As promised, a review of the long-awaited Trouble No More boxed set documenting Bob Dylan’s gospel years, courtesy of resident Dylanologist Ken Wilson, who’ll be seeing his 55th (!) show on Friday.

In a career full of surprises, the most amazing is still the “born again” period. Sure Bob Dylan had shocked his folkie fans, and enraged Peter Seeger (or so the legend goes), by going electric, i.e. commercial, at Newport. Sure, he’d retreated from public view and been rumored dead in the wake of a serious motorcycle accident, rhymed “moon and spoon” and crooned with Johnny Cash, and toured in whiteface playing is-this-for-real-? bland and bloated lounge act arrangements of his greatest hits. (That first time I heard LARS – Like A Rolling Stone, to civilians – was a little less than transcendent).

But c’mon, “You’re gonna serve somebody”? I could not believe, sitting in the back seat of a friend’s car on the way home from a rained-out Joni Mitchell show in the summer of 1979, what I was hearing: “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gonna serve somebody.” “Can you turn that up a little?” I gasped, although my friend’s wife was sleeping in the front seat. It was a trip, a thrill, a total mindbender. For a conservative evangelical who had struggled with his conscience over rock ‘n roll, who had even been counseled by an overzealous pastor not to attend that befuddling Vegas revue/Dylan concert the year before, it was a strong shot of validation.

Never mind the shallow thinking there. Naïvely ahistorical me – in a few years, Bob’s boot heels would be wandering yet again, leading some (but not yours truly) to say it was all a commercial ploy. In 1997 he would tell Newsweek, in a wonderful quote that illustrates how God speaks through “secular” art – a notion which, unfortunately for my oft-violated conscience, was stilI beyond my bifurcated, World/Kingdom understanding in ’79; Mockingbird, where were you? – that “the songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” But that was a few turns down the road. Working with producer Jerry Wexler of the storied Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama in 1979 and 1980, Dylan released two forthrightly Christian records (Slow Train Coming and Saved), records of gratitude and zeal (and finger pointing), unabashedly evangelistic records with song titles like “When You Gonna Wake Up,” “Saved,” and “When He Returns”; for two years, he would sing nothing but gospel live. In a third, 1981 record (Shot of Love), the still faithful singer touched on romantic love and saluted Lenny Bruce, but otherwise kept his hands on the plow (embarrassingly so with the sardonic Property of Jesus: “You got something better, you got a heart of stone”).

“Dylan – What Happened?” was how one prominent critic would title his attempt to understand this most unexpected and unfathomable turn yet, a turn not just to Christianity, but to the unhippest, most un-intellectual form of it, one-size-fits-all fundamentalism. No one could quite take it in, but for young believers like myself making do with the tame, derivative “Christian” rock of the time, it was pure giddy gift. Today these albums, especially the first, are a respected, though by some parties still begrudged part of the Dylan catalogue. But it’s the live shows of the period, those incendiary performances fueled by new convert fervor, interrupted, or perhaps we should say punctuated, by Hal Lindseyesque references to mid-East political happenings supposedly heralding the Second Coming, that are legendary. Bootlegged in varying sound quality and easily available for years, they are what many “Dylanologists” – you can laugh, we do – have nonetheless been waiting for in the Official Bootleg Series.

And now we have them. Trouble No More: Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 comprises eight CDs of previously unreleased live and studio material, including 14 songs never officially released in any form. [Two and ten-CD versions are also available for fans who want to a) practice heroic restraint or b) drive their spouses completely crazy]. Grammy Award-winning liner notes writer Bob Bowman supplies commentary. A separate 8” by 8” hardcover book has 121 glossy pages of candid and performance shots, reworked lyric sheets, and . . . essential stuff. A DVD offers performances interspersed with bizarre third-party sermonettes (more on those later). Some of this material is new to me, obsessive though I am. Some of this stuff, I’ll bet, is even new to the woman I met last year at her 250th-something Dylan show.

As a performer in these years, Dylan was at his most exciting, his voice at its juiciest, most apt to stretch to its limits. Like a jazz singer, he has always varied his approach to any given line from night to night, and the songs here feel lived-in, the performances urgent and confidential, thrilling in their moment-by-moment spontaneity. Call them evangelistic, as they were clearly intended to be. The choir of four or sometimes five African-American women is a joy, less a collective of back-up singers than of conversation partners, their voices high and clear in the mix, the call and response between the soloist and the sisters evocative of the black church and its bracing gospel tradition.

Of interest here is the evolution of songs over what was a total of five tours. Every show of the gospel years opened with “Gotta Serve Somebody.” A ’79 version is sinuous and snaky; later versions simmer and seethe. As a pledge of faith in the face of social rejection, “I Believe in You” elicits some of Bob’s most beautiful and heartfelt singing, with the great drummer Jim Keltner’s beats emphatic as if in moral support. The funk on the title cut of the Slow Train Coming record is seductive, lulling, leaving the listener wide open for zingers like “talk about a life of brotherly love, show me someone who knows how to live it.” The singer’s a righteous prophet or, as some would have it, a scold. In a ’79 rehearsal here the prophet’s had a couple of drinks and is enjoying his job, and the jaunty horn section isn’t listening to any prophecy anyhow. A 1981 version is stern and sinister, the beat relentless. A ‘78 sound check, a year before the song’s debut, finds the band augmented with sax and violin, the mood dire, the tempo slower.

“In the Garden” is a slow-building drama, the choir wailing, Bob growling, snarling, sorrowing, and marveling, then comically breaking the spell by touting the next night’s show. “When He Returns,” in a DVD performance with Bob and Spooner Oldham side by side on piano and organ, is a public confession and a sinner’s self-remonstration, intimate and hair-raising. “Saved,” a bit monotonous when heard but not seen (a heretical opinion, that – see below), is an all-hands-on-deck testimonial on the DVD, Bob leading the meeting, the irresistible choir answering and driving home the message: “And I’m so glad” / “How glad?” / “So glad” / “Tell me again” / “So glad.”

An ’81 version of the hymn-like “Every Grain of Sand” is sweet and calm, understated. A rehearsal outing from 1980 is plaintive and more affecting. “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” an apocalyptic scorcher inexplicably left off Shot of Love in its original form, has Carlos Santana solos and work-in-progress lyrics by turns pointed (“I’m gonna set my affections on things above, let nothing stand in the way of love, not even the Rock of Gibraltar”) and unintentionally comic (“If you see her on Fannin Street, tell her that I still think she’s neat, and that the groom’s still waiting at the altar”).

The never before released tunes mostly disappoint. The long and plodding “Making a Liar Out of Me,” enlivened only by Willie Smith’s churchy organ, has lyrics that might sear if inserted in say, “Groom’s,” but are paint-by-numbers pedestrian to a tune this dull. The oddly titled “Ain’t Gonna Go to Hell for Anybody” – ironically the singer’s disavowal of his own deviousness, not of so-called friends who would lead him astray – begins with acapella harmonizing but also suffers from melodic monotony. “Thief on the Cross” is a stomper. “Blessed Be the Name” is a rave-up, choir-driven rendering of Daniel 2:20 punctuated with a hot guitar solo. A couple of other numbers have an endearing ingenuousness but a Sunday School simplicity. “City of Gold” (recorded by gospel greats The Dixie Hummingbirds in 2003) transcends these limitations.

Interspersed with the musical performances on the set’s DVD are performances of another sort, of Michael Shannon as a slick, cable TV-style preacher, creepily lit in a dark, stained glass sanctuary. The first of these is set up so that we see Dylan leaving the stage, and as the band finishes the song while the crowd cheers, a figure walks through a doorway and towards us in an adjoining room. We expect Dylan; we get Shannon. His first words, after ascending a pulpit: “Thou hypocrite!” Are these obnoxious sermonettes, written by Luc Sante, meant as parody, as recontextualized simulations of the supercharged new believer’s own mid-concert raps and (at one stop) excoriations (“Go and see KISS and you can rock and roll all the way down to the pit!”), cheap distancing laughs to make the proselytization in the songs go down easy? No matter – they’re not worth revisiting. Worth many plays is the footage of Bob and the ardent Clydie King seated at the piano for the surprise cover that knocked me out in ‘81: Dion’s bittersweet “Abraham Martin and John.”

Lyrically, with the exception of “Groom’s” and the disarming and flat-out gorgeous “Caribbean Wind,” perhaps nothing on this welcome new set has the folk poetry and psychological insight of “I and I” on Infidels, with “Blind Willie McTell” my perverse vote for his greatest (and most precarious, knife-edged) religious song. But you don’t expect profundity from a convert. You expect, and here you get, insistence and elation.

The cover of this mercurial artist’s last pre-conversion record, 1978’s Street Legal, catches him standing in a doorway, peering down the street, waiting. The back cover finds him in whiteface and white pants suit, a 70’s fashion victim, yes, but kin to Joel Grey and the demimonde denizens of Cabaret. The songs themselves are dark and desperate, fevered, on the edge of exhaustion. “If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you the scars,” Bob sings acidly“– “Oh, where are you tonight?”

“How much longer?” as the chorus elsewhere wonders. How much longer in this spiritual wilderness? Not much longer, as it turns out. On November 17 in San Diego, during the accompanying world tour with its ironically appropriate pointless arrangements of his greatest hits, a fan threw a cross onstage. A couple of nights later in a Tucson hotel room, Dylan felt “a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus.”

On the cover of Slow Train Coming the following year, a man swings a cross-shaped axe, part of a crew laying track for the train seen heading their way. It’s a missionary image, not of a floundering rock star, but of purposeful, one could say manly men, making straight in the desert (to quote a phrase) a highway for our God. Gospel period Bob, out of the greasepaint and into the arms of a no-nonsense Christian woman (“She said, ‘Boy without a doubt / Have to quit your mess and straighten out’”), was not just an intent and exuberant performer, but a true and resolute believer, as we hear again on Trouble No More.

The concerts at the core of this new collection, so celebrated for their fervor today, received a hostile reception at the time from many longtime devotees – disciples not to “the Lord” but to the pathfinder who’d pronounced judgment on straight society, not joined it, as it must have appeared, in the lamest way. Yet as crowd shots on the DVD suggest, these same shows functioned as revival meetings for others. Count me now as then, seasoned but still unjaded, among the latter.