Bob Dylan's Most Prolific Period Revisited (Again) in 'Bootleg Series Volume 12': Album Review
With Bob Dylan’s longstanding bootleg series and its elongated contextualization of his universally lauded craft, the scholarly reconsideration of archival recordings has become something of a cottage industry for our most famous bard, as well it should. The latest edition of the series' run, Volume 12, is a thorough, 6-CD overview of Dylan’s most prolific and arguably greatest period of songwriting, musicianship and recording, all generated in the course of fourteen months and producing three extremely memorable albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, each collection a groundbreaking musical event within its own right.
To be clear, the majority of classic tracks derived from the three formal album releases aren’t included here in lieu of alternate takes, rehearsals, demos, live performances, stems, snippets, song sketches and the like. Certainly, the original album versions of these songs spawned a sea change within the American recording industry of the mid-1960s, and Dylan’s bold aesthetic choices have profoundly impacted generations of thinking musicians to this very day. The artistic journey detailed here sheds light on Dylan’s much ballyhooed transition from folk to rock music and his sharp integration of rock 'n' roll, blues and countrified sounds with lyrical fever dreams, spitfire beat-poetics, obtuse personal observations, amphetamine confessionals and biting social commentary.
This fine historical collection also illuminates the linear progress of Dylan’s life as a recording artist and his working relationships with two trusted album producers. Specifically, we observe an abrupt passing of the reins from urbane music sophisticate Tom Wilson on to the intuitive session supervisor Bob Johnston. The boxed set’s carefully annotated consideration of Dylan’s whirlwind artistic process also traces his strong collaborative rapport with a number of uniquely talented musicians.
In 1965, while recording Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s solo folkie identity advanced via the support of an East Coast cadre including keyboardist Paul Griffin, drummer Bobby Gregg and future Lovin’ Spoonful bandleader John Sebastian. Soon after, for Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan drafted the estimable talents of virtuoso blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield and wily novice keyboardist Al Kooper. Now burnishing his “thin wild mercury sound” revolving around the nexus of electric guitar, organ and harmonica, Dylan began playing with a team of hard-driving Canadian musicians he knew from Woodstock NY. That particular group was soon to become known as The Band. In 1966, for the making of Blonde On Blonde, Dylan traveled to Nashville at the urging of producer Johnston, enlisting a select group of studio players to help him fulfill his ambitious sonic vision. Dylan’s aural triumphs in “Music City” led to a pilgrimage of rock and folk artists all looking to make similar gains within the Nashville milieu.
Boasting seven-plus hours of 111 distinct recordings, The Cutting Edge often displays Dylan’s artistic process by chronologically lining up multiple versions of the same song. The prime example of this thorough examination would be the twenty tracks devoted to the creation of one shining moment, Dylan’s lengthy performance of “Like A Rolling Stone.” Devoting an entire disc to this immortal anthem, the collection includes instrumental portions of the song that ultimately led to an epic whole far greater than its composite parts. Similar (but less exhaustive) explorations include the gradual development of crucial tunes like “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Desolation Row,” “Visions Of Johanna” and “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” to name just a few. Some of the finished tracks included here, like “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” have appeared on previous collections, but are helpful in painting a more complete picture of this vital era.
Showcasing some older music traditions in the midst of fresh, remarkable transitions, Dylan’s unorthodox approach to creating songs in the recording studio one half-century ago have provided essential building blocks for contemporary singer-songwriters the world over. His hybrid tributes and bold reinterpretations of previously established folk-forms resulted in a new, classic rock sound and revealed a lyrical brilliance that the world had never heard before. At the very least, listening to The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 should send you scurrying back to the official versions of those three classic Bob Dylan albums. It’s his story, and it’s history, reconsidered one more time.