As Bob Dylan turns 80, it’s simple to look at his back catalogue of 39 studio albums as a clearly-mapped journey through the man’s life. Early folk recordings pave the way to oppose tunes, a turn towards the electric, an amble into c and w, back out the other side with a 1970 s renaissance and an unfortunate duration as a born-again Christian prior to a period of lower albums and surprise gems, topped off with a late-career renaissance.
This is all true, however alongside this well-worn path is a parallel discography: the Bootleg Series. The very first volumes of this series of B-sides and rarities were released in 1991 to gather songs and outtakes which had long been circulating as bootleg recordings (for this reason the less than creative name). For most artists, a collection like this would be a fascinating diversion for completionists and obsessives, but nothing to write house about for the casual fan. The large quality and variety of Dylan’s output means that this isn’t the case with the Bootleg Series however, which contains folk staples from his early profession, initial recordings that never ever made it onto albums, and alternate variations of album songs which often exceed the picked take, or at the very least supply a completely new take on an old favourite.
This being said, there is a terrible lot of product to sift through when getting stuck in to the Bootleg Series. This can be part of the appeal, however can also be quite off-putting for someone who simply wants to push play and enjoy themselves, instead of digging through the … less impressive tracks available.
With that in mind, here are five of the best bootleg boxsets to help you hit the ground running …
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V olume 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
The Witmark Demos are the closest to a ‘conventional’ B-side and rarity collection as you’ll obtain from Dylan. A lot of them are alternate variations of rarities already launched previously, and lots of tail off as a young Bob Dylan curses himself for forgetting verses or fumbling his parts. It’s not going to interest many casual fans, but it provides a heart-warming feeling of a time when Bob Dylan was simply another New York folk musician, rather than a living, breathing, Nobel Prize-winning legend.
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Volume 14: More Blood, More Tracks (1969-1971)
‘ Blood On The Tracks’ is one of Dylan’s more standalone albums, with little either side of it which approaches a similar sound. What this collection does is to bulk that duration out with alternate versions and slower, more intimate takes which bring the lyrical storytelling to the forefront.
To add to these parallel recordings, there’s an extra gem that needs to be heard by any fan of ‘Blood On The Tracks’– ‘Up To Me’.
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Volume 15: Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969
While alternate takes of songs from ‘John Wesley Harding’ and ‘Nashville Skyline’ are great fun, the genuine draw here is almost 20 performance history with Johnny Cash. A lot of are charmingly shambolic, with both males singing over one another or failing to sing choruses at the same time, but this informality just serves to increase the feeling of investing an evening relaxed the campfire with two of history’s greatest artists.
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Volume 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue
Among the more straightforward Bootleg releases, this volume takes recordings from various gigs on Dylan’s 1975 tour to develop a rough approximation of a live show from the duration. Old classics get the biggest crowd reception, and a jacked-up electric rework of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ feels like an entirely various tune to the original.
But it’s the show-stopping finale which truly elevates this volume, a punchy performance of the then yet-to-be-released ‘Hurricane’, prefaced with a plea from Dylan for those in the audience to assist free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from prison. It’s a much less restrained variation than the one which made it onto record, and all the more powerful for it.
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Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991
The first three volumes of the Bootleg Series were launched together, and are far and away the greatest of the lot. Partly this is since they cover such a broad period that the best demonstrations and alternative takes might be cherry-picked, however it’s likewise due to the fact that of the summary of Dylan’s profession that this scope offers. Emphasizes include ‘Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues’, a tongue-in-cheek track inspired by a newspaper article about an overloaded ferryboat, and ‘Last Ideas on Woody Guthrie’, a wholehearted poem about Dylan’s idol, penned after his death. Social commentary as powerful as any launched on his albums is also here, with the gut punch of ‘Who Killed Davey Moore’ remaining in the mind long after the tune ends.
This release is frontloaded with tracks from the early days when Dylan was covering folk requirements and writing songs at such a rate that classics were routinely ended albums, however ‘7 Days’, a live recording from the mid 70 s, reveals that there are still some outright gems later in Dylan’s profession that for whatever factor, he chose didn’t deserve a place on a studio album.
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Words: Jake Hawkes
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