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The Complete Budokan 1978 showcases more of Bob Dylan's hidden depths

"The Complete Budokan 1978"

Release date: 17 November 2023
Bob Dylan The Complete Budokan cover
24 November 2023, 00:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

Bob Dylan’s reputation as a powerfully compelling if wildly variable live performer is built largely on spontaneity, seat-of-the-pants extemporization, and an inability to play and sing the same song exactly the same way twice.

Then there’s the legendary songwriting icon’s epic 114-date 1978 tour, commemorated on this typically exhaustive archival release that expands 1987’s divisive At Budokan to present the two Tokyo shows the live album was compiled from in full, with 36 previously unreleased performances in the deluxe 4-CD version (2-LP version offers 16 previously unreleased cuts).

Recorded on February 28th and March 1st 1978, the slick and busy arrangements on The Complete Budokan 1978 can initially seem like a curio for die-hard fans only. Dig in deeper, however, and there are hidden depths and maybe even links to Dylan’s subsequent trademarks as a live performer to be found here.

Possibly inspired by the then-recent passing of one of Dylan’s idols, Elvis Presley, there are moments with more than a passing resemblance to the sumptuous, backing singer-saturated pomp of Elvis’s Vegas extravaganzas. Some performances hint at the expansive rock ‘n’ roll revues of Bruce Springsteen, the most prominent of the new Dylans that kept cropping up throughout the 70s. With sax, flute and female backing singers in prominent roles, the 11-piece band was not that much bigger than the loose ensemble that accompanied Dylan on his near-mythical Rolling Thunder Revue tours. Whereas those mid-70s jaunts favoured ragged energy over mapped-out finesse, and then fresh cuts off Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976) over the ‘hits’, the arrangements and performances heard on Complete Budokan 1978 – with a setlist that finds space for all of Dylan’s most iconic tunes - are for the most part intricate and controlled, with only minimal changes between the two nights.

Anyone who’s ever attended a Dylan gig and struggled to recognize (m)any of the tunes will be in familiar company here. The songs are twisted to new shapes with such wildly adventurous zeal that they can seem irretraceable to the original until the singing (Dylan is in great voice throughout) starts. This can both freshen up overly familiar tunes and lead to some bafflingly overcooked misfires: a muscular arena rock stomp around originally solo acoustic “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “I Want You” rearranged as a minimalist torch song work brilliantly, whereas a reggae-lite rendition of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” decorated with a dancing flute might explain why the original At Budokan doesn’t tend to rank very high amongst Dylan’s live albums.

The unreleased cuts provide many of the highlights. Two takes on obscure vintage rhythm & blues cuts hit a raw energy that the more heavily polished arrangements lack. Originally a laidback country ballad, “I Threw It All Away” drips with distinctly Presley-ian drama, whilst “The Man In Me” blooms into a sparkling testimonial that finds the big band in a welcome moment of toned-down economy. Perhaps alone amongst bona fide legends of rock music, Bob Dylan’s more recent undertakings don’t pale into insignificance next to the verified classics. It’s interesting to draw parallels between The Complete Budokan 1978 and Dylan’s ongoing tour in support of 2020’s late masterpiece Rough and Rowdy Ways, which also features stable setlists and controlled arrangements, although with a subtlety that can be sorely lacking during the most bombastic moments found here.

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