A bootleg recording is one that is produced from material not commercially available, such as live performances or studio outtakes. Today there are bootlegs circulating of nearly any popular artist, but Bob Dylan and bootlegs are linked in a special way: Not only was he the first popular artist whose unreleased work has been bootlegged ("Great White Wonder" was the very first, "The Royal Albert Hall Concert" the most famous bootleg album in Rock history), he also probably is the one single artist worldwide with the most bootleg releases available, more than 600 until today.
Copyright versus historical relevance
It is illegal to produce an/or distribute bootlegs and many of those inofficial releases lack in sound quality and generally are only interesting for collectors. Yet there is some material that is relevant for both Rock history and the fans. In some cases the request of certain recordings has been so intense that Columbia has decided to release it officially: Selected songs of "The Basement Tapes", a 1967 recording of Bob Dylan & The Band in the basement of their house "Big Pink" in Woodstock, has been released officially in 1975. Several individual songs have been put on "Greatest Hits" albums and other compilations. And since 1991 Columbia has released several volumes of "classic bootleg material" in perfect quality, "The Bootleg Series".
This page is supposed to be a recommendation for the average Bob Dylan fan who owns and purchases official recordings and wants to hear more or less known material. It's Mike Hobo's personal selection of just a few of the greatest inofficial releases to start with.
1961-62: The Gaslight Tapes
"The Gaslight Café" was a folk music club in New York. Between 1961 and 1962 three of Dylan's performances have been recorded. They are available in great sound quality on this rare 2001 bootleg CD. Dylan performs renditions of folk traditionals and cover versions of songs by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and others. He also presents then-new own songs that have later been recorded for "Bob Dylan" and "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan". A few tracks have been released officially on 1991's "Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3". On the inofficial CD however you get the complete set.
1962: Folksinger's Choice
Shortly before Bob Dylan's self-titled debut album was released by Columbia Records, he has been invited to Cynthia Gooding's New York Radio Show where he performed folk traditionals as well as some of his first own songs. The conversation between Gooding and Dylan in between each song is both fascinating and funny. The CD version of this broadcast quality bootleg appeared in 1992.
1962: Freewheelin' Bob Dylan Outtakes
When Dylan released his landmark Folk album "The Freewheelin'" in 1963 there was no doubt he was heading for a big career. Contrary to his debut, out of the 13 songs on the second album 12 were written by Dylan, and about half of the tracks became all-time classics. The fascinating outtakes bootleg, which was first released on CD in 1994, includes several great tracks that until today remain officially unreleased. Even the cover photography is an outtake of the official cover photo sessions.
1965-66: Thin Wild Mercury Music
Between 1965 and 1966 Dylan and The Hawks (who later became "The Band") recorded several studio sessions for "Bringing It All Back Home", "Highway 61 Revisited", and "Blonde On Blonde" – Dylan's essential classic albums. On this 1994 bootleg CD release you get to hear very different early versions and alternate takes of the official album tracks. Some of these outtakes have later been released officially on "Biograph" and "The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3".
1966: Manchester Free Trade Hall
One of the most famous bootlegs in history was wrongly titled "The Royal Albert Hall Concert". The legendary and controversial electric performance with The Hawks actually had taken place in Manchester. I've not included the bootleg on my list, because it has already been officially released in 1998 as "The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966".
1967: The Genuine Basement Tapes
The "Basement Tapes" are one of the most famous bootlegs in Rock history. Between April and October 1967 Bob Dylan and The Band recorded several hundred demos in the basement of their house "Big Pink" in West Saugerties, near Woodstock. In 1968 The Band released their debut album "Music From The Big Pink" with studio recordings of those demos. Seven years later in 1975 Columbia released a selection of 24 partly overdubbed songs on the double album "The Basement Tapes". Many of the demos have been lost and only been discovered twenty years after the sessions had taken place. In 1989 and 1990 they have been released on 5 bootleg CD volumes. Some of the tracks had originally also appeared on "Great White Wonder", the first Rock bootleg ever.
Update from December 2014: The complete restored and remastered "Basement Tapes" have been officially released as The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 on 6 CDs!
1969: The Dylan/Cash Sessions
In 1969 Dylan released his Country album "Nashville Skyline". It not only included the classic "Lay Lady Lay", but also a re-recorded duet version of "Girl From The North Country" with Johnny Cash. The songs remained the only official release from the studio sessions of Dylan and Cash of the same year. The complete session surfaced in 1994 (and again in 2004) on the bootleg "The Dylan/Cash Sessions". Apart from some country jams and traditionals, they recorded duets of both Dylan and Cash songs.
1969: Isle of Wight Festival
In his first concert in three years, Dylan sings "like Caruso" (he jokingly referred to the famous opera singer in one of his interviews). The 17 recorded songs have been transferred from the original soundboard tape. Apart from a few carefully picked classics, Dylan & The Band perform several songs from the latest album "Nashville Skyline" and the previous release "John Wesley Harding". The album is both a document of historical significance (the best live recording of his "Country years") and an enjoyable listen.
1974: Blood On The Tracks - New York Sessions
It's a real treat for any Bob Dylan enthusiast to get the chance to hear "Blood On The Tracks" as it has originally been intended for release. This bootleg contains the 1974 New York session recordings, taken directly from a Vinyl test pressing. Half of the tracks on this CD are different to the released newly recorded versions.
1975-76: Desire Sessions
This could very well be one of the best-sounding studio outtake compilations out there. The double CD includes 18 unreleased tracks from the 1975/76 "Desire" sessions recorded at Columbia Studios in New York City. Apart from alternate takes of the released songs this bootleg also includes all the outtakes, some of which have later been released on the box sets "The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3" and "Biograph".
1975-76: The Rolling Thunde Revue
There's a lot of bootlegs available to one of Rock's most talked about tours. The concert series of 1975/76 featuring many guest artists on stage – Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Bob Neuwirth, and T-Bone Burnett,– just to name a few, is not on my essential bootlegs list, because in 2002 Columbia officially released "The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975".
1981: The Child's Balloon
Following the release of "Shot of Love" Dylan played a series of concerts with a setlist of new songs, Gospel songs from the previous tours, and many of his greatest hits as well. This double CD of the New Orleans concert on November 10 convinced me in both the quality of the performance, as well as the excellent soundboard recording.
1983: Rough Cuts
In 1983 Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler recorded music for the upcoming album "Infidels"", but a few songs appeared only later on Empire Burlesque" ("Clean Cut Kid") and "Down In The Groove" ("Death Is Not The End"). Mick Taylor, Sly & Robbie, and Ron Wood were among the participating studio musicians. Some outtakes have been released on "The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3", but more tracks and alternate versions remained hidden in the archives. The bootleg CD including all of those outtakes was released in 1994.
1984-85: Outside The Empire
In 1984 and 1985 Dylan recorded new songs for his next album "Empire Burlesque". About a year after the "Infidels" sessions, Dylan worked with mostly the same musicians once again. In addition some previously unused songs had been recorded again and ended up on the "Empire" album, and "Driftin' Too Far From Shore" appeared on "Knocked Out Loaded" in 1986. On the 1994 bootleg CD you can listen to 25 tracks of these sessions.
1989: The Deeds Of Mercy
"Oh Mercy" is probably the greatest Bob Dylan album of the 1980s. It has been recorded with and produced by Daniel Lanois &ndash who had previously worked with U2. The original 1989 studio session can be found on this rare 1996 CD. It includes different takes of released songs as well as original versions of "Dignity" (re-recorded version released on "Greatest Hits, Vol.3"), "Born In Time" (re-recorded version released on "Under The Red Sky"), and "Series Of Dreams" (overdubbed version released on "The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3"). Some of the tracks have been remastered and released officially 10 years later on "Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8".
1993: Live at the Supper Club
In 1993 Dylan returned to New York's Greenwich Village to perform two "MTV Unplugged-like" shows at the Supper Club with his Neverending Tour Band. Video clip excerpts of that show have been used for the CD-ROM "Highway 61 Interactive". The show was great, it's such a pity that it has never been released officially. The double bootleg CD includes both complete November 16 shows in very good soundboard quality, as well as additional tracks from a good audience recording, to complete the performed setlists of both nights.
1997: Back at Wolftrap
This is one of my favorite live bootlegs from the nineties. Taken from a line recording of the two nights at Wolftrap, Vienna/VA, on August 23-24, 1997, this 2 CD set is remarkable in many ways: The band's performance is superb. Bob's voice is clear and sharp, he is in a great mood, and he does quite a bit of talking to the audience in between songs. The setlist is remarkable as well, there are a few surprises there with songs like "Tough Mama", "Blind Willie McTell", "Man In The Long Black Coat", and "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You". Definitely a must-have live recording for any serious Bob Dylan fan.
1999: Down Along the Cove
This is an excellent soundboard recording of the June 14 concert at the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. The name of the bootleg CD refers to the song from "John Wesley Harding" (1968), which Dylan debuted that night in a rocking version. The setlist also included "Can't Wait" and "Not Dark Yet" from his then latest album "Time Out Of Mind", as well as a rendition of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away", the final song for most gigs during this leg of the Neverending Tour.
Sources: Where can I get these CDs from?
Please be aware of the fact that the commercial distribution of bootleg recordings is illegal! Do not pay for such recordings from online sources like eBay! In case you own bootlegs, don't sell them to others. If you are interested in rare recordings, you will find lots of free downloads on Google. If you are looking for rare DVDs, the best source is here.