The Complete Budokan 1978 captures some of Dylan’s very first concert appearances in Japan and is an essential release for diehards, while an intriguing curio for the casual listener. Complete Budokan encompasses all of the material originally issued as a double LP in 1978, plus three dozen additional tracks. This lovingly remastered album, sourced from the original 24-channel multi-track analog tapes, sounds far crisper than the original release (especially the vocals). Released to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the original eight-show run at the infamous Budokan auditorium, we hear the entirety of two shows from February 28 and March 1, 1978.
Bob Dylan is at a fascinating crossroads in his career here, and in fine voice. The album finds our hero in between the travelling circus that was the mid 1970s Rolling Thunder tour, and one year before his conversion to Christianity. Dylan shows us what a traditional American great he is, with a near-orchestral band and dramatically reworked takes on classic songs. Some of these arrangements are wonky, especially to modern ears. But they’re always intriguingly put together, and intricately executed takes—the highlight being a knockdown, muscular “The Man in Me.”
It’s clear from the start that this is not your grandpa’s Dylan. Stirring leads on saxophone, mandolin, and fiddle deliver the vocal melodies to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” “Shelter from the Storm” is given a halting, reggae-ish tempo, a positively E Street-worthy sax solo, and the delightful touches one would expect from the Dead. Other tunes stray closer to a Vegas revue. “I Threw It All Away” is transformed into a full-blown showtune, as the backing vocals take center stage. One wonders if a line of chorus dancers were onstage for this or the lilting, tango-esque take on “Love Minus Zero.” There is occasional flute, notably on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which we weren’t sure about at first, but by the third listen we were absolutely digging it, even as it takes the tune straight to Margaritaville.