Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10

I took the plunge on the (unfairly overpriced) deluxe edition because it was the only way to get the Isle Of Wight disc. I hope they don't go and release this concert as a stand-alone disc in the future! Also included in the box set is a newly remastered Self Portrait (heard it before, but never thought it was worth owning it). Listening to the newly unearthed alternate takes and demos from the original Self Portrait sessions doesn't really make me appreciate the 1970 album even more, nor does it make me wanna revisit its songs. For one thing, most of these 'bootleg' versions were so much better than what eventually appeared on the album, because they worked best when they were as stripped-down as possible, sans the harmonies and overdubs, and occasionally augmented by organist Al Kooper and guitarist Dave Bromberg.

These tracks, most of which were covers of traditionals, are so raw, so intimate, and through Dylan's very tender vocals, so earnest it'd be crazy for one not to fall in love with them during the first few listens. I think his best singing voice came from this particular period. Dylan wasn't betraying and turning his back on his audience as much as he was embracing his past, going back to the Great American Songbook, making it known to the world the music that made him aspire to become an artist and performer in the first place. Pretty Saro, Spanish Is The Loving Tongue, Copper Kettle, Railroad Bill, This Evening So Soon, Belle Isle, Tattle O' Day....

The original ones have their ups and downs. The set begins with a very good acoustic demo of Went To See The Gypsy. There's a cool version of New Morning with horns; on the flipside, the hornless Wigmam works better than with horns, and so does Days Of '49 without the unnecessary overdubs. There's an interesting take of If Not For You with violins. On the other hand, Sign On The Window is a bit too over-the-top with the orchestra. There are two alternate versions of Time Passes Slowly, the first one featuring George Harrison on guitar and vocals. Another one in which he has a ball playing the guitar on is the almost-comical Working On A Guru. If Dogs Run Free is average at best, but I prefer this folky version compared to the awful, jazzy one. I feel that the Nashville Skyline tracks; the alternate takes of I Threw It All Away and Country Pie are nothing more than filler. The fitting final track of Disc Two, a piano demo of When I Paint My Masterpiece, is a revelation.

Also a revelation is the entire Isle Of Wight performance. Like David Fricke mentioned in his RS review, 'it doesn't sound that distant from his shows of the past 20 years'. I loved how they reworked Maggie's Farm, One Too Many Mornings (a departure from the '66 live version, but much more suited to Levon Helm's style), and Highway 61 Revisited (now that's a wild one). Dylan brought back with him to the stage his Nashville Skyline soft, crooner voice and during the acoustic portion, he sung his folk 'classics' so shockingly different it felt like someone else was singing them. It Ain't Me Babe, To Ramona, and Mr. Tambourine Man were considered 'recent' at the time, but when he performed them, it was as if he had written them many lifetimes ago.

It still blows my mind sometimes to think that Dylan wasn't the same man he was just three, four years back. Wild Mountain Thyme, a traditional ballad, is heart-achingly beautiful. The live version of Minstrel Boy here makes the one found on Disc One pretty much forgettable -- it's quite odd this never-circulated-before Basement Tapes track was even considered for inclusion in this volume. The Band, of course, played bloody great. They didn't sound like any other group then (and now); it's like one listen to this and you immediately know it's The Band. I LOVE Levon's drumming and harmonies. Another Self Portrait is yet another Bootleg Series essential.