#10. At Budokan
Between choosing either At Budokan or Hard Rain in terms of being worse, it came down to one thing: what could have been. With the gift of those two albums being over 20 years down the line, listeners have The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 to document the great first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue instead of only Hard Rain, while for Dylan’s supposed “Vegas” tour, we’re left with nothing.
I’m a huge fan of Street Legal (more on that album in another post) but At Budokan—recorded in February and March of 1978, only a few short months before Street Legal, but not released until 1979—sounds like a not-so-modest blueprint of the Street Legal sound.
The album begins with an interesting version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that is mostly hindered by the use of a flute played by Steve Douglas. But whatever intrigue that song has for the rest of the album is completely sucked away by the next track, “Shelter for the Storm.” A brutal rendition that makes the version appearing on Hard Rain sound that much better. As you’ll see tomorrow, I believe “Shelter from the Storm” to be one of the two good songs on Hard Rain.
The best song on At Budokan is the drastically different “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” which now contains a slightly altered melody, string and yes, that aforementioned flute. And, once again, whatever momentum the album builds is shot down again with the dreadful “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” gets a reggae feel that makes one respect Bob Marley that much more, while the next song, “Maggie’s Farm,” continues my thought that there’s only one version of the song worth listening to: the rendition at the Newport Folk Festival with Mike Bloomfield. The relatively recent of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” gets a sly playing with Steve Douglas redeeming himself by adding the sax to the song, which actually works better than it should in theory.
I’ve never quite understood why “Like a Rolling Stone” and “I Shall Be Released” would be placed as 8th and 9th tracks on an album with 22 songs; after all, they’re typically show closers but for whatever reason, these tame versions get placed before one of the better songs on the album, “Is Your Love in Vain?” Dylan introduces the song by saying, “Here’s an unrecorded song. See if you can guess which one is,” but luckily for the listener, its gets better than this supposed wit of his. Dylan takes his time with his words and plays it closely resembling the album version, which actually comes across as a mini-blessing because this means he isn’t changing the song just to change it. Most of the time, I love his altered versions but when Bob gets bored with the different versions, the songs become stagnant. I guess that’s the curse of an album which ends its first disc with “Going, Going, Gone.”
I would listen to any argument that places the At Budokan version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as one of Dylan’s worst songs. One has to wonder if Stevie Wonder was listening to it before his performance of the same song at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert. At the very least, Dylan doesn’t include a 5 minute opening about the state of the world.
The bad keeps coming with “Just Like a Woman” and a swampy version of “Oh, Sister,” but a slightly Nighthawks at the Diner Waits-esque “Simple Twist of Fate” is worth at least a quick listen to. But then again, all is lost with a boring “All Along the Watchtower,” the worst possible “I Want You” ever (!), a Brady Bunch sounding “All I Really Want to Do” (although I do like the slight lyric changes; in fact, this recording is sort of a guilty pleasure) and a version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” which has the exact same opening as the earlier “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
A desperate sounding “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” breaks the trend of lackluster songs, while “Forever Young” is neither good or bad—just sort of stuck in neutral.
For the last song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” here’s what Rolling Stone had to say: “The low point of the set is "The Times They Are A-Changin'," which Dylan introduces by saying: ‘Thank you, you're so very kind, you really are. We'll play you this song -- I wrote this, also, about fifteen years ago. It still means a lot to me. I know it means a lot to you, too.’ I don’t believe it’s the worst song on a bad album, but that’s not to say I enjoy it either.
You have to wonder who this album was for: the fans or the record company? Having three live albums in five years isn’t a shrewd move and making one of those from his much criticized ’78 tour doesn’t go too far into solving that mystery. But I guess Dylan himself is pretty much a mystery too.