New 'Bootleg' Reveals the Massive Effect Minnesota Had on Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks'
It's easy to get swept up in the excitement of the hemorrhage of Blood on the Tracks outtakes comprising the totality of the fabled New York sessions, which make up the lion's share of the 14th volume of Bob Dylan's evergreen Bootleg Series collection, now in its 27th year on the market.
However, let's not let the hoopla over this long-coveted trove of stripped-down renditions of the album's 10 tracks, recorded from Sept. 16-19 in 1974 at A&R Studios in Manhattan, overshadow the vitality of the original material. Especially the five tunes cut at the 25th hour at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, MN, during the week between Christmas and New Year's, where Dylan and a pickup band of local cats -- bassists Billy Peterson and Tony Brown, guitarists Kevin Odegard and Chris Weber, Peter Ostroushko on mandolin, keyboardist Gregg Inhofer and Billy Berg on drums -- banged out definitive versions of such Blood faves as "Idiot Wind," "If You See Her, Say Hello," "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" and "You're A Big Girl Now" with a sonic richness that's never been quite duplicated on another Dylan LP before or since.
"Just the fact of the re-record I find amazing," says Mary Lee Kortes, who in 2002 released a critically acclaimed re-working of Blood on the Tracks under the moniker Mary Lee's Corvette and has just published an excellent new book on Bob entitled Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob. "And to have number one the dedication and number two the opportunity to do so. He was able to go in and say, 'You know what, this is not good enough, it's not quite right.' And then to have that ability to go back and completely re-envision everything and explore it in such a new way, not too many people in music could do that."
Of course, the Sound 80 sessions also yielded Blood's biggest hit in "Tangled Up In Blue," which peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 (the album itself reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200). It was also the only song to feature Odegard, who spent the rest of the time during those two days in late December as an eyewitness to the bold move Dylan took on the suggestion of his older brother David Zimmerman in livening up these five crucial tunes. He even wrote a book about his experience in 2005 with author Andy Gill called A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks.
"His brother was the hidden wizard behind those sessions for sure," Odegard tells Billboard. "David Zimmerman, who was my manager at the time, is just a super warm and wonderful guy. He gave Bob good advice and he followed through with it on the basis of trust, something we claim as a Midwestern virtue (laughs). There was a lot of trust in that room. Bob trusted what David would line up, and David called me and said, 'We gotta line up some guys.' And I helped him set it up. Chris Weber, who was the owner of a local music shop, talked his way into the sessions, and found his way right into Bob's heart with his fingerpicking, and he became the go-to guy for learning the songs. So yeah, there was a level of trust that was good. It all fell into place so magically, simply out of trust."
And much like the statements offered by Jim Keltner in regards to his experience with Dylan during the recording of the first Traveling Wilburys LP, Odegard cites the relaxed atmosphere and the familiar surroundings as the key ingredients for the end result of those Minnesota tracks, a definite contrast to the tense nature of the New York sessions.
"Bob was a different guy by the time he got to Minnesota," he explains. "Back in New York, he was playing tricks on [pedal-steel guitarist] Buddy Cage and getting nasty, drinking a little too much Everclear or whatever that grain alcohol was up there. But here, he was with his family and it was very down home. The whole thing from top to bottom—the way the band played, the time of the year was a big factor as well. We got along like a garage band in Hibbing. That's what the vibe was for us—a bunch of guys from down the street. And for that reason, it all fell together really well."
So while More Blood, More Tracks uncovers a cornucopia of revelations behind the threadbare roots of these emotionally complex, poetically intricate songs that many believe are about his divorce from wife Sara, the outstanding remastering job done by the Bootleg Series team on these Minnesota tracks invites you into these tunes like never before. Like the recently released ultimate edition of Imagine by John Lennon, the newly remixed versions bring you inside the studio like you're sitting right next to Billy Berg's drum kit.
"He had written this great batch of songs: He had a lot going on in his personal life, he was back at Columbia," music historian Jeff Slate, who wrote the liner notes to More Blood, explains to Billboard. "I really do believe his intent was to make an acoustic album at first, but then he had second thoughts about it. He wanted to have a band, and the band in New York didn't really work out for him in any meaningful way. It's Dylan—a lot of his decisions are based in the moment. He was in Minnesota, there were guys available, and he went and cut some tracks. And I think it worked out so well in helping him tell the story in the way he wanted to tell it."