The Complete Budokan 1978
Bob Dylan may be continuing along on his Never Ending Tour at the moment, playing guttersnipe blues from Rough and Rowdy Ways and deconstructing ancient classics in mean, minimalist fashion with nary a melodic reference to their original recordings. Yet in 1978, a world tour wasn’t something Dylan did too often, his oddball, overly snazzy arrangements at the time only being surpassed by the amount of people he had willing to help him execute his schmaltzy sonic assault on older material. With that, audiences already annoyed with Dylan for going electric, then turning his hits upside down while touring with The Band, could really get pissed off at the super slick, soft pedaling grandeur of Dylan backed by 11 players and background vocalists at the world-famous Nippon Budokan.
Easily one of The Bard’s most loathed records during its initial release, the showbiz-y clamor of Dylan in collaboration with megawatt Presley/Sinatra/Diamond show producer Jerry Weintraub meant maximalism to the nth degree when it came to the live Budokan recordings. But now, for whatever reason—maybe due to its crisper new mix, maybe because we’ve gotten used to hearing Dylan play chicken with his catalog—what was once overwrought, overly complex, and shiny sounds right on time. Even with all the flutes and oversized horn charts
From the roadhouse roar of Roland James’ “Repossession Blues” and Tampa Red’s “Love Her with a Feeling” to the thunderclap of “Maggie’s Farm”; from the sleekly slithering “Ballad of a Thin Man,” to the fluid river-funk and downright weird background vocals of “Shelter From the Storm,” to the wowing one-two punch of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” this album is more Dazzling Dylan or Broadway Bob than a humble Budokan performance—which works well if you’re not looking to hear something more nuanced and threadbare. As a vocalist, Dylan rises beyond his cackle and sneer to make “Girl From the North Country,” “I Threw It All Away,” “The Man in Me,” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” effortlessly beautiful. When was the last time you heard Dylan do something effortless and beautiful?
Just because there’s more Budokan—and some impressively handsome moments with the expanded 2023 version—doesn’t mean it’s the best Bob. A reggae shuffling “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” the flute-prog of “Love Minus Zero / No Limit,” the awkward spoken intro to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” the sweaty saxophones of “I Shall Be Released,” and way too many background vocals across the release can all make Budokan feel unbearable. But, like any Dylan concert—then and now—you take the bad with the good, hope things wind up more on the side of the latter than the former, and remain glad that he never stops fucking with people’s heads in the first place.