Monday, September 9, 2013


"Have a bunch a kids that call me Pa, that must be what it's all about."  Bob Dylan pondered that in Sign On The Window, originally released on the New Morning album in 1970, recorded in a massive session that saw both that album, the earlier Self Portrait set, and most of the out-takes that make up this two-disc set.  It was the question that in some ways haunted Dylan over the years, the one people thought he could answer, such as the infamous stalker/garbage researcher A.J. Weberman, who taunted him with the shouted question, 'What's it all about, Bob?'.  Then there was the lover who, to his shock, asked him much the same in Idiot Wind:  "Even you yesterday you had to ask me where it was at/I couldn't believe after all these years you didn't know even me better than that."  At the time of writing that line from Sign On The Window, Dylan had been hiding out for a bit, raising a bunch of kids, and maybe it was what it was all about then.  But it didn't stay that way for long, and his restless spirit took over.  Bob Dylan rarely stops for long, changes frequently, but always seems to have a greater plan in mind.

That's certainly what you'll discover with this set, an alternate look at the period that roughly covers 1969-1971, a hitherto somewhat maligned period, looked upon as the era that saw Self Portrait come out, his critically smashed album of cover versions, and a handful of live cuts.  New Morning came out just four months later, and although better received, full of originals, damage had been done.  Dylan himself has stated he was trying to stop the belief he was the one who knew it all, by releasing the covers.  That's long left the question, was it any good, then?

This alternative look at Self Portrait, and the associated New Morning sessions, will change the way we see that period.  Filled with some radically different versions, completely unheard further covers, and familiar ones stripped of producer-led overdubs, we get yet another treasure trove from the ongoing Bootleg Series.  With a huge booklet explaining the times, and the recent discovery of many of the pre-release tapes, it continues the program of top-notch packages.  Whether or not Dylan was trying to be difficult, as he's proven many times before and since then, he's a big lover of real folk songs, whether they are numbers that can be traced back a century or more, or fitting originals by some of his more recent peers.  Here we get alternatives recorded but discarded for Self Portrait, such as Greenwich Village colleague Eric Andersen's Thirsty Boots, or the delightful Tom Paxton number Annie's Going To Sing Her Song.  House Carpenter, a standard of the folk clubs he haunted, as ancient as they get, is a return to his own roots.  Tattle O'Day is the kind of number he'd start doing again in the 1990's, often opening concerts with a public domain number.

It's a time when Dylan was unsure of his own voice, and you'll hear him go through several different styles and ranges, attempting (quite successfully) to be more of a singer and less the shouter he'd been during the mid-60's electric sessions.  It's a joy to hear this crooning voice, at a time when he could still pull it off without the wear and tear of age.  The performances are largely simple, the bulk of them just acoustics, Dylan often accompanied by David Bromberg, keyboards, including many fine contributions from Al Kooper, and sometimes a small group.  Mostly though, it's an intimate collection.  Dylan might be pulling old covers out of his hat, but he had a big hat, great ears, and a real enthusiasm for the material, hardly the work of someone sneering at his audience, as has been suggested.  Perhaps it was the overdubs on Self-Portrait that tainted the songs more, so getting ones such as Little Sadie and Wigwam without the orchestration is yet another bonus to the set.

For me, it's the alternate versions from the New Morning sessions that are the biggest and most enjoyable surprise.  A rockier Time Passes Slowly, Sign On The Window well-sweetened with orchestra, and a stunningly different If Not For You all are highlights.  Then there's a previously-unreleased cut from the Basement Tape sessions of '67 with The Band, low on fidelity but high on performance, Minstrel Boy, and a lovely alternate take of Nashville Skyline's I Threw It All Away, grand to have.  The set closes with a demo of the well-known When I Paint My Masterpiece, a strong piano version by Dylan, including a couple of very different lines to the well-known Band version.  Big fans or casual ones will find much to enjoy, and best of all, we just got two more hours of excellent Bob Dylan music.

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