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When Bob Dylan found Jesus: It's not as bad as you remember

The boxed set "Trouble No More" reexamines his late '70s/early '80s religious period. He plays the Tower Theater on Saturday and Sunday.

Bob Dylan at the Warfield Theatre, San Francisco, in November 1979. The ‘Trouble No More’ box explores his religious years.
Bob Dylan at the Warfield Theatre, San Francisco, in November 1979. The ‘Trouble No More’ box explores his religious years.Read moreBaron Wolman

When Bob Dylan brings his Never Ending Tour to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby for a two-night stand beginning Saturday night, the Nobel Prize-winning songwriter will arrive in the midst of one of the more head-scratching periods in a career that has frequently confused and tested the patience of fans.

Beginning with Shadows in the Night in 2015, Dylan has now issued three studio albums in a row consisting entirely of tunes from the Great American Songbook. The most recent, this year's Triplicate, is a triple album.

The notion of Dylan as a crooner and interpreter of other people's music rather than his own may seem perverse. But from an artist who often seems to aim to perplex, it's hardly the most confounding surprise of a continually unpredictable career.

Tops on that list, of course, would be going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, a dramatic break that led fans who felt betrayed to label him a "Judas!"

Coming in a close second, however, is Dylan's Jesus years, the period beginning in the late 1970s when the singer, who was born Robert Zimmerman and raised Jewish, abruptly stopped performing his old songs and began ardently singing the praises of the Lord.

That controversial era is the subject of Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13, 1979-81 (Columbia/Legacy ***), the new eight-CD, one-DVD boxed set that means to spur a reassessment of a time when the countercultural poet and voice of 1960s rebellion got religion and seemed to transform overnight into a moralizing scold.

The visionary songwriter who once posited that "he who isn't busy being born is busy dying" was suddenly born again. And keen to share his spiritual rebirth with an audience often made uncomfortable by his sudden certitude.

Starting with 1979's Slow Train Coming and its emblematic single "Gotta Serve Somebody," he recorded three albums marked by religious fervor and holy rolling vocal assistance from as many as five gospel singers on stage at a time. "When You Gonna Wake Up?" he asked, offering a choice between good and evil. Dylan knew which side he was on.

The period lasted through 1980's Saved and 1981's less strident Shot of Love, in which devotional songs like the subtler "Every Grain of Sand" are more in keeping with the poetic use of biblical imagery that's always been present in Dylan's songwriting.

Trouble No More opens up the vaults to reveal live cuts, alternative takes, and previously unheard songs.

That's frequently been a fruitful Bootleg Series approach because Dylan is such a restless tinkerer. He often records multiple takes with varied arrangements and lyrics — the nine verses  on "Caribbean Wind" on Trouble are completely different from those on 1985's Biograph — then discards them when the next project comes around.

There's always hope that an unheard masterpiece — like "Blind Willie McTell," recorded for 1983's Infidels but not included on the album — will be found, like a dusty old painting in your grandmother's attic that's discovered to be a Caravaggio on Antiques Roadshow.

There are 14 previously unreleased songs on Trouble, the most ballyhooed being "Making a Liar Out of Me," a rock-solid rarity worked up in rehearsal in 1980 and never heard again.

But the revelations aren't so much brilliant songs cast irrationally aside. It's more about the impassioned energy and unquestionable conviction that, it's clear in retrospect,  Dylan brought to the endeavor.

The religious troika has always had adherents who have argued that the hubbub obscured the quality of the music. And they undoubtedly won Dylan new fans while alienating many old ones. (A TV ad for a Portland, Ore.,  concert that plays up the fiery Dylan debate is included on the box.)

In Jon Bream's 2015 book Dylan: Disc by Disc, the Philadelphia tandem of British expatriate songwriter Wesley Stace and Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson expound on the attributes of Saved. Bono is a big fan of Shot of Love.

Trouble No More — which is also available in condensed form, as a single album — demonstrates that Dylan wasn't exclusively sanctimonious. The box includes luminous love songs like "Precious Angel" and generous spirited ones such as "What Can I Do for You?"

The songs are drawn from the least obsessed-over period in Dylan's career. When he turned away from overt religiosity with Infidels in 1983, his fan base breathed a sigh of relief and generally acted as though the gospel interlude had never happened. Reexamination leads to a realization: There's a whole bunch of pretty good Bob Dylan songs out there that have been largely ignored.

Trouble captures them in live performance. Dylan sounds robust and committed, and the ace musicians backing him include drummer Jim Keltner and guitarists Mark Knopfler and Fred Tackett, as well as keyboard players Spooner Oldham and Willie Smith. The band cooks.

Among the backup vocalists are Clydie King, with whom Dylan is said to have been in a relationship at the time, and Carolyn Dennis, who was his wife from 1986 to 1992. And speaking of gospel singers to whom Dylan has been romantically linked, Mavis Staples, who turned down his marriage proposal in the 1960s, will open the Tower shows, in which it is unlikely that he'll play anything from Trouble.

The Trouble DVD is strange. It mixes superb performance footage with scenes of sermons written by Luc Sante and read by actor Michael Shannon — playing a character reminiscent of his Bible-thumping G-man in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

But it works better than you might imagine, with Shannon's proselytizing expressing a sympathy for the downtrodden. That attitude mirrors Trouble songs such as "Ain't Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody," in which Dylan sings, "It don't suit my purpose and it ain't my goal / To gain the world but give up my soul."

One of the remarkable things about the Trouble No More period is how distanced Dylan was from the significant goings-on in pop music at the time. Punk was revitalizing rock, and rap was giving birth to an explosion of rhythm and wordplay. And what was Bob Dylan doing at this momentous time? His own thing, as always.