A Guide to Some of the Best Live-Dylan Compilations Out There
Thousand Highways takes us through his back pages
As I’ve mentioned here before, after a decade of fairly obsessive Dylan fandom starting in the mid-2000s, I semi-checked out in the early 2010s. No big reason, and not even a conscious decision. I was just doing other stuff. Living in NYC made it easy; I could still see him once a year when he inevitably came through, but otherwise not pay super close attention.
I returned around the time I started this newsletter, in early 2020. In fact, I started it in part because I missed being deep in Dylan-world and wanted to reconnect to that level of fandom.
When I returned, I soon discovered an amazing fan site whose lifespan I had entirely missed: Thousand Highways. At that unpretentious Blogspot, someone had spent several years sharing some of the most amazing Dylan compilations I’d ever heard, complete with killer artwork and meticulous track-by-track liner notes. Many have made similar live-Bob compilations (ahem), but I’m not sure anyone has done it as consistently well as he has.
Thousand Highways is no longer a going concern, but the creator takes care to keep the old download links alive. And there are many — I counted over 70 compilations over there! So, in what will be the first of an occasional series of interviews with notable Dylan fans (what’s a less stuffy word than “Dylanologist”?), I checked in with Mr. Thousand Highways himself, who prefers to just go by the initials CS, to get an overview of his compilations, and a guide for where newcomers might want to start.
How'd you get into Bob Dylan?
Believe it or not, it was hearing his first record around 2004. I received some money as a birthday gift and went to my local record store to try out three new artists. I bought the first Sonic Youth album (didn’t enjoy it, sadly), the first Bob Dylan album, and something else I can’t recall. I don’t exactly remember what drew me to the Dylan album; it may have been hearing “Tangled Up In Blue” on the radio a few weeks earlier. At the time I was mostly into indie rock and blues. Anyway, I’ve never had as strong a reaction as I had to that record. It just electrified me, especially “In My Time of Dyin’” and “House of the Rising Sun.”
I used most of the money I acquired through weekly allowances and my first jobs to acquire as much of the Dylan catalog as I could. My route through it was odd. The fact that The Bootleg Series Volume 6: Live 1964 and Hard Rain were a few of my first acquisitions probably colored my approach. I recall strongly disliking Live 1966, Bringing It All Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde the first time I heard them. On the other hand, I instantly loved John Wesley Harding, Time Out of Mind, Live 1975, and Love and Theft. That classic mid-‘60s Dylan voice was a turn-off to me, though I grew to enjoy it more over time.
What inspired you to start Thousand Highways?
I started trading bootleg CDs when I was off at college in the mid-‘00s, pretty much the last time that practice was common I suspect. One kind soul sent me a bunch of stranger odds and ends as a bonus — shows from the early ‘90s, ‘60s hotel tapes, that sort of thing — which fired my interest in finding out more about the unique styles that Dylan had performed. One of my favorite things about him as a musician is his willingness to totally upend what he’s been doing and try something new.
When I was abroad in England for six months during late 2008, I ended up downloading a few fan-made bootleg collections that were circulating at that time called Self-Portrait Revisited. They were structured like Self-Portrait, a mixture of instrumentals, studio, and live material, and were a big gateway for me. I listened to them endlessly and figured maybe I could do something similar to shine a light on the best, often-unheard parts of this singer’s catalog.
My first attempt to do so was a collaboration with a member of the Expecting Rain website. It covered what I saw as the best performances of the 2008 North American Tour. I wasn’t especially thrilled with the tour, but it had its moments and I figured they could be pulled together into something worthwhile. My collaborator remastered them to sound nicer, which wasn’t a skill I had at the time. (I don’t rate the collection very high at this point, and it’s not a part of the Thousand Highways Collection for that reason)
That worked out well and proved to be pretty popular, so we did something similar with various studio sessions from 1980 and 1981. I’d recently read Paul Williams’ Performing Artist book series, which still strikes me as the best writing on Bob Dylan, and he clued me in to all of the great alternate takes and such from the Shot of Love era. I was a bit disappointed with the second collaboration, though, as the remastering bricked the tracks and made it hard to listen to at a stretch. I went back and redid it on my own sometime later, learning Audacity as I went. That became my first compilation, City of Gold. I then did Piano Blues and Barroom Ballads since Fall 2003 was really interesting to me as a tour, and then a collection of 1966 hotel tapes called Shades of Blue. The latter was probably the most formative project, since I chopped up the basic recordings a bit to make them play cleaner as individual songs. I seem to recall these being the first CDs I posted when I decided to go “independent” with my own website. I was pretty proud of the cover artwork I’d done, so it seemed nice to have a Blogspot design that put those up-front.
When are we talking here?
With regard to when the website started, it seems to have been 2013. I think I'd been publishing CDs over on Expecting Rain for at least a few months prior, but maybe a couple years. I know I had the first few collections set up before I started Thousand Highways, since I managed a ridiculous weekly schedule up through mid-2014! I have no idea how I did that. Not sure when it really picked up, but I seem to recall hitting a million visitors around 2018. It's a bit silly, but my wife and I went out to celebrate with a nice dinner.
Do you have any personal favorite compilations you've done?
Absolutely! Heck, most of the Bob Dylan I listen to at this point consists of Thousand Highways albums, if you can believe it. I guess that makes sense, since I’ve already singled out these songs as my favorites in Dylan’s back catalog. In no order, my favorites are:
In The Summertime (Live 1981) - This is my favorite year of touring. Dylan’s voice is great, and evolves over time, and the band is loose without being bland. Love the backup singers and what they bring to some of his classic songs. It feels a bit like what 1978 should’ve been. Shot of Love produced so many lovely songs too, and those get their best renditions here.
Piano Blues and Barroom Ballads (Live 2003) - This is maybe my second-favorite year of touring! Freddy Koella is Bob Dylan’s best guitar player, in my opinion, and Dylan is doing some genuinely wild vocal performances during this time period. It’s rougher and you never know which way a verse is going to go, but the results (at the best of times) tend to be better than similarly experimental eras like 1987 or 1989. So many songs — “Most Likely You Go Your Way” and “Highway 61” — get their definitive renditions here.
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