At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, fans booed Bob Dylan when he made the switch from acoustic to electric guitar.
From 1979 to 1981, over the course of three albums (“Slow Train Coming,” “Saved,” and “Shot of Love”), he took his music in a perhaps even more drastic direction — from secular to religious. Again, fans were bewildered.
“I heard Bob Dylan sing gospel,” says one such disgruntled audience member at the beginning of Jennifer Lebeau’s documentary “Trouble No More.” “If I had come to hear sermons,” he concludes, “I coulda gone to church.”
But there aren’t many churches that can put on a show like those performed by Dylan and company on his 1979-80 Gospel Tour, during which he featured his new, evangelical repertoire (much of which is included in the CD box set “Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981” released in November). Drawing on footage from the Toronto and Buffalo stops on the tour, the film provides a zesty introduction to this other side of Dylan. (Though the footage is restored video, it is dynamically shot, and Lebeau and crew have skillfully edited it.) Those unfamiliar with these songs might be surprised to discover some of his best music, with reflective and rousing melodies ranging from blues to anthemic rock.
The pious lyrics are often infused with the same visionary and apocalyptic poetry as Dylan’s greatest songs. Like this verse from “Slow Train”:
“Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
But the enemy I see
Wears a cloak of decency
All nonbelievers and men stealers talkin’ in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.”
In performing these numbers he’s joined by a tight backup band including veteran keyboardist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Spooner Oldham, Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett, and a spirited group of backup singers including Clydie King, Gwen Evans, Mona Lisa Young, Regina McCrary, and Mary Elizabeth Bridges. As for Dylan himself, seldom has he used his distinctive vocals and soulful harmonica playing to better effect. This is not Dylan preaching to — or from — the choir, but singing from the heart with a limpid, even prophetic simplicity.
By contrast, Lebeau intercuts each song with a homily written by critic Luc Sante delivered from a pulpit by a preacher played by Michael Shannon. The sentiments expressed — diatribes against vices such as hypocrisy, greed, materialism, intolerance, and, somewhat randomly, drunkenness and eating junk food — are apparently intended to add contemporary resonance to the music.
But the content of the sermons pales before the performances, and the tone — Is it supposed to be ironic? Earnest? — doesn’t convince. These orotund intermissions are blown away by the film’s starkly tragic coda: Dylan and King singing “Abraham, Martin and John.”
“Trouble No More” can be seen on Monday at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.