another production problem, it has to be said. Given a starker, less melodramatic backing, it may have been a much better song, there are some great lyrics in it. I have to admit that by the end of the album, the production is beginning to get a tad tiresome. It is still a good song though with an anthem build up.

Dark Eyes, though, is completely different - a stark, folky song that sounds like the set of material he would do seven or eight years later on Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. A pointer to the future, perhaps?

** A fine early version of Tight Connection To My Heart was recorded in 1983 under the slightly different title of Someone's Got A Hold Of My Heart. It is actually the superior version and would have definitely enhanced Infidels.

NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.



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KNOCKED OUT LOADED (1986)

1. You Wanna Ramble
2. They Killed Him
3. Driftin' Too Far From Shore
4. Precious Memories
5. Maybe Someday
6. Brownsville Girl
7. Got My Mind Made Up
8. Under Your Spell         

After treading water somewhat with the eighties production-blighted Empire Burlesque, Dylan couldn’t really get away with it twice, and he certainly didn’t with this comparatively average album.
                               
You Wanna Ramble is a regulation upbeat gospelly blues, full of backing vocals and a repetitive riff. It is lively and pleasant enough, but certainly no work of genius.

They Killed Him is a cover of a Kris Kristofferson song and has a strange appeal, a deep drum sound and a blasting gospel chorus. The backing sounds great on this one, but Dylan’s voice is strangely distant. The use of a children’s choir is a bit incongruous, to be honest.

Driftin' Too Far From Shore is again a lively one, with those backing vocals turned up to the max. Again, it is an ok track, but nothing remarkable. The ”filler” on this album is not as impressive as the previous album’s “filler”. Precious Memories is a reggae-influenced number, but nowhere near as convincing as the reggae he dabbled in on InfidelsMaybe Someday is another somewhat half-baked number, dominated by the backing vocals once more and just not seeming to get anywhere. A few listens, however, and you find that it has hidden lyrical depths in its Biblical imagery and you get into it a bit more.

 

Then there is Brownsville Girl - eleven minutes of cinematic Dylan narrative majesty in the Lily, Rosemary & The Jack Of Hearts tradition. I love these lengthy, image-packed Dylan songs. This one is jam packed with Western imagery about Mexico, The Rockies, Amarillo, The Panhandle, someone called Henry Porter and a Gregory Peck movie. The album is worth it for this bona fide gem alone. The rest of the material just doesn’t really pass muster in comparison, I’m afraid. Empire Burlesque was a much better album.

The last two are not too bad, however. Got My Mind Made Up is actually quite a rousing, rocking number, with lots of  “woohs” from those girls again, and a kind of shuffling, upbeat Not Fade Away rhythm.

Under Your Spell is the usual laid-back romantic number to close the album. It has the same full, pounding backing as They Killed Him, with a strong bass and an equally strong Dylan vocal. It has to be said it is nothing special, though. Neither is the album, really. Certainly not dislikable, but just not anything inspirational, save Brownsville Girl.

NB - despite being supposedly "remastered" for the Complete Works Box Set, the sound still sounds slightly under par to me, a bit bassier but that's it. For me the only truly decent Dylan remasters are those released as "HDCD" remasters. They all have wonderful clarity and warmth of sound.



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DYLAN AND THE DEAD (1987)

1. Slow Train
2. I Want You
3. Gotta Serve Somebody
4. Queen Jane Approximately                       5. Joey
6. All Along The Watchtower
7. Knockin' On Heaven's Door

Now, here is how the well-trodden narrative goes - "this is the worst Dylan album ever....the worst live album ever...the worst Grateful Dead album ever...." and so on. Four years now it had been roundly slagged off as dreadful. I have no knowledge of The Grateful Dead at all, like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, their music has never appealed to me, so I cannot speak with any authority with regard to their music. However, I have all the Dylan live albums and, personally, I always find this a good listen - so send me for therapy.

Firstly, the sound quality is excellent and, for me, The Grateful Dead provide an excellent backing, with impressive piano and guitar work throughout the album's seven tracks. Dylan's performance is, admittedly, shall we say "loose" at times, but it always has been. There is not a Dylan live performance that doesn't have the listener raising an eyebrow at some point as Bob reinvents one song after another or at times, sounds as if he can't be bothered. That is just an eternal frustration that goes hand in hand with being a Bob Dylan fan. It is just the way it is.

Anyway, I don't mind the deliveries on here at all. The epic narrative Joey is done well, pretty straight to the original, and is a surprising inclusion. Queen Jane Approximately is slowed-down in appealing fashion for its first-ever live performance and I Want You is done is the slow style first attempted, ironically, by Bruce Springsteen in 1975. The two tracks from Slow Train Coming are enhanced by some fine guitar, as you would expect from the originals. All Along The Watchtower  and Knockin' On Heaven's Door are also given fetching, melodic makeovers.

Look, I like the album and, blasphemous as it no doubt will sound to many, I much prefer it to Hard Rain, for example.

 

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DOWN IN THE GROOVE (1988)

1. Let's Stick Together
2. When Did You Leave Heaven
3. Sally Sue Brown
4. Death Is Not The End
5. Had A Dream About You, Baby
6. Ugliest Girl In The World
7. Silvio
8. Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)
9. Shenandoah
10. Rank Strangers To Me       

After two eighties-production, synthesiser-drenched albums in Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan tried to get back to a more bluesy, rootsy sound with some of the material on this almost universally-panned failure of an album in 1988.
                                   
So, is it time for a reassessment? The first track Let's Stick Together, previously done by Canned Heat and Bryan Ferry certainly rocks a fair bit, in an upbeat, guitar-driven, chunky riff blues style. I like it and it is certainly a relief after some of the keyboard-dominated, backing vocal-drowned songs from the last two albums. This is, at least, a down 'n' dirty blues. Bryan Ferry used a similar riff on his version of The Times They Are A-Changin' on his Dylanesque album.

When Did You Leave Heaven? is a laid-back devotional song that would not have been out of place on Shot Of LoveSally Sue Brown is a blues cover dealt with in a rousing, enthusiastic fashion. Death Is Not The End is the first Dylan original on the album. It begins with a lovely, evocative harmonica and has a fetching, quiet tender as Dylan tells us, sonorously, that "death is not the end". It has a nice sound to it, and a certain laid-back beauty. There are all sorts of assorted musicians on this album, almost too many to mention, but it does ensure that the music is of a high quality throughout.

 

Had A Dream About You Baby is an organ-driven rocking blues that, had it appeared on Blonde On Blonde would have been hailed as a work of genius. To me, it is not too dissimilar to some of the  upbeat bluesy numbers from that 1965-66 period. Ugliest Girl In The World is another fast tempo number with clearly throwaway, tongue-in-cheek lyric. I really haven't got a problem with this album.  It is the superior product to the previous two. I think most people seem to accept that the shuffling, rhythmic, gospelly fun of Silvio is a good track that begs more than one listen, for sure. Dylan sounds confident and enthusiastic on the track and the backing vocals add their own vitality to it.






















It seemed to be de rigeur to slate pretty much every second Dylan release as being an "embarrassment" and praise every other one as being "a return to form". This is a myopic view in my opinion. Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street) is a soulful piece of gospel. Sure, it's not Tangled Up In Blue but what the heck, I like it anyway. Similarly, if Dylan wants to record Shenandoah in a folky, gospel style, so what? Again, I actually really like it. Springsteen gets away with it, why not Dylan? I think it's great. The closing track of this short album, Rank Strangers To Me has Dylan at his bleakest. It is a slow-tempo, haunting ballad of the sort that the afore-mentioned Springsteen would do over the next few years too. It is a bit of a hidden gem, with a sumptuous bass line.

Many have cited this as a nadir in Dylan's career. I would beg to disagree a little, I do not mind the album as much as they seem to. It is certainly nowhere near as bad as "Dylan" and, personally, I much prefer it to the strange New Morning. Whenever I listen to it, I am always pleasantly surprised.

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OH MERCY (1989)

1. Political World
2. Where Teardrops Fall
3. Everything Is Broken
4. Ring Them Bells
5. Man In The Long Black Coat
6. Most Of The Time
7. What Good Am I?
8. Disease Of Conceit
9. What Was It You Wanted
10. Shooting Star                                   

After two poorly-received eighties-style synthesiser-dominated albums in Empire Burlesque (1985) and Knocked Out Loaded (1986), plus another critically-panned one in the bluesy Down In The Groove (1988), Bob Dylan, supposedly washed-out and past it, surprised everyone by coming up with a classic. After this album, came another comparative clunker in Under The Red Sky (1990). All very odd. It was, indisputably, though, his finest album since 1983's Infidels.
   
Dylan employed the services of Daniel Lanois, who had produced the phenomenally successful The Joshua Tree for U2. The production was quite deep, bassy and haunting and matched Dylan's mostly sombre-ish, introspective material. Conversely, however it kicks off with the toe-tapping, lively, rhythmic romp of Political World, which sees Dylan's band on top form, at a frantic rocking pace. The sound quality is also excellent, having been remastered as part of the HDCD series.

Where Teardrops Fall is a beautiful, yearning slow tempo song with a country twang to it. Everything Is Broken sees a return to the bassy, almost Cajun rocking tempo and it is a most addictive song. The bass is a big and thumping, there is also some superb harmonica and Dylan's voice is strong and confident, as he tells us how "everything is" indeed, "broken". Lanois's production has brought a warmth of sound and a powerhouse solidity of a backbeat. There is nothing muddy or undercooked about it. A personal favourite of mine is the plaintive New Morning-esque, piano and organ backed Ring Them Bells. Dylan's voice is sad throughout the song and developing that appealing ageing croak by now.


The mysterious and laid-back swamp blues-ish Man In The Long Black Coat is an excellent track, full of that musical homage to Americana so loved by Dylan, complete with Southern crickets chirping in the background. It is a superbly atmospheric song, overflowing with imagery and marvellous characterisation. It is as good as some of the material on Blood On The Tracks, the first time that could be said for a while.

  

Most Of The Time continues the low-key but portentous feeling and has Dylan self-contemplating and philosophical, staring into that deep, dark mirror. Some U2-style reverb, bass and guitar licks in halfway through. This is such a reflective album, very much in the Blood On The Tracks style. The gorgeous, evocative, lyrically cutting The Disease Of Conceit is possibly the best track on the album. Superb. Dylan is almost back into his late seventies preacher mode here. There is lots of religious imagery throughout the album, but it lacks the often off-putting didacticism of the "Christian albums". The same applies to the self-analytical What Good Am I? 

What Was It You Wanted is a shuffling, bassy, throbbing wonderfully atmospheric number once more. This is as good as Dylan had been for six long years. It had all briefly come together on this one. The romantic and utterly beautiful Shooting Star ends what had been an excellent album on a positive note. "Return to form" is a much-used, irritating cliche that, for once, held true here.

** A notable omission from this album's sessions was the rolling drums-backed grind of Series Of Dreams. It is an impressive, insistent track that is overflowing with atmosphere and really should have been on the album. Also dating from the same time is the truly under-valued Dignity. This catchy, wry melodic romp is really appealing and again, should have made the cut.



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UNDER THE RED SKY (1990)

1. Wiggle Wiggle
2. Under The Red Sky
3. Unbelievable
4. Born In Time
5. TV Talkin' Song
6. 10,000 Men
7. 2 x 2
8. God Knows
9. Handy Dandy
10. Cat's In The Well        
After the glory that was Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan unfortunately attracted the brickbats once again with this (comparatively) half-baked effort, released the following year. It has always reminded me somewhat of 1988's Down In The Groove in that it was considered to be awful, but isn't actually that bad, but is certainly no work of genius. There are a host of cameo musicians on the album however - Elton JohnBruce HornsbyGeorge HarrisonDavid Crosby and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
                          
The opener Wiggle Wiggle attracted derision because of its inane lyrics - "wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup", however, if you ignore that, it is just a lively, pounding piece of upbeat bluesy rock, such as Dylan had been trotting out in this sleep. Under The Red Sky tried to reprise the piano and organ sound from Like A Rolling Stone, even using original keyboard man Al KooperUnbelievable  is actually an enjoyable rocking romp, with a sixties Animals sort of sound at times and some killer harmonica. I really like it. Nothing wrong with this track at all. If it had been on Oh Mercy nobody would have batted an eyelid. Similarly, the sombre, beautifully bassy Born In Time has real echoes of that album, (unsurprising as it dates from the sessions for that album), although Dylan's voice at times falters, it has to be said. It has a great guitar solo on it, too, though. What the hell, I like this too. I'm not a blind devotee who simply likes everything, but I seriously do like it. I like Bob Dylan, and I like most of what he has recorded. That's just the way it is.

 

TV Talkin' Song is another fast-paced rocker. In it he refers to Elvis shooting his TV set. Bruce Springsteen referred to the same incident a year later in 57 Channels And Nothing On. Coincidence? Bruce has always been a bit of a magpie. There are hints of his track in this one, it has to be said, although it is a tad faster. 10,000 Men ploughs the same blues furrow. These sort of tracks were all lauded on Together Through Life or Tempest. I have to admit, though, that the material on there is more fulfilled. On here, most of the bluesy tracks end at bit too soon. 2 x 2 isn't particularly great, it has to be said, although it has a great piano backing (probably Elton John or Bruce Hornsby). God Knows harks back to the late seventies/early eighties Christian albums and it only a so-so track, but when the rock bit kicks in it pounds pretty hard, with some impressive guitar and drums. In many ways, the instrumental sound on the album is better than the songs itself. The song's refrain sounds a hell of a lot like John Lennon's Tight A$.

Handy Dandy has a swirling organ  intro just like some of the live recordings of Like A Rolling Stone. Even the verse structure, drum rolls and guitar parts sound like it too, which is all a bit bizarre. Although again I quite like it, you have to wonder what was in Dylan's mind when he decided to try and write a carbon copy of one of his most famous songs, twenty-five years later. Cat's In The Well is a rockabilly meets Cajun, upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable number to finish with.

Yes, this album undoubtedly is nowhere near the quality of Bob Dylan's best albums, not by a long way. Indeed it is probably in the batch of those considered his worst. Yes, there are critics who deride the album, largely because of Wiggle Wiggle. Despite all that, I had a pleasant half hour or so listening to it and will do again next year when I dig it out again.



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GOOD AS I BEEN TO YOU (1992)

1. Frankie And Albert
2. Jim Jones
3. Black Jack Davey
4. Canadee-I-O
5. Sittin' On Top Of The World
6. Little Maggie
7. Hard Times
8. Step It Up And Go
9. Tomorrow Night
10. Arthur McBride
11. You're Gonna Quit Me
12. Diamond Joe
13. Froggie Went A-Courtin'     

This was Bob Dylan's first all-acoustic album, just him and a finger-pickin' guitar (and occasional harmonica), since 1964's Another Side Of Bob Dylan. It is certainly no commercially-appealing album, being full of traditional folk material, but, taken in its proper context, it is a very good album. As someone who enjoys this sort of music, it suits me fine, albeit every now and again. It is a breath of fresh air to hear him doing this sort of material. Bruce Springsteen was not averse to doing these type of songs and Dylan was becoming increasing interested in America's musical history. Some of these songs are UK/Celtic in derivation but some are old US folk songs and blues songs.
  
Frankie And Albert is a bluesy, evocative opener, while Jim Jones is a song about deportation to Australia's Botany BayBlack Jack Davey is a song concerning marital infidelity, covered in the seventies by Steeleye Span on their All Around My Hat album. Here. Dylan delivers it in a quiet, mournful croak, which carries considerable homespun appeal, actually. Canadee-I-O is an appealing melody from the days of emigration to Canada, again delivered by Dylan most fetchingly. He is exploring his roots and appears to be enjoying doing so. It is an understated, unassuming album from an artist who was quite happy to plough his own furrow.



The often-covered blues Sittin' On Top Of The World is delivered in a pure blues, sittin' on the porch, fashion, complete with a killer harmonica enhancing the authenticism. Little Maggie is a folky lament from a over to his hard-drinking woman, while Hard Times was written by US songwriter Stephen Foster in 1854 and is a well-known protest against extreme poverty. Step It Up And Go is a rockabilly type upbeat song and is as lively as it gets on this album. It would sound good given a full rocking band treatment. Tomorrow Night is a gentle folky ballad and Arthur McBride is an old Celtic folk song about being forcefully conscripted into the army, it has been covered by many folk singers over the years. Dylan is returning here to the old "protest song" tradition that shot him to fame all those years previously.
 

You're Gonna Quit Me is an old spiritual-style blues delivered authentically once again. Diamond Joe is an old West song about a corrupt landowner and the traditional children's song Froggie Went A-Courtin' is nowhere near as bad as you may imagine it to be. If you want a quick blast of traditional folk, nostalgic rural US-style, give this a listen.

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WORLD GONE WRONG (1993)

1. World Gone Wrong
2. Love Henry
3. Ragged And Dirty
4. Blood In My Eyes
5. Broke Down Engine
6. Delia
7. Stack A Lee
8. Two Soldiers
9. Jack-A-Roe
10. Lone Pilgrim                   

This was a straight up follow on from the previous year's Good As I Been To You - Dylan with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, singing traditional folk and blues songs, enhancing them with his nasally, croaky ageing voice. He would have seemed to have been made for this material at this point in his life. The songs on both albums actually sound like Dylan songs in many ways, so they don't ever really seem like covers albums.

The songs on here are more rural blues than eighteenth century folk airs, more sombre perhaps than the previous album's folky narratives. The sound quality, as it has been on the previous album, is clear and sharp, as is Dylan's voice.
                      
World Gone Wrong is a mournful blues, immaculately sung with dignity and gravitas. Love Henry is one of the folkier songs. It is no surprise. however, upon listening to the lyrics, that it is about a woman murdering her lover. Most of the songs on the album are dark in nature, but, thinking about it, most folk/blues songs are. Ragged And Dirty has a finger-pickin' guitar backing and a real blues lyric of extreme poverty. Blood In My Eyes is another mournful blues, with some strong, melodic guitar. There is something that seems more essential about the choice of songs on this album, it has to be said, although it has proved not to have been as popular as its predecessor.

  

Broke Down Engine has a guitar intro that briefly sounds like Elvis's Guitar Man. Elvis loved Southern blues, so he no doubt used his love of them when composing the song. It is a "Lordy, Lordy" upbeat but yearning blues sung out of desperation and deprivation. Delia is a song of a "gambling girl, who laid her money down....". It is a song of the old West as opposed to a Delta blues.  Again, the guitar work is crystal clear and the vocal suitably sad and evocative. You feel this is a real labour of love for Dylan. His love and respect for the songs is clear to hear. Stack-A-Lee is another Western gambling tale, one that has been sung by many over the years.

Two Soldiers is probably the song that is derived most from the folk ballad tradition. Jack-A-Roe and Lone Pilgrim are both folky blues, bleak in nature, as has been the whole album.

As with Dylan's recordings of "Great American Songbook" crooners, he ran the risk of producing one too many albums in the same style and of covers as opposed to his own material. As good and interesting as these two albums were, he was wise to leave it at that after the two albums. Unfortunately, with the crooners, as I write, he has yet to behave as wisely.

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LIVE AT WOODSTOCK (1994)

1. Jokerman
2. Just Like A Woman
3. All Along The Watchtower
4. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
5. Don't Think Twice, Its Alright
6. Masters Of War
7. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
8. God Knows
9. I Shall Be Released
10. Highway 61 Revisited
11. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
12. It Ain't Me Babe

Recorded live at Woodstock in 1994

This is one of the now legally available, radio broadcasts of live shows. They proliferate the market these days, particularly as downloads. The sound quality on them is wildly variable. However, this one is pretty good, with relative clarity and a warm bass sound. Bob Dylan finally made it to Woodstock, twenty-five years after snubbing the initial festival.

The opener, Jokerman suffers a bit from muffled-ish sound, but thereafter the sound improves and we are treated to some lively performances from a Dylan still worth the ticket price. Highlights are a bluesy, rocking It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry, a committed, solid, Just Like A Woman, a slowed down, mysterious It's All Over Now, Baby Blue and an atmospheric Masters Of War. Dylan changes his vocal delivery considerably on these performances from their originals, singing a lot of them in the style he would use on Dylan: Unplugged a year later.



A real rarity is the inclusion of the heavy thump of God Knows from Under The Red SkyI Shall Be Released is a delight - dignified and guitar-driven with a great, characterful vocal from Dylan. Excellent guitar/drum/piano interplay near the end. Highway 61 Revisited rocks, an ageing Bob could still rock out at this point. The guitar is searing on here. I have never been a fan of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 but it is great at this show, full of bluesy rock verve. Dylan sounds as if he is really enjoying himself, something that can not always be said. It Ain't Me Babe is given a laid-back, bassy makeover, with acoustic guitar interjections, a different version to the one Dylan played in the seventies' Rolling Thunder era, which was reggae-ish. Here it is about the gently melodic bass. Then, at the end, we get a harmonica/guitar solo. Great stuff indeed.

A lot of these "unofficial but legal" releases are quite poor, but this one is worth checking out. It is packed full of excellent, lively performances.

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UNPLUGGED (1995)

1. Tombstone Blues
2. Shooting Star
3. All Along The Watchtower
4. The Times They Are A-Changin'
5. John Brown
6. Desolation Row
7. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
8. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
9. Dignity
10. Knockin' On Heaven's Door
11. Like A Rolling Stone
12. With God On Our Side     

This is Bob Dylan's contribution to the "unplugged" craze. As with most of them, "unplugged" was a bit of a misnomer, because his band features a drummer, a bassist, organist and a country style steel guitar as opposed to merely acoustic guitars. A lot of the tracks have a warm, full sound to them. It really is a most appealing album in the canon of Dylan's live stuff. There is a warm, homely atmosphere to it and you really get the sense that Dylan is enjoying himself. It is one of my favourite Dylan live albums. There is a looseness to it that is uplifting.
                              
The album kicks off with a robust, country, twangy take on Tombstone Blues. Dylan's voice was at the outset of the soon to be increasingly slurred, incomprehensible phase, but here it is just about still ok. It is a bit nasal and some words are overlooked, but the versions on here are eminently listenable. Shooting Star is lovely. Dylan's voice and diction are fine, with a moving crack in his ageing voice. The backing is excellent too - substantial and powerful in a stately way. The cheer when Dylan plays his harmonic solo is a nice moment. The bass, drum and guitar interplay is impressive, as is the bit when the organ comes in. It is always a pleasure to hear him play lesser-aired songs like this.

All Along The Watchtower is given an organ-driven, quirky makeover with Dylan croaking mysteriously away. Once more, the sound from the band is superb. The Times They Are A-Changin' features some beguiling bluesy slide guitar, when Dylan comes in on vocals I just can't help from being moved. It is a lovely version - powerful drums, swirling, melodic organ, slide guitar and Dylan just sounding great. The spiritual blues, John Brown fits the acoustic bill, being just Dylan, an acoustic and the bass. It is full of atmosphere.


Then we get my favourite Dylan track of all time, Desolation Row. He murdered it in 2011 when I saw him sing it live for the only time at Hammersmith Odeon. Thankfully, on here he does it pretty well. He loses a couple of verses, but it still stands up. It has a subtle but urgent acoustic, bass and slide guitar backing. Dylan's delivery of the song's many words is good, as it always should be.

I have never been a great fan of Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 but it is lusty and ebullient here, as I guess it always is.

  

Another big favourite of mine, though, is up next - the beautiful Love Minus Zero/No Limits. Once again, justice is done on a lovely acoustic and bass rendering. There is a truly entrancing guitar and slide passage in the middle. Then Dylan's harmonica comes in at the end. Enough said.

It is great to hear Dignity get an energetic, enthusiastic airing. The full band with the drums are back for this one and Dylan rocks on reliably, with Prince Philip at the home of the blues. Knockin' On Heaven's Door is given a full-on rock makeover, full of power, although still including a great acoustic solo at the end. Then it's Like A Rolling Stone time. Dylan delivers a solid version, organ to the fore, drums pounding, one of his best. Not quite Before The Flood but pretty damn good all the same.

This excellent concert concludes with the always evocative With God On Our Side, Dylan on acoustic singing his always-relevant anti-war anthem. A fine end to a fine album.

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