Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait, post #5

Is it possible I never wrote the last post in that series?  I had it written in my mind...  Oh well, they say blogging is dead anyway. 

Another Self Portrait is at its strongest in its look at Dylan's 1970 sessions.  One could argue that it would have been stronger had it just focused on them, but it gestures toward a look back at 1969 (and 1968).  And it also gestures toward a look forward, at 1971.  This makes sense.  New Morning didn't signal a new direction in Dylan's songwriting;  in fact, in retrospect it marks the first time his muse and he would take some time off from each other.  No album of new songs in 1971, none in 1972, and only a soundtrack for 1973.  Only at the very end of '73, with the Planet Waves sessions, would he find his way back into a songwriting groove.

But 1971 was not an unproductive year for Bob.  He released two new non-album singles, and his second greatest-hits album, released at the end of the year, contained a few new recordings.  A few more studio or at least non-live things have filtered out over the decades since, and ASP adds three key recordings to this cache.  Total it all up and you have a vinyl lp's worth of material.  I've always heard it like that, scattered though it is, and the newly released tracks round out this imaginary album nicely.

What is there?

1. "East Virginia," a traditional number recorded in a home-jam setting with Earl Scruggs and his sons in December 1970 for broadcast on a public television documentary in January 1971.  This is the scarcest track, never having been released on CD, but it's worth seeking out on youtube.  It's the only trad number from this year (counting it with '71), and a nice coda to Dylan's collaborations with the Band, Johnny Cash, and others from this period.

2. Three tracks recorded in March '71 with a bunch of people Dylan knew through the George Harrison/Shelter connection:  Leon Russell, Jesse Ed Davis, etc.  "Watching The River Flow" was a non-album single side, a full-band version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" was released on GH2, and ASP adds an alternate version of "Masterpiece," Dylan at the piano with some different lyrics.  "Watching" is fun, but "Masterpiece" is one of Dylan's most important compositions.  The alternate version is one of the really worthwhile things about ASP.

3. Yet another take on "If Not For You," this being the second with George Harrison, taken from the soundcheck for the Bangladesh concert in August.  It's on the DVD.

4. Four tracks recorded with Happy Traum for GH2.  This is a very significant session because three of the tracks were Basement numbers:  "I Shall Be Released," "Down In The Flood," and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere."  For a few years there (two decades in the case of "Released") these were the only officially available Dylan versions of these songs.  Seems like it wouldn't be a fair trade but in fact he's in fine form here, and this version of "Released" is an amazing rethink of the song.  ASP adds "Only A Hobo," long a tantalizing absence from the bootleg circuit.  It's a welcome release.

5. Four tracks recorded in November.  The main purpose of the session was the "George Jackson" non-album single, Dylan's first foray into protest song in many years.  One side was a solo acoustic version, the other a small band version (labeled "Big Band" but really just a country combo with gospel singers).  The electric version was released on CD back in the '80s on the Australian-only Masterpieces set, and was rereleased on iTunes for a while in the mid '00s.  For many years the acoustic version was available only on vinyl or bootleg, but it's now on Side Tracks.  Both versions are essential.  The other two tracks are two versions of the original "Wallflower," one of which wasn't released until 1991, and the other of which is new to ASP.  It's a minor composition, but very nicely realized - a perfect little genre exercise, one of the strongest pure-country songs he ever wrote. 

As this summary makes clear, ASP adds three key tracks that round out our understanding of Dylan's '71 very nicely.  It was a year when he seems to have had only fitful inspiration as a songwriter, but the few things he came up with were gems, every one of them.  And his singing - well, the songwriting drought is a tragedy, because he was in really fine voice this year.  His vocals on the Traum sessions are agile, sensitive, and masterful;  all through the year he's in a backwoods-country-soul mode that's distinct from what he'd done in '69 and anytime in '70.  It's one of my favorite periods in terms of Dylan's vocals, and I've always wished there was more.  Now there is, a little bit.

Sure, one might wish for a release that presented these sessions together, something resembling what's outlined above.  And that's my general take on ASP.  It's full of revelations, minor masterpieces, interesting dead ends, and welcome details.  And it's comprehensive enough to feel like it's intended to be the last word on this era.  But one hopes it isn't, because a closer look reveals that it's nothing approaching comprehensive.  It's a patchwork, very much like the Self Portrait album itself.  Cute idea, but I'm still not sure it does any of the sessions justice. 

Except the Isle of Wight show, which is complete, and therefore definitive.  There's a lesson there, which luckily the Bootleg Series czars learned in time for the next installment.