'The Complete Budokan 1978' Captures Bob Dylan in Metamorphosis

BY Vish KhannaPublished Nov 16, 2023

Recontextualizing one of Bob Dylan's most divisive live albums, The Complete Budokan 1978 proves that "less is more" isn't necessarily always the truth — that the whole story can in fact be worth more than selected excerpts. Where the original 1978 release, Bob Dylan at Budokan, featured 23 songs culled from his February 28 and March 1 shows at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan, this new edition consists of 58 songs and each concert in their entirety, front to back. 

It was a strange and strikingly transitional time for Dylan. His last big tour, the revolutionary Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and 1976, found him roaring his songs in front of a remarkable band, with theatrical outfits, special guests and a marauding intensity that Dylan tapped into in parallel with the punk spirit that was taking hold among non-conforming musicians, who had no time for iconic prog and classic rockers. But, as Edna Gundersen asserts in the liner notes here, punks mostly spared the rebellious Dylan from such scorn.  

Still, there was strife. Rolling Thunder's second leg was less communal than its first, and then Dylan took on the all-consuming task of editing Renaldo and Clara, a critically trashed abstract film reflecting that tour, and his marriage dissolved, landing him in taxing legal and child custody proceedings. And on August 16, 1977, his childhood hero Elvis Presley died, causing a grief-stricken Dylan to claim he was knocked off his own creative axis for a spell.

Once out of such fogs, Dylan began pondering his next moves, which included putting a band and show together for some of his most extensive worldwide touring, including the first shows he'd ever booked in Japan. Like the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan wanted a big band, but seemingly inspired by Presley's 1970s extravaganzas, he wanted more of an emphasis on female back-up singers and a horn section; Less earthy Rolling Thunder grittiness, more showbiz.  

By the time they hit Budokan, the "orchestra," as Dylan dubbed it, were treating some of his best-known songs as though they were numbers in a musical, with dramatic arrangements and vocal choruses creating a secondary narrative arc to Dylan's lyrics. Some pieces, like "Maggie's Farm," "Going Going Gone" and "I Shall be Released," possess the feel of Broadway productions, with surprising, emotionally charged movements and spot-on vocals by Dylan and Debi Dye, Jo Ann Harri, and Helena Springs, who sync up but also sing with a rhythmic propulsion that often drives the songs. 

Unlike the Revue's fits of inspired yelling, Dylan's singing is comparably measured at these shows, but no less impassioned and engaged. He employs fascinating phrasing on "Like a Rolling Stone" and the truly aching "I Threw It All Away" from Nashville Skyline (a potentially difficult track for a recent divorcee, though perhaps he found some release in also including moody versions of a few Blood on the Tracks songs that reflect a faltering relationship) and pushes other songs in compelling directions. 

"Shelter from the Storm" is wonderfully arranged with a halting, minimalist reggae feel that places greater focus on Dylan and his singers, delivering their lines like a telepathic gang. "Here's a simple love story, happened to me," Dylan says, before delivering a heart-wrenching rendition of "Simple Twist of Fate," like a sad guy trying to deal with his shit and then get back at it.   

Despite an affinity for Elvis-in-Vegas conventions, there are other contemporary flavours in the air. Again, reggae is startlingly more overt in an arrangement of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," which might reflect the ascendance of Bob Marley and the Wailers at the time, and yet its lead instrument is Steve Douglas' flute. 

Between Douglas's saxophone, Billy Cross's lead guitar parts, and Alan Pasqua's keyboards, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cast a shadow here, too. In a post-Born to Run world, Dylan wasn't immune to the romantic, fleshed-out theatricality that Springsteen had broken through with, and its impact is evident.

E Street also incorporated R&B, soul, swing and jazz, and between them and the "fusion" that Miles Davis began exploring on albums like Bitches Brew, pieces like "Oh, Sister" and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" seem to feed off the eerie suspense, uncertainty and ever-building sonic attacks that made such modes in vogue. 

Is disco here? Perhaps faintly in the four-on-the-floor, offbeat accenting drummer Ian Wallace briefly employs on "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)," but he doesn't stick to it, and this wasn't really a booty-shaking show. In fact, while the original, upbeat arrangement of "I Want You" would fit in nicely rendered by this configuration, here it could not be more sparse, intimate and aching.  

Expanding upon its predecessor, The Complete Budokan 1978 is an immersive treasure trove that brings us into the storied space for two nights with Bob Dylan. He was a bit restless, heartbroken and perhaps even a little angry, and that got him searching for new muses and new sounds. 

The '78 tour was the springboard into a transformative time to come, where spirituality, new collaborators, relationships and '80s recording technology all seemed worth a dabble to fill some personal and creative voids. It's this tour and these nights in Japan that provide the first experiential glimmer of Bob Dylan as a lost seeker, who's still strong, bold and unafraid to test new ideas while testing his audience too.  

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