“I can manipulate people as well as anybody,” Bob Dylan sings near the halfway point of “Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13, 1979-1981.” “Bust ’em and burn ’em, twist ’em and turn ’em.”
That’s a pretty radical proclamation coming from a folk torchbearer in the midst of a religious conversion. Admittedly, Dylan was singing about self-preservation of the soul, and the song, “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody,” is one of several unreleased works on “Trouble No More” that chronicles perhaps the most confounding chapter in his career. That’s why it’s hard not to take the above lyric at face value and agree that Dylan, once the most integral folk figure of his generation, was just leading us all on.
But “Trouble No More” confirms that the 2 1/2 -year stretch, Dylan’s “gospel period,” was no joke. In fact, the clarity of these performances comes with an often stinging precision that his concerts would soon lose forever. That explains why “Trouble No More” contains songs he cut for his three studio albums of the era — 1979’s “Slow Train Coming,” 1980’s “Saved” and 1981’s “Shot of Love” — but not the actual recordings. The music is instead retold through unreleased concert versions from those years with an extended band that included guitarist Fred Tackett (a longtime member of Little Feat) and veteran pianist Spooner Oldham. The late-1981 performances add keyboardist Al Kooper, a returnee from mid-’60s Dylan sessions that, when contrasted against the music on “Trouble No More,” seem part of a very distant lifetime.
There is a curious arc to this music. The tunes from “Slow Train Coming” seem allegorical today, rooted as much in serene Southern soul as in actual gospel. “I Believe in You” retains the coolness and uncertainty of the studio version. Same for “When He Returns,” which wears its spiritual warning (“Don’t you cry, don’t you die and don’t you burn”) alongside sparse, piano-dominated support.
The 1980 performances of the “Saved” material, much like the studio album, toss Dylan completely to the heavens. You hear it in the tabernacle treatment of the title tune to “Saved,” while “Solid Rock” is all fire and electric grit, a testament set to a Bo Diddley beat with Dylan sounding at home as crusader.
By “Shot of Love,” changes were brewing. The tone of the songs grew darker (“Dead Man, Dead Man”) and the performances of the gospel fare from the previous tours deviated wildly from their original arrangements (the Southern rock and soul revision of “Slow Train,” for instance). No wonder then that the album-closing “Every Grain of Sand,” the most enduring song of this era, is sung with profound and weary introspection.
It’s as if Dylan had appropriated all he could (or needed) from his spiritual rebirth and was about to catch the next slow train out of his gospel trajectory.
(“Trouble No More” is available as a nine-CD/DVD and two-CD set. The two-CD version was reviewed here.)