Review: Thinking Twice About Bob Dylan's Gospel Phase With New Bootleg Box

Our take on 'Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 / 1979-1981,' a set that travels deeper into one of his most maligned eras

Bob Dylan in 1980. Credit: Bob King/Getty

The arguments of this edition of the Bootleg Series are familiar — a disparaged period in Dylan's career (in this case, the gospel years) was better than you think; the studio recordings don't tell the story as well as the live shows; he was so busy chasing the moment that he left some of the best stuff in the vault.

And, yes. The first two CDs, lovingly assembled from live tracks spanning 24 months and 19 cities, showcase a band that could bend toward tradition without losing any of the brute force that defined rock in one of its last moments at culture's center stage. A 1981 version of "Gotta Serve Somebody" in Bad Segeberg, Germany turns the song from a shuffle into a power-chord stomp, before opening space for gospel shouts at the end. It's followed by a 1979 performance of one of 14 unreleased songs, "Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One," that opens with guitar boogie before sliding into a soul-drenched reggae groove. It's a moment of jubilation, full of lubricious spirituality. Such moments are not in abundance across the eight CDs in this box set. Enjoy this one. 

So also, no. There are treasures aplenty here, among them a rehearsal take on "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" that seems to find the band jamming on the Rolling Stones' "Bitch" and two very different versions of "Caribbean Wind," an epic full of lust, divinity and a mystery that he never resolved. But there's also bitterness and stridency, as the restless spirit of "Like a Rolling Stone" stops dead on the Biblical literalism of "Solid Rock." Dylan had traded songs that asked questions for songs that insisted on answers. It was a test of faith, his and ours. It still is.