The latest entry in the consistently excellent “Bootleg Series,” “No Direction Home: The Soundtrack,” is a seemingly schizophrenic collection, split between acoustic rarities from Dylan’s first recordings, roaring live cuts and studio outtakes culled from Dylan’s infamous transition to rock ‘n’ roll. But taken together, the two-disc set — which accompanies a new Martin Scorsese documentary for PBS — beautifully captures Dylan’s momentous early career. The 28 tracks make for a fascinating listen, but, more importantly, it is a constant pleasure to discover new richness and complexity in the alternate performances.
The set starts off with “When I Got Troubles,” purportedly Dylan’s first recording. The song is simple and the sound quality is poor, yet you can hear that even way back in 1959, he was channeling the folk genius of Hank Williams, Leadbelly and his foremost idol, Woody Guthrie. And in his soft moaning and guitar strumming, you can hear the bluesiness that would influence his treasonous switch from acoustic to electric guitar.
Among the unreleased early material, Dylan’s interpretation of the traditional up-tempo “Dink’s Song” stands out. Folk can sound awfully soporific, but here the requisite repetitiveness is tempered by his heartfelt singing and energetic, almost percussive guitar playing. His infatuation with Guthrie has a strong presence. Besides the charming but relatively forgettable “Song To Woody,” Dylan turns Guthrie’s socialist anthem “This Land Is Your Land” into a melancholic and cynical ballad. When he sings the famous refrain, “This land was made for you and me,” he sounds like an abandoned lover.
Here, Dylan slows down “Blowin’ in the Wind” to a crawl, opening with a 50-second harmonica solo that takes away some of the song’s initial blow. His druggy murmuring again makes him sound heartbroken on what was originally a brazen political protest song. It can be disappointing to hear strange versions of familiar songs, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the gorgeous demo for “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” His quiet finger-picking sounds better than the famously sloppy recorded version; it is a reminder that Dylan was an ingenious musician as well as songwriter and lyricist. The same can be said for the passionate, pained performances of “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Dylan plays a shorter version of the first, making it more concise and effective; he plays a longer version of the second, allowing it to grow into a prophetic meditation.
The second disc, even better than the first, captures Dylan at his songwriting peak. Dylan is known and beloved for perpetually reinterpreting his songs. Even seven entries into “The Bootleg Series,” it’s difficult not to enjoy the experimentation. Perhaps the greatest asset of “No Direction Home” is the instrumental richness. On nearly each track, Dylan and his always wonderful backup musicians — the Butterfield Blues Band and an early incarnation of The Band — bring a raw and unpolished intensity that improves even classic songs.
The disc boasts Dylan’s first ever electric performance, recorded at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (where Dylan’s mentor Pete Seeger reportedly threatened to cut the amps’ wires.) The exuberant “Maggie’s Farm,” boasting a rare and raring guitar solo, sounds better than it does on the record. It’s easy to see why; Dylan revels in aiming the song’s anger at an audience who had expected a folk singer with a harmonica.
On the last track of the album, one of just two on the discs that was already released, fans in Manchester, England jeer wildly at their hero’s electric betrayal. Responding to the now infamous “Judas!” call from the audience, Dylan tells his band to “Play f—ing loud.” Listening to their performance on “Like A Rolling Stone,” it’s clear they got the message. The track — also documented on the fourth volume of “The Bootleg Series” — has more vitriol than death metal.
An alternate, longer version of “Desolation Row,” features a heavy electric guitar that sounds lifted from the Velvet Underground. (Though the link, of course, was more likely the other way around.) On the opening track of disc two, “She Belongs to Me,” drums are replaced by an additional electric guitar that dances gracefully around the main melody of the song. It is one of the essentials of the set, as is a heavy, intoxicated version of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and a cut of “Ballad of a Thin Man” which resolutely builds to a crashing climax.
Many of the other studio outtakes are too similar to the released versions to be more than slightly interesting to a casual fan already well acquainted with the music. It’s clear that, for the most part, the best versions did often make it to the original albums. Then again, “No Direction Home” would serve as a better introduction to Bob Dylan than most of his greatest hits collections. The music is potent and electrifying throughout.