Review: Dylan’s Bootleg Series Vol 12, The Cutting Edge – Lightning In a Bottle

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 In a previous post on BourbonAndVinyl I published a “User’s Guide” to Bob Dylan’s vast collection of “Bootleg” recordings/box sets. I actually went all the way back to his first box set, “Biograph” the box set that started the entire box set cottage industry. Obviously I’m a Dylan fan. But I have to admit, when I heard the title of this latest edition, ‘Volume 12, The Cutting Edge  1965-1966’ I was a bit put off. I’ve been hoping for a box from the “Blood On The Tracks” sessions – he recorded that timeless classic first in New York with some session musicians and then a second time in Minneapolis with a local band. After the Basement Tapes (Vol 11), “Blood on the Tracks” is my Holy Grail. I can imagine sitting around for hours listening to the different takes of the album and analyzing the differences. Perhaps I need a few more hobbies. The other Bootleg I’d like to hear is for the oft overlooked album, “Infidels” that my buddy Drew turned me onto in college. Like “Blood on the Tracks”, it has several versions. Mark Knopfler produced the album but had to leave for a tour before he could finish mixing the songs. The record company and Dylan inexplicably cut a couple of songs from the final album including the latter day masterpiece, “Blind Willie McTell”. I’ve heard there is a Knopfler mix out there which would make for some interesting musical spelunking.

Which leads me back to ‘Vol 12, The Cutting Edge’. When I first read about the 6-disc compilation (the 12-disc seemed like too much and the 2-disc “highlights” seemed too slight) I thought it would be for completists and collectors only. I was, as usual, wrong. What I hadn’t taken into account was the time period, 1965 to 1966. Over the course of those 18-24 months Dylan reached what can only be described as his creative zenith. The only thing comparable would the Stones from “Beggars Banquet” to “Exile On Main Street” or the Beatles from “Rubber Soul” to the White Album. He released 3 of the greatest albums of music of all time – not just rock music, but music period – “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde On Blonde” who many point to as the first ever double vinyl album. Even the outtakes from that era are fantastic. Dylan’s genius explodes on these three albums as he transforms his music from more traditional folk to rock and roll. It was clear Dylan was becoming tired of the confines of mere folk music – “Another Side of Bob Dylan” was a rock and roll album in every way except for the lack of instrumentation. For me, Dylan’s early music was always as much influenced by Leadbelly as it was Woody Guthrie. Yes, Dylan was the ultimate folk singer, but damn was he bluesy. He did “In My Time of Dying” and “Highway 51 Blues” on his first album for God’s sake. There’s a lot of protest in those old blues.

One of the things about Vol 12 that put me off as well was the song sequence. Instead of mixing up the various takes of the songs that ultimately (for the most part) ended up on his three masterpieces, they sequence the songs together. So you get all the four takes of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” in a row. I was concerned this would be tedious listening. I have to admit the only time during my repeated listens that it did become tedious was on disc 3 which is totally dedicated to “Like a Rolling Stone”. I get it, it’s a huge song from a huge artist but an entire disc devoted to that one song? I don’t think anybody needs to hear the “Master Take (Piano, Bass)” from “Like a Rolling Stone”. The world could have done without that. So listen selectively from disc 3 folks. That aside, I really liked the sequencing of the songs. I think many of us just imagine that when an artist writes a song, the song pops into his head fully formed. Listening to the songs morph over the course of 4 or 5 takes is a fascinating look at the transformative job of creating a work of art. Melodies and lyrics change with almost each take. It’s like the statue of “The Thinker” by Rodin at the Nelson Atkins Art Museum. Sure, the finished, huge bronze statue is awesome, but so are the smaller, clay versions that Rodin did as he was “sketching” out his ideas. So too is the Cutting Edge like sculpting. Dylan would start with an idea and shape it in the studio. I think my favorite cuts here are of “Visions of Johanna”. Now, admittedly it’s one of my all time favorite songs, but listening to it’s transformation is magical. It starts off light, almost a lilting melody. It slowly gets heavier through each take. The way the songs are sequenced it almost feels like you’re sitting in the control booth next to Tom Wilson or Bob Johnston, producing the record. The first version of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” on the set breaks down and Dylan says, almost petulantly “I never do a song as well as I do it the first time…” Producers must have the patience of Job.

There are some great outtakes here, some that ended up on Vol 1-3. “Farewell Angelina” one of my all time favorites, “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” which was later so wonderfully covered by the Cowboy Junkies, and “Jet Pilot” are all here. Some of the rehearsals and songs that collapse are as interesting as the final takes. Dylan does an early version of “Mr. Tamborine Man” with drums and bass that just falls apart as Dylan exclaims, “The drums are throwing me off, man.”

For me, of the three records during this period of Dylan’s career, “Highway 61 Revisited” is my favorite. I mean, it’s hard to choose, it’s like picking a favorite child but I love “Highway 61 Revisited” because the criminally overlooked genius Michael Bloomfield is on hand to play lead guitar. Bloomfield was a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and he just shreds on the songs he’s playing. On the outtakes from songs on “Highway 61…” you can hear Bloomfield’s distinctive guitar weaving in and around Dylan’s lyrics as they dance, trying to find the right tempo or the right melody. Mike brought a real bluesy feel with him to Dylan’s songs. Bloomfield and Dylan belong together. Not to say the songs where the Band’s Robbie Robertson plays guitar are anything to sneeze at. Clearly Dylan has exquisite taste in guitar collaborators.

The 6-disc set ends with a 9 minute version of his epic, epic song “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. That song is perhaps Dylan’s most artistic song ever. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in the studio when he brought that one in. This particular outtake was fascinating. I only wish there had been a few more versions of that particular song.

I have to say, the folks that are curating the Bootleg Series have done a fabulous job with Vol 12. Again, the outtakes from this period of Dylan’s career are more interesting than many artist’s finished products. I know one thing for sure, I’ll never automatically assume I won’t enjoy a Bootleg Volume until I’ve heard it for myself. ‘The Bootleg Volume 12, The Cutting Edge’ is a BourbonAndVinyl highly recommended album.

Pour something strong, put on the head phones, and enjoy. Cheers!

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Springsteen’s Winter-Storm Jonas Gift: Thank You Bruce

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 When Winter Storm Jonas rolled through the Northeast last weekend, wreaking havoc, one of the by-products was the cancellation of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s concert at Madison Square Garden Sunday, January 24th. As a free gift to make up for the cancellation Bruce released his previous show ‘Chicago January 19th’ as a free MP3 download for a two day period. Naturally I jumped on that gift, and let me say, Thank you Bruce. I’ve already written about Springsteen’s archival downloads in another blog post, but I’m not sure if I mentioned he’s now releasing every show as a live download through his website like Pearl Jam has been doing for 15 years or so. I downloaded his Capetown, South Africa show from his last tour. He finally found a way to beat the bootleggers. Springsteen and the E Street Band are out on the road to support last year’s box set ‘The Ties That Bind’ which celebrates the anniversary of Bruce’s epic double album, ‘The River’. I would be writing about ‘The Ties That Bind’ but there was a mix up at Christmas and despite the box set being at the top of my Christmas list, here I sit in January with no present. Apparently it’s “on it’s way”. Sigh, Christmas…

As part of this tour Bruce is performing ‘The River’ in it’s entirety, from start to finish. Ah, the album playback-centric concert. It can be dicey. Playing an album as it was released can often produce mixed results. I saw Motley Crue do ‘Dr Feelgood’ a few years back and left disappointed. I saw the Cult do ‘Love’ and ‘Electric’ and those shows were amazing. Of course the Cult is a hard rock band (and could really be defined across genre’s) so there is a cohesion on those records that lend themselves to a concert treatment. Of course, for the ‘Electric’ show I was drinking vodka with the Rock Chick and my buddy Stormin’ in Denver and I actually got a VIP package and met the band so that may have influenced my feelings about that show.

‘The River’ was my first Springsteen album purchase. I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, in Kansas so Springsteen was a bit foreign to me. He didn’t get a ton of airplay out here. I had only recently switched my radio from Royals’ games to KY/102 the lone rock station in town. I’d heard some Bruce but wasn’t that familiar with him. “Hungry Heart” was literally the first “hit” he had out here. I can still remember standing in the record store, the smell of incense in the background clutching the double vinyl album wondering if it was worth the investment. A double album in those days could be close to $15 which was a fortune on a lawn mower/bus boy wage. In those days, if I liked the first single on an album I’d wait until I heard a second then a third song. If I liked all three it was deemed “purchase-worthy”. What can I say, cash was in short supply when you spent half of it on beer and gas. I can say, all these years later, thankfully I made the buy.

I remember the jolt I got when the needle found the groove and “The Ties That Bind,” the opening track, jumped out of the speakers. It was like a jolt of amphetamine. I realized I’d made a very sound investment. Springsteen had been kept out of the studio for 4 years after ‘Born to Run’ and then had been very selective on what he put out on ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’ so he had a back log of great songs that he’d been playing live (and being bootlegged) for some time. He had originally submitted a single album but wisely pulled it back in favor of this sprawling, masterpiece. Over the course of 20 songs the Bruce and the E Streeters do everything – rockers, rockabilly, ballads, politics, love, breakups, a wreck on the highway, literally everything. Every double album that comes along gets compared to ‘The White Album’ but this one may actually earn that description. The title track to ‘The River’ is one of Springsteen’s finest achievements as a songwriter: he captures the political ramifications of an economic downturn in the most personal way, and it’s much more effective for it.

It appears on this tour Bruce is opening with a song from ‘The Ties That Bind’ box, “Meet Me In the City Tonight”. How did this song not see proper release long ago? I can only hope that some day I’ll actually get my Xmas gift and hear the studio version (Damn you Santa). “Meet Me In the City” is an awesome opener. It just shows the depth and quality of the material Bruce was writing at that time. From there the E Street Band takes you through ‘The River’ in it’s entirety. It’s an amazing start to this concert (and I do mean “start” the show is 3 1/2 hours long). ‘The River’, with the way the album was paced, is a great album to play in concert. It’s music and moods are varied enough to withstand a concert treatment. Bruce tells a nice story before “Independence Day” which was a song I listened to constantly in my “angry-at-my-father” stage of life (does everybody go through that?). “Drive All Night” may be my favorite Springsteen love song. “Baby, I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes” is the line that always gets me and the way my wife buys shoes ended up being somewhat prophetic for me.

After they complete ‘The River’ album playback, it’s party time. I’ve looked at the set lists from other shows and they vary wildly. On the ‘Chicago’ show he plays several songs from ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Born In the USA’ (including “Cover Me”, “Dancing in the Dark” and “No Surrender” where Bruce blows the intro twice). He also plays “Human Touch” a song I’ve never heard live and was surprised to hear. Bruce even does a nice acoustic/violin version of “Take It Easy” as a tribute to Glenn Frey which is understated and powerful (although I would have loved one of Bruce’s patented pre-song stories about, say, Warren Zevon and Frey and he hanging out, but those records are probably sealed). After a towering run through “Rosalita” the party comes to an end with the old R&B tune, “Shout”. I’ve heard Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty all do this song, and frankly no one will ever top Otis Day and at the Knights from the movie “Animal House” but the E Street Band do a great version.

The vocals on this live show are right up front. The Capetown show I purchased, the vocals were down in the mix, which was disappointing. Not so on this album, the sound is terrific. Since Clarence Clemons passed away Bruce has augmented the band with an entire horn section. For ‘The River’ Tour he’s paired it down to only Jake Clemons, The Big Man’s nephew. I must say, I was impressed with Jake’s playing. No one will ever play with the distinct power of Clarence, but his nephew does him proud. I like this stripped down version of the horn section. I am also very happy to see Bruce’s wife Patti back on rhythm guitar and vocals, she’s been missing the last couple of tours. Little Steven, who co-produced ‘The River’ is up front and appears to have replaced Clarence as Bruce’s main on-stage foil. I think we all love Little Steve, so this is good news. The sound of this recording is really great.

I don’t think ‘Chicago January 19th’ is still being offered for free, but it’s certainly worth the purchase price. My advice is to look at the set lists for his different shows, pay particular attention to the songs after song 21 where ‘The River’ concludes and pick the set of tunes you like. This is an epic tour and it appears Bruce is working on yet another “solo” project so it may be a while before you hear the whole band perform together again. Fans of “Live Music” recordings, look no further.

Enjoy and as always, Cheers!

Stray Cats: Bob Dylan’s New Bootleg Series, Rod and The Jeff Beck Group

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In this edition of Stray Cats (aka Random Music/Classic Rock News) I have three quick updates. I just found out, mere weeks after I’d posted my Dylan Bootleg Series User’s Guide, that another edition is set for release. Volume 12, entitled “The Cutting Edge 65 -66” it is a 6 CD treasure trove of outtakes from the sessions for “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61” and I believe, “Blonde On Blonde”. I’m a huge Dylan fan, and I’m a huge fan of the bootleg series, but this set might be too much for even a fanatic/completist like me. There is a 2 CD “Best of…” culled from the 6 CDs… Stay tuned on this one.

Rod Stewart has released the second single from his upcoming “Another Country” album. There’s an interview with him in the latest Rolling Stone magazine that I fear I have not had time to get around to reading. I hate it when work interferes with my rock and roll. The new tune, “Please” is an old school Rod rocker. It sounds like an outtake from “Night On the Town”. The guitar even has a slight Ron Wood sound to it. I think “Another Country” is going to be amazing.

Finally, I got an email from Amazon.com about an upcoming release of a 1968 radio broadcast of the Jeff Beck Group. Before Rod was a solo artist and before he was the lead singer of The Faces, he was the lead singer in a little band called The Jeff Beck Group. Jeff Beck, the guitar wizard, put together the The Jeff Beck Group after the Yardbirds fired him for being mercurial. Ronnie Wood actually changed from guitar to bass for this band. They were slated to play Woodstock but Jeff Beck wrecked his sports car and they had to scratch. He had recruited Rod as his lead singer because he knew males would flock to their shows to hear his guitar. He figured a good looking blonde guy on vocals would bring in the “birds”. Jimmy Page was watching closely and in the spirit of “anything you can do, I can do better” formed Led Zeppelin on the same model with Robert Plant on lead vocals. The Jeff Beck Group’s first album “Truth” was epic and extremely influential. Alas, Jeff’s management treated Rod and Ronnie like sidemen and eventually they both left and joined the Faces. I’ve heard a few bootlegs over the years and live these guys were a tour de force. I know nothing about this mysterious 1968 radio broadcast but if the sound quality is up to snuff this could be an amazing find.

Cheers!

Dylan’s Bootleg Series – A User’s Guide

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Ah, the term “bootleg.” It conjures up so many wonderful emotions. Quickly after buying my first album, Some Girls, I discovered the secret world of bootleg recordings. A bootleg, or “boot” as they’re commonly known, is a song or collection of songs an artist has recorded but not yet released. I can remember being in used record stores, in the “special” section down in the basement where albums in plain paper wrappers with curious names by my favorite artists could be found. I vividly recall slipping cash into someone’s hands in the back room of a local record store in exchange for Springsteen bootleg concert recordings.

For the longest time, I thought Springsteen was the only artist who was bootlegged in a major way. In 1978 his tour in support of Darkness On the Edge of Town was epic and widely bootlegged. It was a bit of a comeback after his legal problems after Born To Run and those radio broadcasts found their way onto cassettes and vinyl albums. On one recording, he even says, “this song will likely find it’s way to you courtesy of your local bootlegger.” I love that the original bootleggers were enterprising individuals who smuggled whiskey into the U.S. during Prohibition. The marriage of Bourbon and Vinyl goes back many years, my friends. But I’m getting off point.

It turns out Bruce wasn’t the only prolifically bootlegged artist out there. Bob Dylan was just as bootlegged, and many of his boots were studio recordings Bob hadn’t released for one reason or another. His writing was so prolific he often had more songs than he needed, so there were always leftovers. Those leftovers he didn’t release as non-album singles, which was a wide spread practice, even into the 70’s, usually stayed in the can until someone made a copy, and someone made a copy of that and so on and so on. Now, one can sympathize with the artist who isn’t receiving any renumeration for these bootlegs but at the same time much of this music needed to be heard.

Dylan, frustrated by not getting paid for his hard work finally decided to trump the bootleggers and start his own “Bootleg Series” and open up the vaults. I must say, it has been an interesting journey into his creative process. But at this point, there are 11 in the series, not including his excellent first box set, Biograph, and with literally 12 boxes out there, it can get a little confusing. As a public service to rock fans and Bob Dylan fans everywhere, it occurred to me someone should put together a “user’s guide” of sorts. Think of it as a reference document detailing this brilliant series by this brilliant artist. Hope it helps, and as always, enjoy!

Volume 0.0 – Biograph – Biograph was not a part of the Bootleg Series. Released in 1985 it literally created the market for boxed sets. There would be no Eric Clapton’s Crossroads, or Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s Live 1975-1985 without Dylan’s Biograph. The baby boomers were getting older and had the money to shell out for a 5 album set. I own Biograph on vinyl and I treat it like a holy talisman. It has hits, album cuts, unreleased songs, and unreleased live versions of songs. It’s not chronologically based but loosely based around either a theme or a certain style. It is what it is named – a musical biography of the man. I’d put this up against his autobiography Chronicles, any day.

Bootleg Series Volume 1 to Volume 3 – Rare and Unreleased 1961 – 1991. This box set of 3 CDs, carries on in the tradition of Biograph, and contains unreleased studio cuts. The first disc, and the beginning of the 2nd, are Dylan only accompanied by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. It’s the Dylan who took the folk music world by storm. These were songs recorded by Dylan so he could get the tune and lyrics copyrighted and sold to other artists. Even the King of Folk needs to pay the rent folks. Early in disc 2, like his career, it turns electric. The real gems here are the unreleased takes from Blood on the Tracks, the early versions of songs from that album that were recorded in NY. I’m hoping for a Bootleg Series edition for just that album some day. This is a great, very deep collection of unreleased tracks.

Bootleg Series Volume 4 – Live 1966 – The Royal Albert Hall – This is simply put, a stunning historical document. If the American Revolution had been recorded, this is what it would have sounded like. Dylan decided to go electric, hired a band known previously as the Hawks, soon to change their name to the Band (as they were derisively referred to by Dylan’s once devoted folky fans) and toured England. It was a tumultuous tour to say the least. Levon Helm, the drummer in the Hawks/Band actually quit and flew back to the States, he couldn’t take the vitriolic response of the crowds. You can hear that hostility in this recording. Dylan realized he needed to do an acoustic set to start his concerts to placate the fans. But even during the acoustic set they hiss and make disruptive noises. I haven’t seen a fan base this hostile since the Chief’s had Todd Haley as their head coach. Toward the end of the electric set, one idiot in the crowd screams “Judas”. Dylan responds with “I don’t believe you,” then turns to the band and says, “Play fucking loud.” The band tears into Like a Rolling Stone. Simply riveting.

Bootleg Series Volume 5 – Live 1975 – The Rolling Thunder Review – This volume in the series documents a really under served part of Dylan’s career. The 60’s are over, the cynical me-generation 70’s are in full swing. Dylan started hanging out with a bunch of musical refugees in the West Village in New York and they eventually started touring. It’s amazing to hear the affection the crowd now holds for Dylan… all the hostility of ’66 was gone. This tour was around the time of Desire, so there are a lot of great live versions of that album’s songs here.

Bootleg Series Volume 6 – Live 1964 – Dylan at the apex of his popularity with the folk crowds. He was their King and he’s playing in Carnegie Hall. All acoustic, folky protestor Dylan. Later in the set, his girlfriend, Joan Baez shows up to do a few duets. I realize that they were the Jay-Z and Beyonce of their time, but I’ve never been a big Baez fan. I do like that her version of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You inspired Led Zeppelin to record the song, but I could do without her here. This is a virtual love in with Dylan and his folk music following. Great live recording, though.

Bootleg Series Volume 7 – No Direction Home – This is the soundtrack to the excellent Martin Scorcese documentary of the same name. This is for the true collectors only. There are some great live takes on the classics and some great alternative versions as well. The incendiary performance from Newport when Dylan went electric with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band is here. Michael Bloomfield – man, how we miss you!

Bootleg Series Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs, Rare and Unreleased 1989 – 2006. This one came as a complete surprise. This era was not exactly Dylan’s high water mark. But this 2 disc set sounds like a “lost album” from the period. There are different takes on songs released from that era that are far superior here. There are also some cuts that inexplicably didn’t get released. This was a treasure trove of unreleased material and really hangs together well for a set that spans such a wide period of time.

Bootleg Series Volume 9 – Witmark Demos – This is the only volume I do not own. Again, my thoughts, this is for serious completists only. Dylan went to the Witmark Publishing Company and recorded these demo’s to get copyrights in order to sell the songs to other artists. Everybody has to make a buck and he could’t release everything he was writing. My issue here is 2/3 of these songs are on Volume 1 and a few more are on Biograph, so this is the first Volume in the series where you see serious overlap. I have heard from a friend that the audio and remix on this set is far superior to anything previously released. He said it sounds like you’re sitting in the recording booth on a stool next to Bob. So, the set has that going for it.

Bootleg Series Volume 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)- This was as big a shock to me as Volume 8. Self Portrait, an album Dylan released at a real crossroads in his life, is his most reviled. It is often cited as an album that could have ruined his career. He quickly released New Morning, which was heralded as one of many Dylan comebacks. This box has some unvarnished versions of songs that were overdubbed for the album release, and these versions are far superior. It actually covers the period from before Self Portrait, to right after New Morning, and I feel it gives a great picture of where Dylan the artist was at that time. This is a great glimpse into his creative process.

Bootleg Series Volume 11 – Bob Dylan & The Band, The Complete Basement Tapes – This one, at 5 discs, is the motherlode. Dylan and the Band released a 2 disc set compiled from the famous sessions at Big Pink, but that set was merely an appetizer. Finally, all these years later this box has all of it. The fifth disc disintegrates into mostly song sketches vs songs, but the sound quality and the quality of the music those guys performed in that basement is like the Magna Carta of rock ‘n’ roll. They invented country-rock, roots music and reinvigorated rock ‘n’ roll in that basement. This is a master piece.

So there you have it folks, my user’s guide to the Dylan Bootleg Series. Enjoy!