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The 10 Best Bob Dylan Bootlegs

The definitive tour recordings from every era of Dylan's career

May 10, 2011 8:55 PM ET
Bob Dylan performing in Toronto, April 18, 1980.
Bob Dylan performing in Toronto, April 18, 1980.
Marty Temme/WireImage

Happy Birthday BobIn the summer of 1969 a strange new Bob Dylan double LP hit record store shelves in a plain white sleeve. The words "GF 001/2/3/4" were stamped on the cover, though later editions were called Great White Wonder. One record consisted of the tracks from the long-rumored Basement Tapes, while the other one was largely folk covers taped live in 1961. Nobody realized it at the time, but it was the first commercially available bootleg.

Great White Wonder flew off shelves, kicking off the age of the rock & roll bootleg. In the four decades since, Dylan has been bootlegged more than any other artist. In 1991 he decided to beat the bootleggers at their own game by releasing the three-CD set, The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. He’s since put out six more volumes (always with better sound quality than what’s previously circulated), but it’s done nothing to stop the flood of underground releases.

His refusal to release a single show from the Never Ending Tour, the complete unedited Basement Tapes or countless other legendary bootlegs has led to a very active underground Dylan recording community. To a newbie the sheer amount of material can be overwhelming, but here’s a guide to the best of every era of Dylan’s career. As the man himself sang in 2001, "Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff."

Carnegie Chapter Hall, 11/4/61
Dylan had been playing New York coffee houses for just 10 months when he got booked at the city's most prestigious venue, even if it was in the smallest theater in the Carnegie Hall complex and only 53 people showed up. A great recording of half the show has circulated for years, though the inclusion of the previously unreleased "This Land Is Your Land" on the No Direction Home soundtrack seems to confirm that Columbia has the entire set in their vaults.

Clearly nervous to be on a big stage 40 blocks uptown from the Village, Dylan doesn’t play a single original, instead opting for tried-and-true tracks like Woody Guthrie’s "1913 Massacre," which formed the basis for his own "Song To Woody" recorded just a few weeks later. The highlight is Bukka White’s "Fixin’ to Die," which also appeared on his debut. In less than two years he would hit the main stage at Carnegie Hall with an arsenal of original material.

Photos: Bob Dylan Hanging With Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and More

Town Hall, 4/12/63
Near the height of his protest period Dylan played one of the biggest gigs of his career at New York’s Town Hall. Columbia taped it for an official release and many tracks leaked out over the years, but in 2008 the complete soundboard appeared online with 10 unheard tunes. Through the 24-song set Dylan focuses on finger-pointing social justice songs like "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Who Killed Davey Moore" and "Masters Of War."

In the year and a half since his Carnegie Hall show, the 21-year-old had developed incredible confidence onstage, regularly causing the crowd to break into laughter or listen to his words in absolute silence. Writing in the New York Times, Robert Shelton gave the show a rapturous review. "Mr. Dylan’s mastery of mood built up an almost physically discomforting intensity in ‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown,’ a song about death on a South Dakota farm," he wrote. " 'A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall' about the pollution of the atmosphere with fallout, generated similar tensions through repetition and an inexorable guitar beat." The pristine bootleg is far and away the best recording from this period of Dylan’s career.

The Complete Basement Tapes
Of the many versions of the Basement Tapes to trickle out over the years, the official release by Columbia in 1975 may be the worst. Not only did the Band overdub new guitar and drum parts, eight of the tracks didn’t even stem from the legendary Basement sessions – and some of them didn’t even feature Bob Dylan. A source tells me there are 10 CDs worth of material floating around, but so far only enough material to fill four CDs has popped up. It’s still enough to make it the greatest of all Dylan bootlegs. Not only do you get to hear Dylan and the Band going on a journey through the history of American music on covers ranging from Hank Williams' "You Win Again" to Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues," but you get to hear Dylan at his most relaxed and silly as he cracks himself up singing an impromptu song fans have labeled "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg."

In the second half of the set Dylan begins writing his first original sings since his motorcycle crash in the summer of 1966, and they are a far cry from the "thin, wild mercury" sound of Blonde on Blonde. "I Shall Be Released" and "You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere" have become campfire sing-alongs over the years, but it’s fascinating to hear them as little more than early sketches. The latter is particularly revelatory because an early take has surfaced with completely different lyrics, mostly nonsense like: "Look here you bunch of basement noise, you ain’t no punching bag… pick up your nose you canary, you ain't goin' nowhere." By take two they had it nailed. If the Dylan camp has any sense, a definitive, undoctored Basement Tapes box set will be their next release.

Listen: Bob Dylan on Drugs, John Lennon and Much More in 1969

Rolling Thunder Revue
The Dylan camp has released two official live albums from the Rolling Thunder Revue. The first, Hard Rain, is an intense nine-track disc drawn from two May 1976 shows. The other, the Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, cobbles together various songs from the fall 1975 leg. Both have absolutely pristine sound and show the band (led by David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson) in peak form.

The problem is that neither set represents a single show or includes tracks from the other artists on the tour. After all, the tour was conceived as a multi-artist gypsy caravan across America. For the best complete 1976 show, check out New Orleans 5/3/76. By this point in the tour Dylan’s marriage to his first wife Sara had been severed beyond repair, purging "Sara" from the setlist and replacing it with Blood On The Tracks songs like the snarling "Idiot Wind" and "You’re A Big Girl Now." You also get a sense of the complete show, with Joan Baez doing her hit cover of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Kinky Friedman doing his signature song "Asshole From El Paso" and Roger McGuinn’s solo take on the Byrds classic "Eight Miles High." Just an unbelievable night of music that’s worthy of a box set release.

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