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!

“Waitin’ for You”

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I don’t have much to say about this song, recorded in March 2002 and included on the soundtrack for the film version of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a film that I’ve never seen because my aversion to Sandra Bullock is exacerbated by an aversion to Ashley Judd. The song is a waltz (a rarity for Dylan) and the lyrics seem cryptic and elusive, but don’t really inspire me to investigate it much further.

What I do find interesting is how challenging, relatively speaking it was to find this. I don’t have it on my phone, which means that it is not included in the Complete Album Collection (which does have some of his soundtrack songs, like “Things Have Changed”) and it means it isn’t included on some of the various “hard to find” bootleg collections that I have. Fortunately Spotify has come to Canada recently, and it was on there (I don’t quite get Spotify yet – they only have about half of this soundtrack, for example).

Since I’m not quite sure how to link to a Spotify track through WordPress (and even if by linking to the Canadian version of Spotify the link would work elsewhere), I googled to see if someone had uploaded the soundtrack or song to YouTube. Not in this case, which is rare. There are three versions there, one from 2013, one from 2014, and a live version that isn’t dated by the uploader. I thought that was interesting, that Dylan was performing the song live recently, since it has to be one of his least-known recordings. So I went to look up its live history and I found that it’s not even listed there. Check it out:

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So, that’s a poser. I’ve found errors on BobDylan.com before (and it has been acting cranky recently), but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a song that was just straight-up not listed. I could run through other sources and find out when he debuted it live, but I’m just not that interested in the song to do that.

One of the frustrating things about this project has been the collision between the incredible amount of sheer information that exists about Dylan on the one hand, and the frequent inability to bring it all together on the other. His site lists every single time that he has played (most) of his songs, and bootlegs exist for more than 99% of that material, but, since Dylan is anti-bootleg, there is no simple way of connecting all of that. For instance, I learned from Bjorner that in 2002 Dylan played his first acoustic version of “Maggie’s Farm” and then had to work to find that bootleg. I imagine some day in the future, long after Dylan has passed, that there will be a website, maybe even BobDylan.com, where you click on a song, you get the list of every live performance, and you click on that to listen, like Spotify. When that day comes, those bloggers are going to have considerably less aggravation than I have had.

In the meantime, enjoy this live version:

Return to Newport Folk

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August 3, 2002 was, in a lot of respects, an unremarkable day in the touring life of Bob Dylan. Concert #1432 in the Never Ending Tour opened with “Roving Gambler”, moved through a series of 1960s hits (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”, “Desolation Row”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (newly back in the rotation), “Mr. Tambourine Man”) with only a few of the more recent Dylan songs (“Summer Days” and “Cry A While”). The show included a cover of the Buddy Holly song “Not Fade Away”. If I played the show for you, you wouldn’t find it particularly remarkable. It sounds not much different from a lot of the other shows that Dylan played on his 2002 Summer US tour.

But what if I showed you this picture?

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And then what if I told you that Dylan didn’t have a beard and a ponytail at the show on August 2 in Worcester, MA? Would you want to know what the hell was going on? I sure do.

Thirty-seven years after he told the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival, who had just booed him relentlessly, to kiss his ass with a harrowing version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, Bob Dylan returned to the scene of the crime. Yes, August 3, 2002 Dylan played, for the fourth time in forty years, the Newport Folk Festival.

Well, not quite. You see, Newport had changed just as much as Dylan had. By 2002 it was the Apple and Eve Newport Folk Festival (I had to look up Apple and Eve – I don’t think that we get their juices up here in Canada). Yes, they’d sold out. Gone corporate. Dylan should’ve booed them.

Instead, he showed up in a fake beard and a wig.

It is a serious WTF moment in the career of Bob Dylan.

Given the clearly traumatic history of the last time Dylan stood on that stage, he doesn’t really do much to address the history. Yes, he wears a wig and a fake beard (I probably can’t say that enough), but other than that he leaves well enough alone. If it were up to me (and it most assuredly is not), I would have loved for him to come out and play “Maggie’s Farm”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and then leave. Better: He should have done the first three acoustic and then the final two electric. But I’m a spiteful person, and Bob Dylan just lets bygone be bygones.

The closest he really gets to talking about it is the fact that he plays “Positively Fourth Street”, a song he recorded four days after the 1965 debacle, and which is widely understood to be a kiss off to the folk scene. But Dylan so relentlessly juggled his song line-ups at this point, it’s hard to imagine that even that was deliberate. They asked, he played, he went on his way.

And, yet, the beard. I can only imagine that Dylan once swore that he’d never show his face around those parts again, and this was his way of keeping his word. It’s clear that he is fully aware of the potential for a scene – he alludes to the possibility – and then doesn’t deliver. There are no fireworks, no drama. He’s the consummate professional. Disappointing, once again, those who might have imagined a spectacular flame-out.

Good show, but not really essential.

Nice wig though.

I didn’t find any video, really. There are two fifteen second long clips on YouTube shot from a mile away. Here’s one of them (playing “Down in the Flood”):

 

Bootleg Series v5: Live 1975

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I need to write this one so that I can move on.

2002 saw the release of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series v5: Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue. I’ve just listened to this double-CD twice and I’m enraptured by it. There is not a single bad performance on here. In fact, the album is so good that it actually reminds me of the few things that I don’t like. For instance, I don’t like “One More Cup of Coffee” here, but it is a good version, which, I guess, means that I don’t much like that song. That was instructive.

For me, this is clearly one of Dylan’s best albums, and if you reduced me to only a couple of albums that I could ever listen to by him ever again, this would be one of the ones that I would save. This is one of my favourite eras of his music, and the selection here is fantastic. Over the course of this year I’ve been slowly acquiring bootlegs of all of his 1975 performances where I can – I have dozens now – and I could even imagine extending this long and wasted year to another one where I listen to the entire tour. Bootleg Series v5 takes a lot of that work away. I can’t say for certain that these are the absolute best versions of each of these songs from the tour, but if they’re not they must be pretty close.

Moving back in time like this has been a bit of a revelation. While I’ve been enjoying early-2000s Dylan, this is a stark reminder of what he used to be – particularly in terms of vocal control. I actually think he is slightly better live on his early Gospel tours, but I prefer the song selection on this tour. This is really prime material.

People that nitpick Bootleg Series v5 note that it doesn’t really mimic the format of the shows. That’s a fair complaint. Some bootlegs give you the whole deal – with the sets by all the supporting acts – and those are generally the ones that I prefer. Obviously, a lot of Dylan fans aren’t buying double or triple disc sets to hear Roger McGuinn. It might have been nice to release an alternate version structured that way. Nonetheless, you do get Dylan and Baez on four tracks here, which gives some sense of what was going on. Very clear reminder this morning while driving my wife to the airport that Baez is the only person to ever successfully duet with Dylan – the two of them are great together in the same way that Dylan and almost anyone else is always terrible. I’d quickly buy a Dylan/Baez live duets through the years album.

I do think that there are a couple of missed opportunities here. One of them is “Sara”. Though this is a brilliant version of a song that Dylan only played live 33 times (and never since January 1976 – I can’t imagine that he’ll ever play it again, but I’ve been surprised before), part of me would have liked to have seen them include his final performance of that (though, technically, 1976) in Houston (acoustic guitar and fiddle) just for the pathos of the whole thing. I also would’ve liked a “Simple Twist of Fate” from the period where he was messing more deliberately with the lyrics and rewriting what is, on the album, an absolutely flawless song.

Nonetheless, this is a great compilation. All of the (then unreleased) songs from Desire are included (“Romance in Durango” (with a shout-out to Larry Sloman!), “Isis” (missing a verse), “Oh, Sister”, “One More Cup of Coffee”, and “Sara”. There’s really not a dud on the whole thing.

This was, I believe, the first Dylan album that I ever downloaded. I don’t have the CDs, but I was curious to have this album even after years of not really listening to Dylan at all. At this point it was clear to me that the Bootleg Series was a seriously great project – all of the five first volumes are absolutely essential listening. Look, I’m putting this one away for the rest of the week. I can’t get trapped back in 1975 when there’s still so much to 2002. I mean, Dylan’s going back to the Newport Folk Festival – the scene of the original crime – almost forty years later. Now who wouldn’t want to listen to that?

2002 Grammy Awards

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Bob Dylan came out of the 2002 Grammy Awards with another statuette – this time for Best Contemporary Folk Album for “Love and Theft”. This continues a new trend in which the Grammy’s love Dylan as he enters into his distinguished old man phase.

2002 was the year of the O’ Brother soundtrack cleaning up, and it featured a lovely performance by Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris followed by Ralph Stanley and the Soggy Bottom Boys. You should watch that here:

Elsewhere on the show, Dylan and his band performed “Cry A While”, one of the songs I like least from “Love and Theft”. That’s a picture of him from the show up top, and here’s a link to the audio, but I can’t for the life of me find any video of it, which is surprising – I figured everything was on the internet by this point.

This version of the song isn’t particularly noteworthy – pretty faithful to the album version. If I find the video I’ll throw it in here.

“Love and Theft”

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Holidays and travel have conspired to stop me from turning the clock to 2002 on my Dylan year, since I’ve needed to find the chance to write about the 2001 album “Love and Theft” (please note: the quotation marks are part of the title, although it seems like less than half of the reviews of it seem to care). This was Dylan’s first new album in a month (four years in real time), and it was another well-received work. It peaked at number five on the charts despite the fact that it generated no singles.

“Love and Theft” has been a really tough album for me to get my head around. I only listened to two albums this past week: “Love and Theft” and a bootleg of 2001 live performances of all the songs from the same album. Dylan rotated virtually the entire album into his live sets very quickly after the album was released, although he didn’t vary them from the album cuts nearly as much as he has done with some of his other recent music.

“Love and Theft” was released on September 11, 2001, and so it was received into a deeply unsettled world. With so much going on culturally and politically, it is almost surprising that the album wasn’t completely overlooked and forgotten. I think that this is one where the critical consensus rolled out gradually over some time. It isn’t an album that I immediately grasped this week. I don’t think that I had ever listened to it before this past week (perhaps once) and my first impressions varied a great deal from my final impressions.

Initially, I listened to this as a sort of pre-Dylan Dylan album. “Love and Theft” is filled with simple blues riffs, and jazz numbers that would have sounded plausible on the radio in the years before Dylan’s birth (though many of the lyrics would not have). A lot of the songs like pre-folk music, as if Dylan is excavating the sounds that filled the airwaves before he and his cohort arrived. Some of those songs still sound like that to me. Initially I was quite excited by the jazzier numbers, but as the week wore on I found myself preferring some of the more traditionally Dylan-y songs better. I do like the album as a collection of songs – I’m not really sure that there are songs here that I dislike – though I find it sort of hard to listen to as an album, if by album you mean some sort of consistent statement or tone. It lacks that – it is all over the map in a lot of ways. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The live versions play a little bit more consistent because some of the elements that make songs unique on the album (the banjo on “High Water”, for instance) disappear in the live versions, making the songs seem a little more consistent.

This is one of those albums where it is probably best to go song by song:

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”. I had low hopes for this one just based on the title, but I quite like it. On the album this song is all about the fills – the jarring sharp guitar bits at the end of each line – which I love. The lyrics are dark and somewhat hopeless, filled with references to New Orleans. Lyrically I’m not sure that it amounts to all that much, but the production here is really strong. It’s a good song to lead things off.

“Mississippi”. By far my favourite song on the whole album as of this writing. This is an odd one. I knew this song primarily because The Dixie Chicks covered it on their live album. I didn’t realize that it was a Dylan song that they were covering, and I became very used to that version (which actually owes a lot to the Sheryl Crow version). Dylan does the song at about half the speed of The Dixie Chicks. When I first started listening to it I couldn’t get the Chicks version out of my mind. Today, I listened to their version and couldn’t get the Dylan version out of my mind – he has sort of completely swept them aside for me. That was an interesting accomplishment. Anyway, this is a really great song. Here’s the Chicks version:

“Summer Days”. This is the first song that gives the album a really retro feel. This is a pretty straight rockabilly song. Musically it is pretty predictable and lyrically it doesn’t do much. This sounds like it could have been recorded by any of a hundred retro rockabilly rockers over the years (I mean, the Stray Cats could have recorded this). This song has my favourite lines on the whole album:

She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”
It’s the tripled use of “can’t” that makes that so bizarre.

“Bye and Bye”. This one is even more retro. Bing Crosby could have recorded this, or Frank Sinatra. Certainly would have sounded different, since Dylan’s voice croaks a few times here, and Crosby and Sinatra didn’t sing songs that were this dark. This is a light-toned, velvety song with this as the final verse:

Papa gone mad, mamma, she’s feeling sad
I’m gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war
Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be

This is one of the most unusual songs that Dylan had recorded on one of his own albums at this point, what with the jazzy organ and drumming. If you don’t pay any attention to it, it sounds like nothing. If you listen to the words, it sounds like he’s losing his mind. He didn’t play this live for the first time until October 2002.

“Lonesome Day Blues”. This is retro in a totally different way – a straight blues song. At first I had almost no interest in this one. The repetitive, predictable blues riffs sounded like anyone could have written them. Then, once again, the lyrics start to sneak up on you and you start to ask: “What the hell is this guy doing?”

Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months
Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months
Don’t know how it looked to other people
I never slept with her even once

All of these songs that sound like they could have been played in the 20s wind up having odd sorts of twists.

“Floater (Too Much to Ask)”. This sounds akin to “Bye and Bye”. Another one that Crosby or Sinatra might have crooned. Same drumming, same tempo, this time abetted by some fiddling and some organ. This one has the best lyrics of any song on the whole album:

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopesAt the same time, this is the one that opened the whole plagiarism can of worms.

Let’s stop for a second. There are two lines in this song that Dylan is accused of lifting from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza: “I”m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound” is comparable to Saga’s “I’m not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded” and “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord” is akin “My ole man would sit there like a feudal lord”. I am going to come back to these accusations particularly around the discussion of Chronicles because there is an awful lot to say here. Long version short: the album is called “Love and Theft”. The album uses quotation marks in its title. I think Dylan knows exactly what he is doing.

“High Water (For Charley Patton)”. On my first listen this was the song that I liked the best, and it is still up there near the top, not the least because of the banjo playing. This isn’t the first Dylan song with banjo, but it is the first where the banjo is the most prominent instrument and where it sounds like a banjo song (Larry Campbell, one of Dylan’s touring guitarists, plays the banjo here). I don’t know, there’s nothing on this song that I don’t like – it’s one of my favourite things from him in a long time. Lyrics (“They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five”), music, vocal performance, the whole thing is flawless as far as I’m concerned. The high point of the album as far as I’m concerned. By the way: Why is Dylan not accused of plagiarizing the line “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies”? It’s a standard folk song line.

“Moonlight”. This is almost the same as “Bye and Bye”, slow, meandering light jazz. “Bye and Bye”, “Floater” and “Moonlight” could all be the basis for an entirely different album entirely.

“Honest With Me”. A total whiplash change of pace from the previous song. Uptempo, with trademark inscrutable imagery in the lyrics. This is my least favourite song on the album, although I don’t mind the live version of it. I don’t like the guitar fills that they use on the album version, but those are toned down live. This is a pretty straight forward Dylan rocker.

“Po’ Boy”. This one, however, I just love. It is much better on the album than it is in any live version that I have heard yet. The minimal instrumentation and the foregrounding of Dylan’s sort of failing voice – he sounds like he’s barely hanging on to this one, he can’t get up there to hit that note on “Po’” and his voice cracks almost every time. Love the guitar here, love the lyrics:

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket
By the way, what happened to that poison wine?”
She says, “I gave it to you, you drank it”
Poor boy, layin’ ’em straight—pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate

I would have made this the final song on the album if it had been me.

“Cry a While”. This is a fairly familiar one. It starts as a simple blues song, then picks up the tempo, then slows down again. Angry Dylan with a bitter anti-love song. We know the all too well, but he’s done this genre a lot better than this.

“Sugar Baby”. Of course this is also a great final song for this album. I guess maybe this should go last, but maybe they could have lost “Cry a While” because this following “Po’ Boy” would have been quite the gut punch. A little bit of guitar, some organ, and Dylan’s once again failing voice. The whole thing comes down to the pacing and the phrasing of the chorus. The verses are long, slow, dirge-like and then he rushes through the short, staccato lines of the chorus. It’s a beautiful contrast. Here’s how he ends the whole album:

Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one

You got a way of tearing the world apart. Love, see what you done

Just as sure as we’re living, just as sure as you’re born

Look up, look up—seek your Maker—’fore Gabriel blows his horn
Sugar Baby, get on down the line

You ain’t got no sense, no how

You went years without me

Might as well keep going now
I have to think that with every album Dylan has made in the past fifteen years there has been the looming possibility that this could be the final one, and that if it were, this would be the final thing he’d say to us. This might’ve been a fitting end.

So. Really strong album. In some ways it sounds like it has about three albums in it – a crooning album; a blues album; an album of new Dylan material that stretches from the past couple of albums. Ultimately it is that last one that I personally prefer: “Mississippi”, “High Water”, “Po’ Boy” and “Sugar Baby” are the surefire keepers for me. Most of the rest is interesting, but those four are fantastic.

Here’s Sheryl Crow also doing “Mississippi”. She tells a little Dylan anecdote to start, and talks about real estate:

Two Covers

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Whatever else one might say about Bob Dylan, he has impeccable taste in music. As we’ve moved into 2001, I’ve been listening to “Love and Theft” a ton this week, and I’m fascinating by the particular ways that it harkens back to a pre-Dylan musical era. More on that later this week. He also released two non-“Love and Theft” tracks in 2001, both of which were covers and both of which he recorded in 2000.

The first was “I Can’t Get You Off of My Mind” from the Hank Williams tribute album, Timeless. Let’s start with Hank from 1947:

At first Dylan’s version doesn’t sound to my ear like it dates from 2000 – his voice sounds younger here than it has in quite some time – but wait for the second verse, there comes the croak. It’s a jazzy little number driven by the bass-playing (for a more innovative take on Williams, try Beck and Jon Brion’s version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” from the same album).

It’s a pretty faithful version of an artist that Dylan has long admired. If you recall, Dylan and Baez sing Hank Williams songs together in a scene from Dont Look Back:

The Dylan song is not the lynchpin of Timeless, although it is the first track. It’s a good compilation as these things go, with Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams, and Johnny Cash among others. Lots of love for Hank.

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A month later Dylan appeared on a second tribute album, Good Rockin’ Tonight – The Legacy of Sun Records, doing a cover of Warren Smith’s rockabilly song, “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache”. Here is Smith:

Dylan’s version is musically a bit more full, but, again, pretty faithful to the original version. The Good Rockin’ Tonight album is another all-star cast – Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Elton John, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow (again!)… and a lot of the music is quite faithful to the stylings of Elvis and Carl Perkins. There was quite the excavation of America’s musical past going on in fall 2001, probably tied to the fact that the mid-century explosion of things like rockabilly was now fifty years in the past.

I don’t think that either of these Dylan songs is particularly essential listening, though both are fine. They do seem to begin to set the table for “Love and Theft”, with its jazzy, retro musical stylings, and are probably most notable as a kind of warm-up to that album. If these had come out in 2000 I think that they might have been taken as a signal that Dylan had once again dried up as a songwriter. As it was, they were released shortly after one of his most heralded albums, so there was no such discussion. I actually don’t think that there was much discussion of these at all – I don’t think either album got a lot of attention in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001 – and the compilations sort of faded despite their incredible pedigrees.