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Essential Music: Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos

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220px Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Volume 9Between February, 1962 and June, 1964, Bob Dylan, at the dawn of his career, made a number of recordings for two publishing companies, Leeds Music and M. Witmark & Sons. These recordings were released in 2010 as The Bootleg Series: Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

Dylan had recorded his first album in late 1961, which was mostly covers, along with two original songs. His originals – the ones on the album, but also those that he was performing – were interesting enough to spur his producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, to set up a meeting between Dylan and Lou Levy, at Leeds Music Publishing. The goal was to record songs so that other singers could hear them, and potentially buy the rights to record them. He recorded eight songs for Leeds.

In early 1962, manager Albert Grossman also became interested in Dylan. He suggested that Dylan sign with M. Witmark & Sons for publishing. Since Leeds hadn’t earned anything from Dylan, they let him out of his contract, and he signed with Witmark. In a dozen sessions, Dylan recorded 39 songs for Witmark.

In a way, this minimalist Dylan is the most authentic version of his songs that we have, other than some early live recordings. These songs show Dylan in a very relaxed atmosphere; just him, his guitar, and his harmonica, in a simple studio. The recording quality isn’t always great, and Dylan’s not performing for an audience, but he is clearly aware that he needs to set down these songs in a form that will be nearly canonical. Some of the performances are as good, or ever better than what was released on his albums.

This two-CD set – officially released in 2010, but bootlegged for decades previously – contains an example of the early Dylan showing off his own work, and, while not as perfect as later recordings, stands as a powerful example of his early songs. Many classics are here: Boots Of Spanish Leather, Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Masters Of War, Girl From the North Country, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Mr. Tambourine Man. But there are also 15 songs that Dylan never recorded, showing just how prolific he was in the early ears.

The recording quality ranges from good to merely acceptable, but the music comes through, fresh, powerful, full of the potential that we now know was to come. Dylan knew he was going to be great in this period, and the quality of the songs he was writing must have been a clear sign to producers and publishers that he was to become a star.

Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert to Be Reissued on DVD, Blu-Ray and CD

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dylan-30.jpgBack in 1992, Bob Dylan’s record label organized a 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The concert included dozens of artists playing versions of Dylan songs, and ended with Dylan playing three songs, plus one where he was joined by all the musicians.

Sony is re-releasing this, in new versions, both video and audio. It will be available on March 3, on DVD (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Blu-Ray (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and CD (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). It will also be available online, though it’s not yet listen on Amazon or the iTunes Store.

The new versions include a number of songs that weren’t on the original VHS or CD releases. There were 29 songs on the original CD, and this version contains 33 songs, along with some backstage footage.

Like all such star-studded tribute concerts, there are some good songs, some that are less interesting. You may remember the Sinead O’Connor “song,” where she got booed, after having criticized the pope a few days earlier on Saturday Night Live; that’s probably the low point of the night. But there are some great performances by Johnny and June Carter Cash, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and others. And Bob’s Girl of the North Country is an excellent end to the evening.

The 30th Anniversary Concert includes the following:

“Like A Rolling Stone” – John Mellencamp
“Blowin’ In The Wind” – Stevie Wonder
“Foot of Pride” – Lou Reed
“Masters of War” – Eddie Vedder/Mike McCready
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” – Tracy Chapman
“It Ain’t Me Babe” – June Carter Cash/Johnny Cash
“What Was It You Wanted” – Willie Nelson
“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – Kris Kristofferson
“Highway 61 Revisited” – Johnny Winter
“Seven Days – Ron Wood
“Just Like a Woman” – Richie Havens
“When the Ship Comes In” – The Clancy Brothers and Robbie O’Connell with special guest Tommy Makem
“War” – Sinead O’Connor
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” – Neil Young
“All Along the Watchtower” – Neil Young
“I Shall be Released” – Chrissie Hynde
“Love Minus Zero, No Limit” – Eric Clapton (Track Only Available on DVD/Blu-Ray Format)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – Eric Clapton
“Emotionally Yours” – The O’Jays
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” – The Band
“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” – Mary Chapin Carpenter/Rosanne Cash/Shawn Colvin
“Absolutely Sweet Marie – George Harrison”
“License to Kill” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35″ – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
“Mr Tambourine Man” – Roger McGuinn
“It’s Alright, Ma” – Bob Dylan
“My Back Pages” – Bob Dylan/Roger McGuinn/Tom Petty/Neil Young/Eric Clapton/George Harrison
“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – Everyone
“Girl of The North Country” – Bob Dylan

DVD Bonus Tracks:
“Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat” – John Mellencamp
“Boots of Spanish Leather” – Nanci Griffith with Carolyn Hester
“Gotta Serve Somebody” – Booker T. & the M.G.’s

CD Audio Bonus Tracks:
“I Belive in You” – Sinéad O’Connor (from soundcheck, previously unreleased)
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – Eric Clapton (from soundcheck, previously unreleased)

Bob Dylan: Complete Album Collection

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Today sees the release of Bob Dylan’s Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1., (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) along with a limited edition of the same set(Amazon.com) which contains the music on a USB stick in a harmonica box. The latter was originally to have the music in 320 kbps MP3 files and high-resolution FLAC files, but somewhere along the line – after people, including myself, ordered the set – the FLAC files became standard CD resolution.

No matter; this set represents much of a life of music making, from the earliest eponymous 1962 album to 2012′s Tempest. There are 30 “side tracks,” live and unreleased tracks, as bonuses. These are all of Dylan’s official releases, not including his Bootleg Series, a total of 11 releases, covering 15 CDs worth of live and alternate takes. Clearly, Vol. 2 is intended to cover the rest of Dylan’s work. Could his record label be banking on the retirement or demise of Dylan to release the second volume? We’ll see.

886444259729.170x170-75.jpgIt goes without saying that this is probably the most important oeuvre in American popular music, and, while there are some weak albums in Dylan’s career, there are more than enough unforgettable ones to make up for the rest.

If you don’t want the CDs, the iTunes Store has four “digital box sets” which cover The 60s, The 70s, the 80s and the 90s-00s. You won’t get the “side tracks,” but you will get all 35 studio albums and 6 live albums that Bob has released over the years. You’ll pay about the same amount for the iTunes versions: $170 for all of them, without the “side tracks,” compared to (currently) $180 on Amazon.com. So if you’re a Dylan fan, it makes a lot more sense to buy the plastic.

Go ahead; you know this should be your Christmas present. You can even open the box and listen to Dylan’s 2009 Christmas in the Heart, a collection of traditional Christmas songs sung by Bob in his own, um, inimitable way. But just remember, every time you play that album, a puppy dies.

Essential Music: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks

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dylan-blood.jpgIf you follow my writings, you’ll have noticed that Bob Dylan is one of my favorite musicians. I’ve got all of his albums, and listen to his music a lot. In this recent article, The Music I Listen To Most, you’ll see that Dylan comes up in fourth position, behind The Grateful Dead, Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach; that’s by play counts in my iTunes library.

There are lots of great Dylan albums, from Highway 61 Revisited to Blond on Blond, but the one that stands out most for me is Blood on the Tracks. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) It’s not just that it has many great, memorable songs, but there’s a unity in this album that doesn’t exist in most of Dylan’s other records. Many of my most-loved Dylan songs are on other albums – Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, Forever Young, Cold Irons Bound, etc. – but Blood on the Tracks is an album that you listen to in extenso, because it tells a story.

When I wrote iPod & iTunes Garage, back in 2004, I asked a number of writers and musicians what their “essential music” was. My friend Peter Robinson, author of the Inspector Banks series of mysteries, wrote the following:

“Much as I love all kinds of instrumental and orchestral music, at the end of the day I’m a word guy, and if you’re a word guy, Dylan’s your man. We were spoiled by an embarrassment of riches until the infamous motorcycle accident in July, 1966, and after the stark surprise of 1968’s John Wesley Harding we seemed to be stranded in a wasteland of ersatz Americana. There were great songs, of course, Lay, Lady, Lay and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, for example, and Planet Waves has many fine moments, but nothing could quite match the shock and pleasure of that moment in early 1975 when I set the needle gently on Blood on the Tracks for the first time and heard Tangled Up In Blue. Even better, it wasn’t a fluke. Next came Simple Twist of Fate, You’re a Big Girl Now and Idiot Wind, his most vicious song since 1965’s Positively 4th Street. The only disappointment is an overlong Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which never quite seemed to fit, to my mind, but that’s a minor quibble, especially as it’s followed by the incomparable melancholy of If You See Her, Say Hello and the eerily redemptive Shelter from the Storm. There may be other contenders, but Blood on the Tracks surely remains the classic adult break-up album of all time.”

Peter nails it; it is the classic break-up album, but it’s so much more. If only for Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate, this would be a memorable album, but add the other tracks, and it’s a pure masterpiece. I’ve long felt that Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts was the weak song on the disc, but I’m starting to change my opinion, especially after hearing the original New York recording of it. (I’ll get to that in a minute…)

9780306812316_p0_v1_s260x420.jpgBlood on the Tracks has an interesting history, which is well documented by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard in the book A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Dylan first recorded the album in New York, with a group of session musicians, in September, 1974. He recorded all the songs in just four sessions over ten days, but after playing it for his brother, decided he wanted to re-record five of the songs.

He went to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where his brother booked studio time, and found a handful of excellent musicians, and did two sessions in December. The New York sessions yielded the following songs:

Simple Twist of Fate
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Meet Me in the Morning
Shelter From the Storm
Buckets of Rain

And the other five tracks come from the Minnesota sessions:

Tangled Up in Blue
You’re a Big Girl Now
Idiot Wind
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
If You See Her, Say Hello

It’s interesting to listen to the original versions of some of these songs; many of them have been released on various official Bootleg Series volumes, and Biograph also contains two songs that didn’t make it on the album, but that are also brilliant compositions: Call Letter Blues and Up to Me. (See the list below for details of all official releases.)

The original New York session test pressing is fairly easy to find as a bootleg. Listening to that original version – the one that Dylan first planned to release – makes me wonder if he should have just gone with the first recordings. In particular, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts works much better in its acoustic form than in the later Minneapolis recording. And there’s more unity in the mostly-acoustic recordings from the New York sessions.

Here are the tracks that are available on official releases, but not the final album versions. They include alternate versions from the New York sessions, as well as two tracks that weren’t on the album from the same sessions. (Links are to the iTunes Store.) If you haven’t heard these tracks, and like Blood on the Tracks, you should definitely get them.

Tangled Up in Blue (9/16/1974) from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2: (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
You’re a Big Girl Now (9/25/1974) from Biograph
Idiot Wind (9/19/1974) from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2: (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
Call Letter Blues (9/16/1974) from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 2: (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
Up to Me (9/25/1974) from Biograph
If You See Her, Say Hello (9/16/1974) from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3: (Rare & Unreleased)
Shelter From the Storm (9/17/74), from the Jerry Maguire soundtrack; an alternate take from the same session as the album version of the track

I hope that Dylan will release another Bootleg Series with all the New York recordings, and other outtakes from this period, similar to the recent set from the period of Self Portrait.

Coming Soon: Bob Dylan, The Complete Album Collection Vol. 1

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Do you have all of Bob Dylan’s music? 35 studio albums, 6 live albums, and more, will be available on November 5, in the Complete Album Collection Vol. 1. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This massive collection, optimistically entitled Vol. 1, includes 14 remastered albums, and the first North American release of the 1973 Dylan album.

It does not, however, include the Bootleg series, which is up to Volume 10, and those releases will presumably be in Vol. 2 of this series, together with whatever future albums Bob releases.

At around $255, or £150, this is not a cheap set, but if you don’t have all of Dylan’s music, it’s worth it.

There’s also a limited edition set available from the Official Bob Dylan Store, which includes a “harmonica” USB stick case, and the USB stick contains all the music in 320 kbps MP3 and 24-bit FLAC files.

I know what my birthday present will be this year…

Music Review: Dylan’s Bootleg Series Vol. 10, Another Self Portrait

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503bf250.jpg(Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes)

Dylan’s work from this period has long been derided, in part because of Greil Marcus’s review of Self Portrait, which started with “What is this shit?” While it’s far from his best release, there are some good songs on the album. Together with Nashville Skyline and New Morning, Self Portrait shows Dylan at a period where he clearly did not seek hits; he almost had contempt for them at the time. Yet this new set shows, through demos and outtakes, that he took this music a lot more seriously than what he said.

Perhaps it’s time for revisionist history about this period of Dylan’s oeuvre. I’ve found many very likable songs on this set, after just a couple of listens. There’s a lot to absorb here, and it’s worth even comparing some of these outtakes and demos with the versions that were released, but the unreleased songs show that Dylan was doing a lot of interesting work at the time. Perhaps his attitude kept him from releasing some of the better outtakes; perhaps he just didn’t care. At least, 40 years later, we can hear them.

Note that the iTunes version has a remaster of the 1969 Isle of Wight concert with The Band; the Amazon version, on CD or download, only has the outtakes and demos. There’s a high-priced deluxe version (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) which also contains a remastered version of Self Portrait, and two books with extended liner notes.

I can only hope that the next Bootleg Series release will be from the Blood on the Tracks period.

Bob Dylan’s Witmark Demos

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I received today the latest recordings by Bob Dylan: The Witmark Demos, a two-disc set of 47 songs that Dylan recorded as demos for his publishing company, M. Witmark & Sons, between 1962 and 1964. This is part of Dylan’s “Bootleg Series” of unreleased songs, outtakes and curiosities.

I’m a big fan of Dylan, though I came to him late. I was familiar with much of his music in the 1970s, though I never owned any of his albums. Over the years, I learned to appreciate the breadth of his catalog, but only became Dylan-obsessed when buying the complete Dylan from the iTunes Store some years ago. Since then, I have realized what a consummate singer and songwriter he was and is.

As a result of buying the complete collection when I did, I was able to discover the many recordings in the Bootleg Series, most of which feature recordings from the early years. This current release is both odd and astounding. These songs weren’t performed with any goal of perfection, but solely for songwriters to listen to, to decide if they wanted to record or perform them. (That’s where the money was in the music business; that’s where the money still is: performance and recording rights.)

These are rough sketches, but they show the extent of Dylan’s prolific songwriting at the time. There are 47 songs here, which is a lot for any songwriter, including such classics as Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, Boots of Spanish Leather, Mr. Tambourine Man and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Dylan performs here not to impress, but simply to record. Yet the Dylan that comes through here is as sincere as in his early concerts, and this collection of songs is a wonderful example of Dylan with his acoustic guitar in the early days, before he discovered electricity. And most of the recordings sound quite good; only a few of them have suffered from the ravages of time.

To be fair, this is of interest mostly to hardcore Dylan fans, but for this willing to take a chance, you’ll find a wonderful selection of songs recorded in the heyday of Dylan’s early years as a folk singer.

I also got The Original Mono Recordings by Bob Dylan today; the original mono mixes of his first eight albums. I’ll be writing about that in a few days, after I’ve had time to listen to them closely.

Dylan Collection Now Available in iTunes Plus

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I have written about Apple’s upgrades to iTunes Plus, the DRM-free tracks from the iTunes Store. At the time, I lamented that the two big sets I had bought – the Bob Dylan Collection and the Complete U2 – were not available for upgrade. Well, that has changed. Today, I noticed that the Dylan Collection is now in my list of upgradable music. It’s a $60 upgrade, but at some 770 tracks, that’s a fair price (I have to admit, the original price of the collection was more than fair as well). It’s a big download; just shy of 7 GB.