A POSTER advertising Bob Dylan’s five concerts in December 1997 in Los Angeles hangs above my turntable, a reminder of the first great Dylan concert I ever saw after 19 years and more than a dozen shows that did not quite click. It was a bit mysterious at the time as to how or why he had improved so dramatically — the band, the material, the intelligent design, the approach, all played a role.
At the time, observers pinned his rejuvenation on recovery from a health scare a year before, a theory that has since been discounted. But that’s the way it is with Dylan — no other songwriter-performer has their moves examined so thoroughly, with each step retraced and then re-evaluated. Rather than let rogue archivists corner the Dylan analysis market, the singer-songwriter and his camp have supplied their own take with archival releases, a book (“Chronicles Vol. 1”) and a film (“No Direction Home”); today, Dylan’s latest edition of his “bootleg series” helps explains the years since 1989.
Like its predecessors, the new bootleg series release is a collection of distinction — as essential to his canon as any release that preceded it.
The three-CD expanded edition of “Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006” fills in the holes between the days leading up to “Oh Mercy,” an album that came out of a period of great conflict for Dylan, and the concerts that followed his most recent album, “Modern Times.” (Sony Legacy is also releasing a two-CD, 27-song version and a vinyl edition as well). Fourteen songs appear twice on “Tell Tale,” mostly as a pair of alternate takes.
“Tell Tale” reinforces lessons learned in his memoir “Chronicles,” specifically how Dylan closed out the ’80s feeling directionless and in need of a new guitar style not to mention a sound that would reinvigorate his catalog. Dylan found it, he writes in “Chronicles” and as “Tell Tale Signs” demonstrates, by going backward and revisiting the blues and folk music of his teens that influenced his first four albums. “Tell Tale” includes covers Jimmie Rodgers and traditional folk from 1992 sessions, his take on Rev. Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues” in 1997 and a retreat to the rural for his own compositions.
Seven live recordings come from 1992 through 2004 and all back up the notion that Dylan had a focused run when it came to calculating how to best present himself in concert. “Ring Them Bells,” from 1993 at Gotham’s Supper Club is the initial step toward his reclamation effort; a 2000 version of his Oscar winner “Things Have Changed” cements his disregard for re-creation; a bracing “Cold Irons Bound,” from the 2004 edition Bonnaroo fest, displays how raw and terror-filled his performances can be.
THE PREVIOUS “bootleg” editions dominated by studio recordings reinforced Dylan’s impeccable instincts. And “Tell-Tale Signs” continues to confirm what the early collections told us: That Dylan works like a sculptor, through discarding and adding layers. Use a day to build, come back the next and improve it.
“Mississippi,” the gently buoyant tune from “Love and Theft” and one of his best from the last 40 years, is the centerpiece here, appearing three times on the expanded edition. The first is gentle and conversational with just Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois on acoustic and electric guitars. Second is slower, with a full band and slide guitar flourishes. Dylan is captured in a more dire state of mind, biting down on the line “your days are numbered/so are mine.” As the song progresses, Dylan lessens his burden by talking out a problem, his voice ultimately becoming one of solace.
Third version features the same band playing with a hint of reggae. Electric guitars and organ are more prominent, Dylan’s voice is recorded in an echo-producing chamber; he builds tension and then releases it within each lengthy verse. Two guitar solos suggest the song was in a state of transition. The first aims to connect the island feel with swing blues and it winds up handcuffed; the second solo, a coarse take on the blues in the coda, reinforces the notion that the protagonist has found a way out.
Dylan knew there was more in this song, which is obviously why he continued to round out its corners before recording a final version. “Tell Tale Signs” is mostly a book of answers; it’s a tribute to his artistry that we’re still asking questions.