I like Dylan, but I’m not a rabid fan by any means, so I’ve held off on writing anything about these releases — it’s way, way beyond the scope of my familiarity with his music to be able to compare versions of “Highway 61 Revisited” or marvel at the emerging brilliance of the young songwriter, blah blah blah. I can’t give you the perspective of a Dylan archivist. What I can tell you is whether or not either of these releases are entertaining for a casual listener. It doesn’t make for a really in-depth review, but hey, it’s a Saturday.
To me — and bear in mind I’ve only listened to them once apiece — Gaslight is the better listen; whether you’re really familiar with his evolution as an artist or not, it’s cool to hear young Bobby Dylan playing in front of a tiny, appreciative crowd in a basement bar with leaky pipes and no liquor license. The packaging makes all sorts of caveats for the fidelity, but honestly, I think it holds up better than a lot of the early stuff on No Direction Home. There are some nifty touches, like the audience’s background vocals on “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (download), and it’s cool hearing an embryonic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (download). For the most part, though, I think anybody who isn’t a hardcore Dylanphile will listen to this like just another live album.
No Direction Home is two discs of (with just a few exceptions) previously unreleased material, in the form of live or alternate versions of songs like “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” (download) and “Maggie’s Farm” (download). Personally, I found it to be a bit overwhelming — the oldest stuff is pretty rough — but there are a number of great moments, like his early take on “This Land Is Your Land” (download) and a great live version of “Masters Of War” (download).
Gaslight is currently available only at Starbucks. I’m not sure when it hits traditional retail, but I’m sure there’s a Starbucks pretty much across the street from your house, or you can just click on the purchase link above. Direction is also, of course, the soundtrack to Scorcese’s Dylan documentary of the same name, which will be airing on PBS later this month.