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At Budokan Before 'At Budokan'
1978-02-20, Nippon Budokan Hall, Tokyo, Japan
A guest post today from Tim Edgeworth. Read more of Tim’s writing at his film and music blog https://reviewstim.blogspot.com/
Bob Dylan's 1978 Far East tour is one that is rarely spoken of in glowing terms, largely due to the reputation of the oft-maligned double live album it spawned, Bob Dylan At Budokan. Despite that album's reputation, I'm a fan; I've loved it ever since discovering a battered copy in a box of abandoned records during the early days of my Dylan fandom. At the time, I was still finding my way into Bob's formidable discography, and this album - with its accessible arrangements and helpful lyric book - served as a doorway into parts of Dylan's music I had been unable to appreciate before. It remains a firm favourite to this day.
That's why the 1978 tour is significant to me, but it was also, of course, massively important for Bob himself. The initially warm reaction to his previous tour, the famed Rolling Thunder Revue, had cooled considerably by the time the second leg ended in May 1976, and the Hard Rain TV special and album culled from the shows had been received poorly. The misfortune hadn't ended there; Dylan's marriage to wife Sara finally ended in divorce in 1977, and January 1978 saw his film, Renaldo & Clara, released to scathing reviews and withdrawn early from cinemas. If there was ever a time for Bob Dylan to engineer a fresh start in both his personal and professional lives, 1978 was that time.
In many ways, the February 20 concert at Tokyo's Budokan Hall – the first of eight there - represents the fresh start Dylan needed, at least in terms of his career. Two months earlier, Dylan had begun rehearsing with a band that, despite containing three former members of the Rolling Thunder Revue in Rob Stoner, David Mansfield and Steven Soles, was creating a sound unlike anything Dylan had presented onstage before. Featuring saxophone, flute, violin, backing vocals, percussion, keyboard, and two guitarists besides Dylan himself, the new approach owed something to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, which Bob had witnessed first-hand at both the Concert For Bangladesh in 1971 and during a visit to the Spector-produced sessions for Leonard Cohen's Death of A Ladies' Man in March 1977. One of the largest groups Dylan had ever worked with – only some configurations of the Rolling Thunder band were bigger - the 11-piece unit was still far removed from The Band and the small rock-n-roll combos he's used for most of his career.
On top of the change in backing group, Bob was also singing differently. In the two years since the end of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan's voice had undergone a subtle shift; the roar of 1975/6 was gone, and Dylan would now rely on a new trio of backing singers to support him when extra vocal firepower was called for.
An endearing sense of uncertainty comes through in the February 20 show. As well as being the premiere of a new performing style, this was Bob's first concert in Japan, placing him in new territory both literally and figuratively. He seems to be finding his way into his new voice, and the songs - mostly consisting of the same radically reworked arrangements that can be heard on At Budokan - need a few more outings to really break them in. Consequently, these performances have a certain loose, raw quality about them that is less evident on the Budokan album, which was recorded just over a week later (February 28 and March 1) once the band had somewhat hit their stride.
Opening-night nerves asides, there are gems to be found, including an achingly beautiful "Girl from the North Country" - stripped down to no more than Alan Pasqua's organ, Bob's ragged lead guitar and Steve Douglas' smooth saxophone - and a gorgeous piano-driven "Tomorrow is a Long Time" featuring soaring vocals from Bob and the backing singers. Neither of these songs feature on At Budokan. The recording quality throughout the show is decent, apart from on "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," where the tape seems to start speeding up uncontrollably, resulting in an unfortunate 'chipmunk' effect (thankfully, whatever went wrong is all sorted by the next song).
The show ends with a relieved-sounding "Thank you. Thank you and goodnight." Bob Dylan's 1978 World Tour had begun, and would turn out to be one of his most prolific touring years, clocking in at 114 shows. Recordings from later in the year tend to be more popular amongst fans, but, in my opinion, the Far East Tour is well worth a second look, capturing Bob Dylan at a crucial personal and professional crossroads. So have a listen to this show, then dust off your copy of Bob Dylan At Budokan and give it a spin; it deserves more love.