What I’m Listening To Now

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Bob Dylan didn’t produce a lot of new work in 2003, other than the feature film Masked and Anonymous (which I guess is nothing to sneeze at as an accomplishment – more on that film later this week). No new album, no new Bootleg Series. He did, of course, continue his relentless touring. Indeed, in 2003 he played the 1,500th show of the Never Ending Tour, and many others.

I guess I could track down and listen to that particular show, but I can almost guarantee that Dylan did not mark it as a milestone, and that it is unlikely that there is anything especially noteworthy about it. One thing that I’ve learned in doing this project is that listening to complete Dylan concerts is not necessarily the optimal way to approach his ever growing body of work. Far from it. You need to curate this material – pick out the gems, and toss the mundanities. But that’s a lot of work. 1,500 shows. That might be 30,000 song performances. That’s too much for me to handle in a week, or even a year.

Last week I told some friends that I was going to create my own bootleg. In 2002 Dylan performed about twenty songs acoustically for the first time. What set me off was the appearance of an acoustic version of “Maggie’s Farm” in the same year that he returned to Newport Folk Festival, where his electric version of that tune caused so much consternation. Finally, nearly forty years later, an acoustic version! I tracked it down with great eagerness, determining as well to track down all the other acoustic firsts of the year and compile them. I had high hopes!

It’s not that I lost my enthusiasm after listening to that “Maggie’s Farm” – it’s not bad, it’s just not that different; the full band acoustic doesn’t sound all that different than the full band electric, after all – it’s that I immediately ran up against my limitations. While I could gather together all of the songs that I wanted, the quality of recordings ranged tremendously. I had thought the project manageable because I wasn’t seeking the “best” acoustic “Maggie’s Farm”, just the first. The project would be more historic than value-added.

Here’s the thing though, you have to master those songs together. You have to fade them in and out on recordings where that might not be done. You have to equalize. Then you have to get some art, and use Photoshop and develop a nice package, and write some liner notes. And then you have to decide that you’re actually going to put it out there into the world.

So none of that actually happened. I’d still like to do it, but I lack the skills and the time to master the skills. It seems like a 2015 project to me now.

What I do want to note, though, is that there are Dylan fans who do this work. Last week in the post on the 2002 Grammy Awards someone kindly dropped into the comments and left a link to A Thousand Highways, a Dylan blog that is even more hardcore than this one is. That site, now idle, in addition to being very opinionated and well-written, has the extreme virtue of hosting several dozen Dylan compilations assembled by the author. Indeed, the purpose of the blog is to make those bootlegs available. Before the comment arrived I had not stumbled across this blog all year. Within an hour of discovering it I had all of this music on my phone.

Let me say this about that: I have listened to a lot of Dylan bootlegs this year, and these ones are really incredible. The quality of the song selection, the mastering, the production (look at that cover for the 2003 live selection, which I’ve listened to three times already since Sunday (I love this “Desolation Row”!), it’s so fantastically elegant), everything about these is great. It’s a one-stop shop for people looking to catch up on some of the live material from the past couple of decades, none of which has been commercially released. The care that has gone into this project is astonishing. The files even come as both WAV and MP3 (in most cases).

For a long time I’ve thought about writing an article titled “Incompetence in the Pirate Community” about comic book scanners that misidentify issues, or put pages out of order, or live music bootleggers who leave off songs, misorder them, or master them too loudly or too softly. My feeling is that if you’re going to do something like this – as an act of devotion – do it well. These bootlegs are done exceptionally well, and I’m really glad to have found them.

I may still grab that concert number 1,500 (Wellington, NZ – 24 February), but now I feel like I don’t have to. Let’s hear it for the bootleggers who approach their work like craftsmen!

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