Compilation Corner: Blonde Gone Wild
The debut of a new series
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I mostly listen to complete shows for this newsletter. Some are good, some are bad, some are a mix. But in my non-newsletter time in recent months, I’ve found myself listening to more fan compilations. There’s something convenient in knowing that someone else already did the hard work for you, picking out the best stuff from a given tour or year or whatever.
For me, the stranger or more esoteric the framework for a compilation, the better. A comp that’s just 30 different versions of “Maggie’s Farm”? I’m in. Ninety-nine different live performances from 1989? Hell yeah. Six full discs of Freddy Koella guitar solos? You know I’m there. (Those are all real compilations, by the way.)
So I figured I’d occasionally spotlight one in a new series called Compilation Corner.
Compared to the three I just listened, the first pick is relatively sane (though when you run a newsletter devoted to old Bob Dylan concerts, you might not be the best judge of “relatively sane”). Called Blonde Gone Wild, it came out in 2003, when a Girls Gone Wild reference would land right in the zeitgeist. It collects one or two exceptional live versions of every song from Blonde on Blonde, as determined by its pseudonymous compilers Stefan and StewART.
Almost every Blonde on Blonde song, that is, as two have never been played: “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (makes sense, very long) and “Temporary Like Achilles” (more surprising, he typically plays the midtempo blues songs to death). But most of the rest he’s played often, usually in the triple digits. Even the rarest song, “Pledging My Time,” got over twenty outings. The most-played, “Rainy Day Women,” is nearing 1,000 — sooner or later he’s bound to do an interesting one (zing!).
Speaking of “Rainy Day Women,” that song offers your first clue this compilation was made for the CD-burning era. Disc one ends with a version from 1995, and disc two begins with one from 1991. No problem on different discs, but if you’re listening to it digitally, that means back-to-back “Rainy Day Women”s. After the tenth minute and counting, I wished someone would stone me! Especially since they’re both rough; the 1995 one features some chaotic caterwauling from Chrissie Hynde (Elvis Costello and Carole King are both there too - Carole only a few days before breaking her arm at another Bob show - but quieter) and the second features an extended harmonica intro that sounds like Bob grabbed a harp in the wrong key and just went with it. The one good “Rainy Day Women” on this is the one Dylan himself doesn’t sing; in 1978, the backing singers opened some shows with a cool Bob-free gospel version.
But, that complaint aside (and I don’t hold it against the compilers; could “Rainy Day Women” ever be the highlight of something like this?), they pick some killer versions of these songs. 1988, the first year of the Never Ending Tour, appears to be a good era for Blonde on Blonde tunes. I dig Bob’s ragged shouty approach on “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” which also features a killer closing guitar solo from G.E. Smith, and “Stuck Inside of Mobile.” They sound like punk songs that year, as does, of all things, “Visions of Johanna.” Punk “Visions” works better than you’d think! The compilation also shows the flexibility of a song like that; compare that ‘88 “Visions” with the tender acoustic version from 2001 just a few tracks later.
It’s not all Never Ending Tour though. “Just Like a Woman” is a killer both in its 1975 Rolling Thunder incarnation and its 1986 Heartbreakers and Queens of Rhythm version. “Most Likely You Go Your Way” sounds great from the 1974 Band reunion tour (this recording features an especially prominent Richard Manuel organ, which almost sounds synth-y). The one track actually performed around Blonde on Blonde’s release, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” from the original Hawks tour, actually ends up being one of the weakest; it simply pales in comparison to other songs in 1966’s electric-in-both-senses-of-the-word sets.
The thing with any Dylan compilation is that it will likely be rendered out of date eventually. Blonde Gone Wild came out in 2003, which means it missed out on some all-time-great versions of these songs, like “Visions of Johanna” from Dublin 2005 or “Most Likely” from the Shadow Kingdom 2021. But for a going-on-twenty-years-old collection—that’s right, it’s reached the age where it too could be exploited by Girls Gone Wild—Blonde Gone Wild still offers a fascinating overview of the many approaches Bob took to these songs on stage over the years.