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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (Concert At Philharmonic Hall)


1) The Times They Are A-Changin'; 2) Spanish Harlem Incident; 3) Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues; 4) To Ramona; 5) Who Killed Davey Moore?; 6) Gates Of Eden; 7) If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night); 8) It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 9) I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); 10) Mr. Tambourine Man; 11) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 12) Talkin' World War III Blues; 13) Don't Think Twice, It's Alright; 14) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 15) Mama, You Been On My Mind; 16) Silver Dagger; 17) With God On Our Side; 18) It Ain't Me Babe; 19) All I Really Want To Do.

Or maybe this, too, could be «Dylan's best live album», despite not featuring a backing band at all and not having anything to do with «rock and roll» as such — just Bob, Bob's acoustic guitar, Bob's diatonic harmonica, and Bob's Joan Baez on four of the tracks. Actually, if you do have the physical copy of the album already, this review will be completely unnecessary, because the astute liner notes by Sean Wilentz (who did really attend the show in question) provide all the information and all the extra food for thought you'd need, and I have nothing of use to add to the man's insightful retro-analysis of everything that was going on that night. But provided you do not have access to those liner notes, here be a lowly substitute of recycled information and plagia­rized conclusions for y'all.

The show was played on October 31, 1964, at New York's Philharmonic Hall, in preparation for Halloween ("I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask!"). Another Side Of Bob Dylan had come out less than three months prior to that, and in two months' time he would be trying out the electric schtick; ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ had not yet been officially released, but had already been exten­sively played out, and was clearly familiar to the audience. Basically, when the «Bootleg Series Team» decided that the next live album to be released would have to be for the acoustic period, the choice was between «classic acoustic phase» (Bob as Pete Seeger-approved hero of the protest movement) and «transitional acoustic phase» — and they settled on the tapes from the Philharmonic as a particularly well-played and well-preserved memento of the latter. What can I say? Awesome choice, probably (probably, because I don't have that much to compare it with).

Playing Live 1964 back to back with Live 1966 (especially its acoustic first half) will give you a good idea of just how much the man — and the times — had changed in less than two years. The Dylan of 1966 was a Dylan living in a cloud (and I don't even literally mean a cloud of dope, though that was relevant, too), separated from the audience by an invisible plexiglas layer. By contrast, the Dylan of 1964 is a lively, cheerful, charismatic fellow, already well aware of the great power that he can exercise over people and occasionally testing its limits — for instance, there is a moment there when he just absent-mindedly strums the chords to ʽI Don't Believe Youʼ for a couple of minutes before «admitting» that he does not remember the first verse, and having people in the front row explicitly remind him that yes, Bob, truly and verily we have faithfully memorized all the songs from your latest and greatest. (I do not buy it that he actually did forget the "I can't understand..." bit, although he does stumble once on a verse in the middle of ʽIt's Alright Maʼ, and then again, there's a hilarious stumble in the middle of ʽMama You Been On My Mindʼ where they have to trade some extra vocalising in between Bob and Joan).

He is also clearly a fellow that is way too tired of his «protest» image, as evidenced by the encore, where somebody jokingly requests ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ and the man responds with "Did I write that?... Is that a protest song?" To that end, there are only three songs off The Times, his most symbolically «protest» album, and once he gives the impression of being about to launch into ʽBallad Of Hollis Brownʼ, but then switches gears and it becomes ʽHard Rainʼ. Even the early Freewheelin' material is downtrodden — no ʽBlowin' In The Windʼ in the setlist, no ʽMas­ters Of Warʼ, and as for ʽDon't Think Twiceʼ, it is executed in near-parodic mode ("well it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, BAAAAAAAAABE!") that sends the audience laughing rather than empathizing. Clearly, the time had come for something different, even if you had to slaughter some of your own sacred cows, or, at least, rudely de-sacralize them.

On the other end of the pole, we have previews of things to come — introductions of the as of yet brand new ʽGates Of Edenʼ and ʽIt's Alright, Maʼ ("it's a very funny song!" — yeah, right), which could have been known at best to a tiny handful of people in the audience; it is not clear how many people could get the words right, but it must be said that Bob plays both songs at slightly slower tempos than we are used to nowadays, and enunciates everything very clearly. For that matter, he also enunciates very clearly the comical sexual innuendos on ʽIf You Gotta Go, Go Nowʼ, sending the people up in roars of laughter after each verse — even a stren-faced folkie likes a good adulterous brawl every now and then.

The Joan Baez section is probably the weakest link of the show: she was a good foil for him in the «classic protest» days, but by late 1964 the vibe had died down, and their dueting on ʽWith God On Our Sideʼ feels a little «workmanlike» and not particularly inspiring. ʽMama You Been On My Mindʼ, envisioned here as a mental dialog between the two separated protagonists, works much better (when they do not forget the lyrics, that is), and Joan graciously gets a solo spot with the traditional song ʽSilver Daggerʼ (she is really very beautiful when she comes in small doses like this), but in the context of this show it is clearly seen that the Dylan/Baez partnership is over and out. "It ain't me you're looking for, babe". Was it intentional that he had her participate in this as the show's final duet? I think it was.

Anyway, even despite the fact that there is relatively little space to rearrange and reinvent your songs when you are only armed with the barest of equipment, Bob gives us plenty of quirks and tricks to make this experience every bit as valuable as the canonical studio recordings. (Might I add that aficionados of Bob's guitar playing might have something to treasure about this as well — for instance, the basic melody to ʽIt's Alright, Maʼ seems to be played in a more complex manner than ended up on the studio album, almost giving an illusion of two guitars played at the same time). Most importantly, even if he does admit to "wearing his Bob Dylan mask", he is still young and fresh here, and his self-constructed «wall» that would firmly separate him from the audience in the future only has the first few bricks laid in. In fact, dare I say it, you can actually hear the sound of the first brick plunged in position when the sixth song of the show is introduced as "a sacrilegious lullaby in D Minor", and then it becomes ʽGates Of Edenʼ, and many of the people sitting there in the hall probably sit around in a «what was that?..» sort of mood.

But historical importance aside, this is just a very good performance. Impeccable sound quality, good playing, and fabulous singing — on no other live album of his can you really feel this magnetic pull on the audience, this desire to work 'em for all they're worth. Soon enough, Bob would only be playing for himself. But before he started doing that, he had to build himself up plenty of credit, so as to make the people want him to be playing for himself. If you are a Dylan neophyte, or an accidental walk-in who has no idea why people are still flocking to his shows to hear an old codger mumble out seemingly toneless, incomprehensible blabber — rewind all the way to here and see the reverberations of 1964 still influencing the atmosphere of 2014, in a bi­zarre, but real chain of causes and consequences. Thumbs up.

1 comment:

  1. George, I'm somewhat stunned you call this recording "fabulous singing". For me, 1964 is by far Dylan's worst year of the 60s for vocals, especially live. For some unknowable reason, Dylan's voice sounded great in 1961, 1962, 1963, and (especially) 1965. But in 1964 it magically became crap, then turned back to gold. At least he (mostly) doesn't have the whiny tone that he showed off (for the first time, not the last) at the 1964 Newport Festival, but his voice here sounds weak and lazy. I really wish Sony had issued a live performance from the British tour in spring '65, when his vocals were much, much better. (The show in Manchester 1965 is a particularly wonderful performance.) Besides, the 1964 show had been doing the rounds since the early 70s, at least, in bootleg form, and 'cleaning it up' only revealed Dylan's drunken performance with lackluster vocals.