Bob Dylan’s Trouble No More: I Haven’t Heard It, But I Already Have Issues

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Here lies a missed opportunity: The latest Bootleg Series dive into the Columbia Records vaults will offer a chance to reevaluate Bob Dylan’s controversial gospel period. This forthcoming box set is called Trouble No More, and it chronicles 1979 to 1981 — the era when Dylan released three intensely Christian albums and, for a time, performed concerts that included only his original, strikingly religious numbers.

Songs from Dylan’s gospel-era repertoire were rarely heard at his concerts after 1981. Bob would occasionally perform a churning version of his Grammy-winning single “Gotta Serve Somebody” before Frank Sinatra so thoroughly grabbed his attention a few years back. But most of Dylan’s Christian songs have been deeply buried for decades. A lot of his fans prefer it that way.

If some of Dylan’s 1965 audience thought his use of electricity was radical, many of his 1979 followers became apoplectic over the religious themes found in his gospel songs. Bob Dylan once told Cameron Crowe that people might “need time to catch up with” this music. After more than 35 years, that time could be now.

Between November 1979 and May 1980, Dylan gave concerts consisting entirely of religious songs; all were performed in the United States or Canada. The first leg of the tour ran from November 1 to December 9; Dylan returned to the road on January 11 for the tour’s second leg, which ended February 9. The tour’s third and final leg began April 17, concluding May 21 — for a total of 79 concerts made up strictly of Bob Dylan’s gospel material.

Featuring 8 audio discs and 1 DVD, Trouble No More chronicles these concerts. The box set will not be released for several weeks, but promotional materials indicate a type of trouble that goes beyond its title.

A quick overview:

The first two discs include a variety of concert performances recorded between November 1979 and November 1981. Having not yet heard them, I don’t know if these disparate selection of songs are presented as a single concert or as individual tracks. There are multiple performances of some numbers, such as “Slow Train,” and the song sequence does not always reflect Bob Dylan’s set lists from this period. I’m sure that the recordings and the performances are excellent.

Discs 3 and 4 are what the collectors are most excited about: Here are the unreleased and previously unknown studio recordings of songs from this era that did not make it onto Bob’s gospel albums Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), or Shot of Love (1981). As Dylan enthusiasts know all too well, Bob often leaves great songs in the vault. These two discs also contain rehearsals and concert sound checks. The earliest soundcheck comes from October 1978, solid confirmation that Dylan had written some of his Christian-themed songs a full year before his first public performance of this unexpected material.

Discs 5 and 6 of Trouble No More are meant to represent an ideal gospel show, pulling the best performances from a multi-night run in Toronto during April 1980, one month before Dylan stopped performing concerts of purely religious music. Discs 7 and 8 are billed as a complete show from London, recorded on June 27, 1981.

The ninth disc is a DVD of a recently produced “musical film” directed by Jennifer Lebeau. The movie, also called Trouble No More, includes concert footage from 1980 interspersed with material written by Luc Sante, performed by Michael Shannon in the role of an evangelical preacher. Shannon’s sermons appear between songs throughout the film.

That’s fine. But I have no interest in hearing Michael Shannon perform a script written by Luc Sante. I don’t want a “musical film” produced by Jennifer Lebeau; I want the full concert footage of the Toronto show that was filmed in 1980. I know it exists; many of us own bootleg copies of it. I want other gospel shows that were filmed, presented in a manner similar to the Other Side of the Mirror concert film, which featured live footage without commentary. The Trouble No More box set comes with “a hardcover book.” That’s where commentary belongs. If any speaking is included on this box set, it should be recordings of the sermonizing that Bob Dylan himself frequently offered during these concerts.

The DVD also includes “complete versions” of three performances, suggesting (as I fear) that Jennifer Lebeau’s film uses partial footage of songs and likely has narrative voiceovers meant to offer context and illumination. That Lebeau’s documentary is included here is not my complaint; the problem is that the complete concert footage that she uses should also be included.

I stress that I have not yet seen the DVD, but I do know what else should have been included, but is not: Video recordings of the three songs that Bob performed on Saturday Night Live on October 20, 1979. This was when Bob Dylan first publicly performed his gospel-era material, serving as the start of his religion tour. Also, television footage of Dylan receiving the Grammy for best rock vocal performance of 1979 should be here – along with that night’s performance of “Gotta Serve Somebody.” I’m sure Dylan devotees could add appropriate and available footage to this brief list.

Examining the audio portions of Trouble No More with greater scrutiny: Why is the London concert from June 1981 included? This comes from the “musical retrospective” tour that followed the concerts containing only gospel music, which concluded in May of the previous year. Of the 23 songs played at this 1981 London show, only 11 are from the triad of gospel-era LPs. Did Columbia include this concert to entice some potential customers? With Trouble No More listing at $175, there are less expensive places to purchase versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Maggie’s Farm.”

The two discs of Toronto concert recordings from 1980 are welcome, and using the best performances from three of Dylan’s nights at Massey Hall makes sense. However, if this is meant to represent a complete concert, it doesn’t. While all of the songs that Dylan played in Toronto are here, there was more to these gospel shows. From the beginning of the first leg of the tour in November 1979, each concert started with several numbers performed by Dylan’s backing singers – Helena Springs, Regina McCrary, and Mona Lisa Young. Pianist Terry Young would accompany the three women for a 30-minute set. The night would begin with McCrary telling the audience a story about an old woman who could not afford a ticket to get onto a train. Her story led to a six-song set of religious numbers, usually including “If I’ve Got my Ticket, Lord,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again,” “Look Up and Live by Faith,” “Hold My Hand, O Lord,” “O Freedom,” and “This Train.”

Dylan and his backing group would then, without an intermission, begin “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The women’s opening set was a part of the total gospel concert experience. This was not some local pick-up band that was different each night of the tour; Dylan clearly had a specific introduction in mind for these unique concerts.

When speaking about the gospel shows to Cameron Crowe, Bob Dylan stressed: “Above all else, the girls who play with me can hold their own with any man and … can blow most of the so-called other female rock stars … right out of the picture into the deep blue sea.” Yet from everything I have read, the producers of the Trouble No More set must disagree with Dylan’s assessment. The women’s opening spirituals are not included, robbing the audience of part of Bob’s intended message. What is all the more frustrating is that I am sure there is room on the box set’s discs for these songs and more.

And there is more: Besides the women’s prelude to his performance, another part of the evening appears to be excised from the new box. Within the body of these concerts each night, Bob Dylan would feature one of his female singers on a solo number. This showcase would rotate between the singers during the tour, with Regina McCrary singing “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” Mona Lisa Young featured on “God Uses Ordinary People,” and Helena Springs on “What Are You Doing With Your Heart?”

By the last leg of the tour, including the Toronto recordings, Bob had doubled down. Most nights, the women’s opening set had expanded to seven songs. These new additions sometimes included “(You’ve Got to) Hold On,” Freedom Over Me,” and “Show Me the Way.” Other numbers that would rotate in and out of this set were “Do Lord, Remember Me,” “Show Me the Way” and “Freedom at the Wall.”

By the tour’s final series of concerts, instead of three female backing singers, Bob now used five, and instead of one featured song a night, now there were two. Regina McCrary and Mona Lisa Young were still present, with Clydie King, Gwen Evans, and Mary Elizabeth Bridges completing Dylan’s vocal quintet. At the specific Canadian dates used for the Trouble No More box, Regina McCrary again sang “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and, on a different night, “My Heart.” Mona Lisa Young’s feature was now “Stranger in the City,” and Clydie King performed “Calgary.” Gwen Evans sang “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain” and Mary Elizabeth Bridges performed “Walk Around Heaven All Day.” None of these selections is included in the new box set.

Also excised, I am quite certain, are the bulk of Dylan’s comments to the Toronto audience. At various points, he gave shout outs to Canadian musicians Gordon Lightfoot and Ronnie Hawkins, with comments on Hawkins’ part in Dylan’s infamous movie Renaldo and Clara. On the final night of the Toronto stand, Bob delivered a lengthy religious commentary connecting Plato, the Book of Daniel, Russia, Jim Jones, Jimmy Reed, Adolf Hitler, and the Anti-Christ. And this was a concert where Bob Dylan seemed to be enjoying an appreciative audience! He even references the remarkably hostile crowd at the notorious Tempe, Arizona, concert from nearly six months earlier. Clearly, the anger that his overtly Christian material sometimes evoked was still on his mind.

As mentioned, discs 3 and 4 are the true motherlode of the box. But even here, anomalies exist. Listed as an outtake is “Trouble in Mind,” a song that originally appeared in 1979 as the B-side on the single edition of “Gotta Serve Somebody.” I suppose that, as a B-side, it could be considered a studio outtake from the Slow Train album, but it’s more vexing than that. It seems that Columbia forgot about that song’s release some time ago, for it does not appear on the Side Tracks disc that accompanied The Complete Album Collection box set of 2013.

In fact, to this day “Trouble in Mind” appears nowhere except on the “Gotta Serve Somebody” single. And, curiously, the released recording of “Trouble in Mind” is not the complete take (as bootleg tapes confirm) since the record fades out before Bob sings its final verse. It will be interesting to hear whether the song on the new set is the single version, the complete recording that was partially used on the single, or a totally different take. The liner notes indicate that “Trouble in Mind” is previously unreleased, but liner notes are known to be wrong about such things.

Columbia Records touts this as the “definitive retrospective of a pivotal period in the artist’s canon.” It’s not. It is a fragmented portrait. I have reached the conclusion that the people responsible for assembling this latest volume of Dylan’s Bootleg Series are not fans of his religious era. Maybe this is understandable. In 1985, Bob Dylan told Cameron Crowe that by the time he recorded Saved, he was “suffering from that so-called religious backlash” and felt that “people were prejudiced against” his gospel songs. Perhaps that prejudice has yet to fully subside.

Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Wilmeth
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