If purist audiences in 1965 were gobsmacked by folkie god and acoustic maestro Bob Dylan going loud and electric, imagine how next-gen audiences felt about the Jewish singer/songwriter turning to Christianity and devotional lyrics tinged with urgings of worship and catcalls of praise. That was the holy Dylan of 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved, 1981’s Shot Of Love and a brand of poetry that filled his heart, head and this new nine-CD set of studio and live recordings that is the 13th chapter in his Bootleg Series. Detailed in the music and the Trouble No More DVD, Dylan was always and forever on a deep spiritual quest, one that led not only to Jesus and a discipleship in Southern California but an overall yearning that’s lasted through recent albums such as 2012’s Tempest, which touches on Christian hope and deed. Sometimes, it’s the search rather than the finding that makes for a more dramatic story.
The live songs from shows in Toronto (1980) and London (1981)—mixed as they are/were with classics such as “Girl From The North Country”—sound full-blooded and revival tent-ish. Like Dylan’s pre-grunge ragtag Rolling Thunder Revue tours, his sacred-songs shows all had a rounded, gospel vibe and rhythmic percolation with Dylan nearly carnival barking his lyrics. The treat here, as with all of his Bootleg releases, is the rarities: a threadbare, off-beat “Gotta Serve Somebody” that’s more casual than its original album version, a rakish “When He Returns,” the theatrically stormy unreleased likes of “Help Me Understand” and “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One.” If “Jesus Is The One” is charmingly open-faced for Dylan, the carnivorous, never-before-heard “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody” could exist on any of his snarling latter-day albums.
Amen to that.