What does it sound like?:
It was the first time
March 20 1978 was the first time I saw Bob Dylan. I had just turned 21. As you can imagine the anticipation was palpable. He played 3 nights at Melbourne’s mainly outdoor venue the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. I saw the first night which rained heavily and the second night. I am in a chat group of Dylan fanatics and none of us recall being aware of the format these shows would take and the dramatic reworkings of songs. Dylan had played 16 shows before us including Auckland, Brisbane and Adelaide but, at most, the awareness was of a much bigger band.
To stand there listening to him play one of his lyrically most potent songs Hard rain as an instrumental, in a white jump suit, was extremely disorienting. The last thing I had heard or seen was the punky bandanas and face paint of the 76 Rolling Thunder tour. I tried to like it, I wanted to like it but really, I was underwhelmed. And in early 78, jump suits and flutes were a hard sell.
Budokan, the original album was intended for the Japan market only – how they thought that would work is beyond me. Record shops were importing the album in massive numbers so it’s release was broadened. Again, I tried to like it, wanted to like it, but it was patchy and with vinyl the only option, jumping tracks was impractical. Again, I was underwhelmed.
So, 45 years later – here we are, the Complete Budokan.
But first, some background.
Rolling Thunder was in 1976. After this in Jan 1978 he had released and then withdrawn Renaldo and Clara, built the Malibu mansion and had completed his divorce to Sara – each costing him a bundle. Money was apparently a motivation for this 10 country, 114 show tour often called the Alimony Tour. I do keep wondering however ,if you want to make a bundle why not tour a small combo rather than the 11 piece aggregation that was the 78 band? The tour grossed $20 million so either way he made plenty.
In Ray Padgett’s book, Rob Stoner who was musical director and bassist for Rolling Thunder said Dylan told him he wanted to “totally reimagine things, he wanted to hear himself in a bigger setting with a larger ensemble”. Jerry Weintraub, who was Neil Diamond’s manager was now managing Bob so I guess Dylan figured it could be managed logistically. Guitarist Billy Cross, also in Padgett, says that the arrangements all came from Dylan “ Each song had a direction, each song had a genre identity”. Genre identity – interesting term that. So this is in marked contrast to the random accumulation of musicians for Rolling Thunder and in the case of 76 , the whole garage sound coming from the band rehearsing.
Some say he wanted to emulate Neil Diamond or maybe Elvis. The King had died the previous year and later in the tour Presley bassist Jerry Schef replaced Stoner. Who knows. It was certainly unlike anything before or after. He continued with back-up singers during the Gospel period but I don’t think flutes, saxophones or congas have ever been part of his touring ensemble again.
After Australia they resumed the tour in LA in June, recorded Street Legal over a week, toured Europe and the UK then back to North America. Shows changed a bit and Street Legal songs got more exposure. 1 in Japan, none in Melbourne, Blackbushe got 5. So, given this evolution it surprises me that this release is exclusively 2 of the Japan shows. Many Dylan shows are recorded ,why not select from the whole 114 concerts, why not bookend with a show or shows from one later in the tour instead of when everything was so green?
What’s on offer?
The Complete Budokan is a remastered, expanded release taken from 2 performances on Feb 28 and March 1, 1978. From Bob Dylan.com: Newly Remixed & Remastered from Original 24-Channel Analog Tapes, The Complete Budokan 1978 Celebrates the 45th Anniversary of Bob Dylan’s First Concerts in Japan.The Deluxe Box Set Presents Two Complete Shows from Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall (February 28 & March 1, 1978) featuring 58 Tracks, 36 of which are Previously Unreleased. Bob Dylan – Another Budokan 1978, is a 2LP Highlight Edition, featuring 16 Select Unreleased Live Performances.
A friend advises that the deluxe issue “has a good book with photos and that
curiously it came with a Japanese wrap around…but once opened it was English underneath. There is a nice pack of memorabilia..includes two large posters, the Japanese tour program, assorted photos and stuff…and a lyrics book (English and Japanese) which includes a transcript of everything he said.”
I haven’t bought any iteration yet. They’re expensive and I’m hoping it will drop in price. I have been listening to the streamed version through Amazon High res.
Time to talk about the music
First impressions – wonderful sound. My original album is in storage but they have done a great job providing clarity and separation to this big band. The back up singers and saxophone have much more prominence – this is indeed a mixed blessing. Dylan is in fine voice, a little bit husky initially but not overly nasal and none of those vocal tropes like the upper inflection at the end of each line that has blighted some eras. I’m inclined to agree who commented that “1978 is my favourite Dylan voice. More texture and body then than ever before. Accentuated phrasing. And really front and centre in the mix, most of the time.”
But let’s cut to the chase, you add sax, congas, a multi instrumentalist (Mansfield) on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and flute and back up singers – you’ve gotta use em right ? Too often, far far too often I feel there for the sake of it .A pet hate hate of mine is covers of Dylan that over milk the melody turning the songs saccharine. Well, on heaps of songs both from the original and the previously unreleased songs Dylan is doing just that with lashings of back up vocalisations, schmaltzy sax and pootling flutes. Flutes for fuck’s sake. That version of Love Minus Zero really gets my goat. Times, Tambourine Man, Forever Young ,Blowin In The Wind, Just like a Woman they all suffer the same saccharine fate with the sax and backing vocals combining to do their worst. And the cod reggae of Don’t Think Twice pales compared to the Slow Train stuff.
But sometimes it all comes off rather well. I lack the vocabulary but sometimes those backing vocals work to fine effect really adding to the crescendo on choruses – Like a Rolling Stone is a good example. I Threw It All Away that wonderful song from Nashville Skyline and reworked on Hard Rain is excellent with back up vocal to good effect on the chorus. Girl From The North Country – fucking magnificent. Low, understated with a sort of drone like effect at the end of each line -is that a traditional English/Celtic folk thing? Going Gone from Planet Waves, great groove and the singers “going going gone” -yep that works. Sooner Or Later is pretty neat and with the new mix you can hear the bass sax going parp parp underneath giving it a lift. For me the highlight is Oh Sister. Smokey groove it’s got that swampy voodoo feel of Dr John’s Walk On Gilded Splinters with the vocals just perfect and the sax solo substituting gravel for sugar. You’re A Big Girl Now, a personal favourite comes off well.
What does it all *mean*?
By no means was it a failure and by no means is this new release pointless. It documents a fascinating period but thank God for fast forward.
Goes well with…
A white jump suit.
Might suit people who like…
Their Dylan with a dose of schmaltz