REAL LIVE – REMASTERED
(Re-mastering is when an engineer goes back to a fully mixed master tape and then re-masters that tape for release on CD, mp3/WAV or, sometimes, vinyl.)
Bob Dylan’s ‘live’ albums have all been remastered – ‘Before The Flood’ and ‘Dylan & The Dead’ in 2009, ‘Hard Rain’, ‘Bob Dylan At Budokan’ and ‘Real Live’ in 2013.
I have bought the remastered versions as mp3s, and have listened to them quite a few times on my iPhone.
Generally, I like to listen while on trains or planes. Travelling while listening to music is one of my favourite pastimes and anyone who tries to strike up a conversation with me while I am doing so receives a mute death-stare.
‘Dylan & The Dead’ was – as an mp3 – definitely sonically improved by the remaster, and I did wonder if it had been remixed, because certain instruments, particularly the drums, seem to be positioned slightly differently, but I am assured that it was not.
‘Before The Flood’ is one of my least favourite of all Bob Dylan’s albums. I simply don’t like the vocal style. It has always sounded cold to me and so I listened to a few tracks and, apart from sounding a little brighter, seemed exactly the same. I must add that The Band’s playing on that LP set is superb and I wish I enjoyed it.
‘Bob Dylan At Budokan’ sounds pretty good, though not as good as the original Japanese vinyl album, but it is an improvement on the dull, flat CD version.
As the first Dylan LP I ever bought, it will always have a special place in my heart and (the LP set) remains a lavish souvenir of a great band playing amazing new versions of his songs.
John Peel played it on his show, too, which is a recommendation in itself.
‘Hard Rain’ I plan to write about separately, but, after hearing it a few times, I think it is another good remastering of another important glimpse. The arrangements and performances are raw, loose, varied and, for me, absolutely fantastic.
When I saw that ‘Real Live’ was going to be remastered, my initial response was: “why bother?”
Then I realised that my opinion was based on an LP I hadn’t played since 1985, so I thought I’d better give it another listen.
Unlike wine, the passage of time hadn’t improved it much. I still found the original murky, lifeless and no better than the middle-aged ‘covers’ band I saw playing at someone’s wedding reception recently.
Regardless, I bought the remaster from iTunes, because I was curious, possess an irritating addiction to set-completion and because I no longer spend money on booze, drugs, fags or trying to impress women 20 years younger than myself.
Music is my last remaining addiction and I am happy to overdose.
‘Infidels’ had sold well and the video for ‘Jokerman’ was, mostly, pretty good (except for the eyes closed, lip-sync sections) and getting heavy airplay on MTV.
Dylan even made a rare ‘live’ TV appearance – on the Late Night With David Letterman show. He was backed by a loose, young three-piece band and played License To Kill, Jokerman and the old Sonny Boy Williamson song Don’t Start Me to Talkin’.
It’s a great performance and one I’ve watched quite a few times on grainy DVD bootlegs. It’s always exciting because it feels like it could fall apart at any moment.
Near the end of a great and choppy Jokerman, Dylan unstraps his Strat, brings out his harmonica, blows a few notes but realises it’s in the wrong key.
So, in the middle of a live TV recording, Dylan simply walks off, trying to find a harp he can use, while the confused band keep playing. It seems to take ages. He then wanders back to the mic and blasts a few scratchy wails and brings the whole thing to an end. It’s bizarre, shambolic and riveting.
The very definition of Dylanesque.
“What kind of audiences have been coming to the show, Bob?”
“Mostly foreign audiences. In France we had French audiences. In Spain we had Spanish audiences”
“I wanted to do a South American tour. It was just not feasible at this time so I took this tour…There’s no particular reason for it…I specifically wanted to do a South American tour…I had sort of set my mind mentally to do something so I did this ’cause the other one didn’t come off.” – Bob Dylan 1984.
“The least inspired rock concert it has been my misfortune to attend” – Daily Express
The few rehearsals for the tour were in May, at the Beverly Theatre in Los Angeles.
These took place after the initial audition session at Dylan’s home in Malibu.
The audition featured Nicky Hopkins, Benmont Tench, Ira Ingber, Vince Melamed and Charlie Quintana, as well as the band he finally settled on.
The rehearsal tapes feature a (presumably) new song, called (perhaps) Angel of Rain. It’s lovely but it hasn’t appeared since, to my knowledge, and certainly wasn’t performed at any gigs on that tour.
It’s a great shame that the Barcelona show on June 28th wasn’t recorded, because it is generally regarded as the finest show of the tour.
From what I have managed to glean, the shows that were recorded professionally (using the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit) were July 1st (this Paris show was also filmed by Dylan’s own film crew), July 3rd, 5th, 7th at Wembley and 8th at Slane Castle.
The majority of the Real Live album was taken from Wembley Stadium, with License to Kill and Tombstone Blues taken from St James’ Park, Newcastle on 5th July, and I and I and Girl from the North Country from the Ireland show on 8th July.
‘You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just static…There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’
I was like, “Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.”’ – Bob Dylan
On my iPhone, through decent headphones, the remaster definitely sounds louder, crisper and more present than the original CD version.
I’m assuming that the remaster was designed for mp3, as it works very well in that format, where it’s compressed and has a narrow dynamic range.
I don’t want to get all ‘audiophile’ but compared to an original LP, it sounds loud but flat. That’s no surprise though – they are completely different formats and aren’t meant to be compared.
One thing that really annoys me about Real Live, is Dylan’s acoustic guitar sound.
I’ve never liked the sound of an acoustic guitar plugged in. They rarely sound real. I prefer to mic them, even though that can be a feedback nightmare and requires the player to be more or less glued to the spot. Dylan’s acoustic on this album sounds like it was run straight into the desk. It’s very thin and scratchy, and it shouldn’t be.
I assume that when it was recorded, mixed and mastered back in 1984, it was all done using tape. If so, then I’d be really keen to hear an analogue remaster on vinyl. As it wasn’t a big seller, though, I may have a long wait.
“I first met Dylan in 1969 at LaGuardia. Jann Wenner introduced us and Dylan said, “I’d love to make a record with the Stones and The Beatles, could you pull that off?”
Fabulous! I said I’d give it a go.
Keith and George were interested but no one else was.
Then in 1984 I was asked to record six European gigs. I walked onstage on the first night in France to set my mics up and was thrown off by the road crew! At this point I’d never even set eyes on Dylan, he had a wall around him 10 feet high, minions everywhere. Eventually we had a nice chat and he was lovely.
After the last concert I sent him rough mixes and I couldn’t get him off the phone. He was ringing me every day – it was really strange. Also, all the material he’d picked to go on the LP were the very worst takes. I’ve got a feeling it was meant as a test. Either that or he’s tone deaf. I politely talked him through why we couldn’t use those versions, and in the end he let me use what I wanted.
I’d always wanted to produce him but doing a live album isn’t quite the same. The band wasn’t great and it was a very odd experience.”
I got a phone call out of the clear blue sky that changed my life. This time it was Gary Shafner, one of Bob Dylan’s people wanting to know if i’d have a play with Bob at his house on Point Dume the next day.
Mick Taylor saw me as i walked in, and beamed as he stepped around cables that were all over the floor.
Bob walked in and gave me what has to be the weakest handshake in the business.
Bob was sitting at the table in the kitchen chatting with Mick and i went over to him,
“Thanks Bob, it’s an honour and a privilege to work with you.”
He said quietly,” I hope you feel the same when the tour’s over.”
He didn’t want any piano. He wanted organ only. There was only one song that he showed me what he wanted. That was the song about Reagan, Jokerman. He just wanted a pad of organ, but big. He didn’t want piano, but eventually Mick Taylor convinced him to get me a piano for rocking stuff like Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat, and all that.
He didn’t tell me what to do. It was very sparse. I don’t think it was him at his best.
It wasn’t particularly happy times for me, frankly. But it was a great thrill for me, playing those songs, and playing a lot of songs I never heard before.
[Ian McLagan’s autobiography, All The Rage, has some great stories about the tour.
Dylan asking him for a list of songs he’d like to play, saying, “Yeah, let’s do those,” and then never playing a single one of them for the whole tour.
Dylan stealing Ian’s shirt and refusing to give it back. It’s the shirt on the back cover of Empire Burlesque.]
I was playing in a band called The Coup with Barry Goldberg. Then we got the call to come out to Bob Dylan’s and audition.
We went out there, met our idol and eventually got the gig, going to Europe for the very first time in style.
Loads of pictures were taken of me onstage with Dylan and Mick Taylor (our lead guitarist and my favorite guitar player), Ian MacLagan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Bono, Chrissie Hynde and others…
My favorite of all those photos is in a frame on my desk. It shows Bob and me discussing what key “Maggie’s Farm” was in, while we were playing it.
Bob had started us off in the key of G (A is the correct answer here) and after attempting his harp solo he realized we were not in the right key.
He came over to ask me what key we were in and as the photo was snapped I am talking into the idol’s ear explaining the situation and he is asking me, “Hey Gregg, can we go to the real key now?”
We flew around on private planes and never had to submit to any kind of search, so we had a pretty high old time, all of us.
Listening to this set now, almost 30 years later, it’s actually really good to hear his voice sounding rough but young. He uses a strange see-saw emphasis, which is almost a parody of his 1966 live style.
Highway 61 Revisited is a good opener. Mick Taylor gets to give it some Chuck, Ian McLagan does some expert rolls and pounding and Bob’s tidal phrasing suits the song.
Maggies Farm isn’t a song I like much anyway, but this is okay. I love the version on Hard Rain and this is nowhere near as interesting but it kicks along at a good pace and again, Dylan’s vocal style drives it well.
I And I and License To Kill were the real reasons I bought the LP (from WH Smiths in Banbury, near Oxford), in November 1984.
I liked the songs on Infidels, but didn’t like the sound of it, the production that Dylan and Knopfler created. I was hoping for a more stripped-down, real sound, so I could just hear the actual song.
When I heard the performances of Real Live, my heart sank. Thirty years later, I still feel that way. I think they might have sounded good if the tour had been longer.
I and I
Reggae is hard to play. People think it’s easy but it really isn’t. Gregg Sutton definitely gets it though. His bass work on this track is excellent.
I don’t think the song works on this album. I want it to, but the band just don’t have it together. The chorus pedal on Taylor’s guitar is horrible.
License To Kill
There is a stuttering staccato section in this version that I adore (at 1:45). I wish they’d done it again.
I don’t think Taylor gives it the savagery and bite that Dylan’s vitriolic vocal performance deserves. It just seems to…wimp out.
It Ain’t Me Babe is a personal favourite on this album, mainly due to Dylan’s harmonica playing. He uses a simple but effective three note riff that he repeats over the changing guitar chords for a long time. You can hear the crowd being swept along as he keeps it going, building the tension, then releasing it with a huge cheer from the crowd. It’s great showmanship, working a crowd like that.
Tangled Up In Blue is interesting for the fact that he drastically rewrote the lyrics and you can really hear them. (When I saw him at The Royal Albert Hall recently, I couldn’t hear the lyrics of this song at all – but I didn’t have a very good seat.)
It’s not a particularly great performance, but worth a listen for the changed lyrics. He went back to (mostly) the original lyrics soon after, so I assume the experiment didn’t work for him either.
“…I didn’t change it ’cause I was singing it one night and thought “Oh, I’m bored with the old words.” The old ones were never quite filled in. I rewrote it in a hotel room somewhere. I think it was in Amsterdam…When I sang it the next night I knew it was right.”
Masters of war
This is actually really good and for once the drums are great! The riff and tempo suit Colin Allen’s style perfectly. There are some wicked little fills and breakdowns. I know I might be slaughtered for saying so, but Taylor sounds to me like the late, great Jerry Garcia on this one.
And I love the way it segues into…
Ballad Of A Thin Man
This has some heavy competition. 1966, 1974, 1975…Garth Hudson…
McLagan vamps the B3 a bit and Mick Taylor bends his Les Paul well but nothing else positive springs forth.
Girl From The North Country.
I remember reading a glowing assessment from the wonderful and seriously missed Paul Williams about this track:
“….a lovely, grace-filled acoustic performance …This is sweet, naked, and very affecting. It is not, I might argue, great art, because although it is heartfelt it does not go down to the deep place where new and unexpected feelings burst through. Perhaps it is Dylan’s very concentration on opening and sharing himself that, paradoxically, keeps this from happening. No matter. It’s still a wonderfully intimate performance.”
(Paul Williams – Bob Dylan, Performing Artist: The Middle Years, 1974-1986)
To me, it sounds like Dylan-by-numbers. The rocking horse vocal style obliterates any shred of sensitivity or tenderness, but the crowd seem to love it, so perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate it.
I remember hearing a CD of a Cardiff show I had been to and recoiling with shock and horror because, in my memory, it sounded way better than the recording.
Dylan does his best to drive the band, Santana gives it plenty of 50’s spike and there’s some cool Jerry Lee Lewis piano work going on but it could be any blues-rock band really. It doesn’t have a lot to offer.
For years, I’ve accepted that the whole problem with this record was the sound, and it was all Glyn Johns’ fault.
I don’t believe that anymore.
The recording is as good as he could get it, given the circumstances.
Dylan’s vocals have always been mixed too high, in my opinion, and this album is no different, but I think Glyn Johns has done a great job of capturing a decent blues-rock band running through some Bob Dylan hits.
I’ve heard recordings of rehearsals for this tour, and ‘field’ recordings of other shows, and I don’t understand the choices that appear on this record.
If the criteria was to pick performances that brought the best out of the songs, then it failed.
If it was to pick a selection of songs with a unified sound that didn’t have too many mistakes, then it succeeded.
It’s not a great Dylan album or even a great live Dylan album but, well, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
And anyway, it’s just a souvenir.
Bob Dylan: Vocals/ Guitar/ Harmonica
Mick Taylor: Guitar
Gregg Sutton: Bass
Ian McLagan: Keyboards
Colin Allen: Drums
Guest Artist : Carlos Santana – Guitar on Tombstone Blues
Words are Copyright © 2014 William Henry Prince