BOB DYLAN: AT BUDOKAN (1979)
1) Mr. Tambourine Man; 2) Shelter From The Storm; 3) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 4) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 5) Don't Think Twice, It's All Right; 6) Maggie's Farm; 7) One More Cup Of Coffee; 8) Like A Rolling Stone; 9) I Shall Be Released; 10) Is Your Love In Vain?; 11) Going, Going, Gone; 12) Blowin' In The Wind; 13) Just Like A Woman; 14) Oh Sister; 15) Simple Twist Of Fate; 16) All Along The Watchtower; 17) I Want You; 18) All I Really Want To Do; 19) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 20) It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 21) Forever Young; 22) The Times They Are A-Changin'.
Certainly not the best live album in Dylan's career, but just as certainly the most unusual — and, together with Before The Flood and Hard Rain, At Budokan completes a trinity that might be reasonably called «the most sensible live trilogy to be released over just five consecutive years of touring». Not a single one of these albums sounds close to its predecessor, but it is At Budokan that confounds all possible expectations. A one-of-a-kind experiment here, so viciously trashed by the majority of the musical press that you just know it's gotta be good...
...but all in due time. Fact is, this is where Bob took his Street Legal band on the road — together with the violins, the mandolins, the saxophones, and the gospel lady choir. In fact, the actual performances here were recorded on February 28 and March 1, preceding the bulk of studio sessions for Street Legal rather than following them, and this means that Bob's «big band style» rearrangements of his classic hits were invented and rehearsed before the same style was applied to newer material, not after.
Essentially, the tour was an experiment, carried out in order to answer a simple question: what would happen if Bob Dylan were to pass himself for a «normal», «accessible» artist? Practise some singing in tone. Calculate, compose, rehearse, play in pre-planned mode. Eschew minimalism for large, complex, bombastic arrangements with diverse, polyphonic instrumentation. Exchange rock'n'roll spontaneity for lush pop professionalism. In other words — go on a Dylan tour and make a Dylan album that would seem to go against everything that a Dylan tour / album is «supposed» to stand for. How does that sound?
Critics like Christgau fell for this lock, stock and barrel: some people were so stupid as to state that Dylan had gone the «Vegas route», comparing him to Neil Diamond or late-period Elvis. Given that this here was the age of «rock revitalization» by the punk movement, albums like Budokan must have sounded particularly cringeworthy — and to make matters worse, Cheap Trick had only just released their own Budokan experience, so, even if on an everyday basis you'd never imagine the possibility of comparing Bob Dylan with Cheap Trick, in this particular case such comparisons were inevitable. A power-pop guitar band making some of the loudest and fiercest rock'n'roll ruckus in recent years — and a washed-up, prematurely senile has-been tarnishing his legacy with «gratuitous sax and senseless violins», to borrow a Sparks album title for an adequate description.
However, just as it happened with Self Portrait and not a few other Dylan albums that clashed with people's expectations, the reputation of the Budokan shows has seriously improved in recent decades. Looking back, and assessing it all in the proper context, it is perfectly clear that Dylan was not «pandering» or «selling out» to anybody or anything — it is just that there is a time for everything, and every once in a while the man felt a need to shed the «rock'n'roll rebel» image and settle for a more relaxed, easy-going attitude. Yes, the downside of Budokan is that, unlike almost anything else in the Dylan catalog, it lacks his trademark spontaneity. The music runs on a captured, bottled and canned spirit here, rather than inspiration generated on-the-spot as the band hits the stage. But there is also an upside to that downside — at the very least, it is curious, and I would say fun, and maybe even exciting, to hear a pre-planned, carefully rehearsed, so openly «music-oriented» Dylan show. If what they mean by «Vegas» is «enhancing the melodic component in both the musical instruments and the singing», I'm game.
And it isn't just the enhancement of the melody — what we have here is a near-total reinvention of the classic numbers, to an extent that Dylan, famous for his reinventions, would never ever replicate. The arrangements are so recklessly experimental that, most likely, nobody will like all of them, but an unbiased listen, free from the local superstitions of 1979, will most likely result in liking at least some of them, depending on the listener. Some of the rearrangements preserve the general message and emotional atmosphere of the originals; just as many of them do not, opening up dimensions that you'd never suspect to have previously existed in these numbers — and even if some of these dimensions sound silly, well, silly or not, they're all there, and the inventiveness and hard work that Bob put into them seriously belies the image of a broken down, depressed, mid-age-crisis-bound artist that had just been created by Street Legal. In other words, the frustrating Dylan enigma strikes again.
For those in doubt, I will list and laud some of my favorites. First and foremost, a big thank you to Steve Douglas (who, by the way, used to be one of the session players on Pet Sounds) whenever he picks up the flute, particularly on ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ and ʽLove Minus Zero/No Limitʼ, both of which, big band style or small band style, had never sounded lovelier — the arrangement of ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ, in particular, turns it from a beautiful early morning serenade into an equally beautiful early morning symphony, a great, uplifting introduction to the whole album. And the transposition of the three descending chords of ʽLove Minus Zeroʼ to flute was an equally inspired choice (additional kudos to David Mansfield for the great violin solo, which sounds particularly life-asserting in tandem with the flute).
Many darts have been launched at ʽMaggie's Farmʼ for its evolution from an almost «proto-punk» statement into a mastodon of R&B bombast — what has been lost on the critics is that the rearranged melody, now sewn into a steady sequence of symmetrically ascending / descending lines, simultaneously played on sax, violin, and guitar, still bears an air of defiance and determination, and just as, back in 1965, one used to interpret the song as Dylan's refusal to conform to the expectations of the «folkies», so here it could be interpreted as his refusal to conform to the expectations of the «rockies». As in, "it's my Neil Diamond interpretation and I'm ready to sock it to anyone!" And for those who used to complain that the «fire and brimstone» had gone out of Dylan, well, they probably did not have the patience to sit all the way through to the new avatar of ʽIt's Alright Maʼ — done big-band hard-rock style, with as much fire and brimstone as could be seen necessary in Bob's voice. Yes, the song used to work perfectly as a dark, creepy soliloquoy, and it works all right as a brash, pre-apocalyptic dark gospel anthem, too.
Other rearrangements that I am quite fond of include: the «generic country-pop», but still lovable, take on ʽI Shall Be Releasedʼ, with tasteful slide guitars and a completely redone chorus hook; ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ, redone as a piano pop ballad; ʽOh Sisterʼ, shorn of its melancholic tenderness and now performed almost «cold turkey-style», with not just the singer, but the entire band behaving as if they were suffering from virtual (spiritual!) constipation; and ʽAll I Really Want To Doʼ, redone as a cheery, bouncy, martial Brit-pop song, closer to Sonny & Cher's version than anything else but with even more rhythm and energy.
Speaking of Sonny & Cher, several other songs, too, are done closer to cover versions than originals — ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ traditionally incorporates scorching heavy rock guitar solos, in honor of Jimi, and ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ is done reggae-style à la Clapton version (not a particularly wise decision, but understandable). But applying the same reggae groove to ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ was, of course, unprecedented, and so was the reinvention of ʽI Want Youʼ as a slow, rhythmless, quasi-accappella number; I am still undecided about either of those.
Still, particular preferences and dislikes aside, on the whole I insist that the tour, commemorated with this Budokan album, was a triumphant success, and really the last time that a live Dylan experience «mattered» as an artistic experience, not just an excuse to go have a good time or go see that Zimmerman guy before he takes Highway 61. For those who dislike the «tunelessness» of Dylan as a singer or a guitar player, the album could even be a good introduction — in a way, it's a classic case of «Dylan for the anti-Dylanites», and one would have to be quite tonedeaf, I think, to continue to deny the man's gift for melody or mood after sitting through it. For those who condemn At Budokan for «betraying» some thing or other, dispensing with artistic integrity, etc. — just get a life. And for those who simply think that the whole experience is kinda boring and lifeless, even despite all the hard work that went into the rearrangements and rehearsals, well, I'd only say that, after sixteen years of seeing and hearing too much life and excitement from the artist, it is quite a lively and exciting experience to hear him sound so boring and lifeless. Give me the boredom of At Budokan over the liveliness of, say, 1984's Real Live any time of day — the album was a firm thumbs up when I first reviewed it about ten years before this, and my admiration of it has only grown since then.
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