Album Preview: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years Celebrated in ‘Trouble No More’ Set … With Guest Michael Shannon

Shannon plays a minister in new footage that has been added to a 1980 concert film that is the chief attraction in Dylan's forthcoming nine-disc set.

Bob Dylan, Warfield Theatre, San Francisco,
Baron Wolman

Bob Dylan fans got quite the early Rosh Hashanah gift Wednesday, as Sony announced the November release of a boxed set devoted to archival material from “the gospel years.” The nine-disc set, titled “Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981,” features more than 100 previously unreleased live and studio tracks from the three-year period that found Dylan recording and performing almost exclusively Christian material.

While it stands as the most controversial era of Dylan’s career (yes, even more controversial than the deliberately fan-alienating “Self Portrait”), that three-year period has long fascinated the most hardcore faithful, because of the fiery performances Dylan was turning in with one of the best bands he ever assembled in his five-and-a-half-decade career. The patience of the Dylan die-hards has been rewarded with a collection that includes 15 songs he never officially released in any form.

The main attraction of the set, though — available only as part of the CD package, not the download version — is a DVD of a newly assembled film, also called “Trouble No More.” The hour-long movie, which will have its public premiere Oct. 3 at the New York Film Festival, screened for a small invited audience Tuesday night at the Sony lot in Culver City. About three-fourths of the film consists of pro-shot videotape of the gospel material being performed at 1980 tour dates. Between the songs, meanwhile, actor Michael Shannon appears in newly shot scenes playing an evangelical preacher and reading freshly scripted sermons, a curious artistic choice that pays off in thematically contextualizing the vintage concert material.

A few excerpts from the audio discs were played for invitees at the Sony gathering, including a walloping live version of “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” that features Carlos Santana as the guest guitar soloist. There were also A/B excerpts of live tracks to show how radically some of the “Slow Train Coming” songs evolved between the 1979 and ’80 tours, along with cassette recordings from tour rehearsals demonstrating very different arrangements Dylan tried out before ever taking the songs on the road.

The studio track that may generate the most immediate buzz is “Making a Liar Out of Me,” which a member of the Dylan camp described as so rare, it was “never even whispered about” before the September 1980 recording session was discovered recently. (The existence of the song was mentioned in a Clinton Heylin book, and the lyrics are said to be present in the Dylan archive at the University of Tulsa, but it otherwise has escaped any public notice.) There are 11 other studio versions of previously unreleased tunes that have only been heard on live bootlegs, if at all, including “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody,” “Cover Down, Pray Through,” “Thief on the Cross,” “City of Gold,” “Ain’t No Man Righteous, Not One,” “Stand by Faith,” and “Yonder Comes Sin.”

Bob Dylan's 9-disc "Trouble No More" boxed set

Despite being shot on video, the concert scenes in the “Trouble in Mind” DVD represents some of the most thrilling live Dylan footage ever released. The Dylan camp says the video was put in the can and “pretty much forgotten” about for the last 37 years — not altogether surprisingly, since, a year later, Dylan began including secular material in his set again, and the all-religious nature of the set list was no longer representative of his direction. But the footage is all the better for its unalloyed gospel intensity, aided by a crew of legendary rock players and five African-American backup singers — equal parts black church service and white man’s roadhouse blues rave-up.

As for the choice to add the Michael Shannon scenes between songs: “It was an idea that we had all been kind of tossing around,” director Jennifer Lebeau tells Variety, “whether we were going to do it as a straight documentary or take the music that we found and delve a little bit differently into it… We thought that (Shannon) would be the right guy. He’s a wonderful human to work with, and he’s actually a Bob fan, which we didn’t know at the time when we reached out to him.” A source in the Dylan camp says the idea to add a minister character amid the old footage came from Dylan himself.

Guitarist Fred Tackett, a mainstay of Dylan’s band through the “Slow Train” and “Saved” tours, was in attendance at Wednesday’s screening, marveling at the 37-year-old footage. “We shot up in Toronto, and we were up two or three days doing it, and it just disappeared,” Tackett said. “Nobody ever heard about it again. Then Monalisa (Young), one of the singers, sent me a link saying there was a new mastered version of it, and I saw that, just the concert footage, but this is the first time I’ve seen the movie. Actually seeing Bob sing the songs, it’s just the best. I could sit here all night and watch it about three times. The mix is beautiful. I just wish Tim Drummond (the bass player, who died in 2015) could have lived to see it,” Tackett added. “That was a moment of glory, man.”

Besides the concert footage, the “Trouble No More” movie also includes a full-band studio rehearsal of the gospel standard “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well”; the only other time Dylan is known to have performed the song was in 1961. It ends with Dylan back at the piano in the studio, joined by a backup singer as he knocks off a gorgeous, impromptu version of “Abraham, Martin and John.” The DVD also includes a half-hour’s worth of outtakes, not included in the hour documentary.

As is typical with the “Bootleg” releases, more casual fans can settle for a less costly two-CD distillation of the nine-disc set, though it includes only live highlights, none of the studio material. Both editions come out Nov. 3.