For years, Bob Dylan was the Pied Piper to the Baby Boomer generation, with his songs of protest being covered by artists of all styles, ranging from folk to rock to jazz. Yes, there were some Biblical references to some of his songs, particularly from the John Wesley Harding album, but no one expected the spokesperson for rebellion to turn from a kind of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul. But, as God has done throughout history, He surprised the world as Bob Dylan became a “born again” Christian, with a Trinity of albums and handful of tours to promote his newfound faith.
In retrospect, it’s not that big of a shock, as many artists of that era and genre lost hope in the worldly messages and embraced the eternal hope of Christianity. Barry McGuire, Chris Hillman, Richie Furay and Roger McGuinn are just a handful of artists who did the ultimate protest, and embraced the 2000 year old religion.
These two albums cover the 1979-81 “travelling salvation show” (as Neil Diamond once put it),representing not only material from his Slow Train Coming, Shot of Love and Born Again albums, but also including some non-album material that is just as musically and spiritually important. Dylan’s bands were top notch, including Fred Tackett-Steve Ripley/g, Spooner Oldham-Terry Young-Willie Smith/key, Tim Drummond/b, Jim Keltner/dr and a rotating team of female background singers. There are two takes of “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” delivered about 2 years apart, making for fascinating comparison and contrast, with both being poignant, while the ’81 take of the latter has Dylan in street preaching mode. Same for the two versions of “Solid Rock,” slowly evolving into a meditative recitative. An intimate “When He Returns” has Dylan on guitar, simply supported by Oldham’s piano, and the two make this riveting piece as penetrating as a heralding angel.
As far as voice and delivery during this period, Dylan and the band are , to use the religious phrase, inspired. He sings with conviction and with the supporting cast delivering a Verdian Dies Irae mood to “When You Gonna Wake Up?” and material such as “I Believe In You” is as strong as anything this side of Nashville Skyline. All of this should also be as popular, except for the anti-religious pre-disposition of the receiving audience who is obviously more attuned to Rome’s Bread and Circuses than God’s Bread of Life.
There are a handful of previously unreleased songs; a haunting “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody,” a slinkily grooved “Ain’t no Man Righteous, No Not One” with some Pentacostal wailing from vocalist Regina McCrary, and “Blessed Is the Name” which Tackett’s searing guitar with words from the prophet Daniel.
The concert and albums met with a resounding “huh” by the pop world at the time. As always, Bob Dylan never lived up to the expectations of his fans, whether it was “abandoning” spartan folk music for electric rock, hibernating up in Big Pink with the Bible and The Band, or completing his Jewish heritage by embracing Jesus as Messiah. What this artist did, and all artists should do, is follow the path destined for them, not turning to the right or left.
As CS Lewis once wrote, “anything not eternally focused is eternally obsolete. “ This set, finally released for the masses from on high, is fit for the ages and beyond.