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Play A Song For Me

 

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Volume 6: Live 1964 - Concert at Philharmonic Hall

Columbia, 2004

Rating: 5.0

 

 

Posted: March 31, 2004

By Laurence Station

Bob Dylan has spent his career betraying everyone but himself. The folkies cried foul in the mid-'60s when he plugged in; toward the end of the decade, rockers were baffled by his country-rock phase, and critics simply thought he'd run out of ideas when Self Portrait arrived in 1970. Dylan's genius, however, is in never wearing out his welcome in any particular genre. Being a chameleon has not only kept him from becoming artistically stale; more importantly, it has allowed him to explore practically every idiom of 20th century popular music.

Live 1964, the sixth volume in the Bootleg Series, offers something prior Live releases have not: A complete, consistently engaging show. Live 1966 may be more infamous (thanks to the "Judas" exchange between Dylan and an irate fan), but that show's intentionally bifurcated acoustic-electric sets won't win many points for cohesiveness. Live 1975, though almost seamlessly sequenced, is a patchwork assemblage of select venue highlights from the first leg of the Rolling Thunder tour, and thus lacks the ebb and flow, the inspired peaks and messy flubs, of a single concert.

Halloween night, 1964, found the 23-year old troubadour at New York's Philharmonic Hall in an upbeat, convivial (and slightly tipsy) mood. His latest album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, had been released at the beginning of the summer, and he was already trying out new, considerably more lyrically dense follow-up material on appreciative, if slightly confounded, audiences. Dylan was clearly evolving far beyond his persona as an acoustic guitar-carrying performer with a mouth harp playing intimate-to-moderately sized halls. Live 1964 is the sound of a showman in total command of his craft and perfectly in sync -- even loose and talkative -- with his audience. There's none of the underlying tension that runs through Live 1966, or the flat-out cynicism coloring Before the Flood, the 1974 live document capturing his enormously profitable tour with the Band.

What made Philharmonic Hall such a special (and widely bootlegged) show, aside from its historical importance as the last great folk gig Dylan would perform, is the mood that evening. Primarily due to his interaction with the crowd, it's simply one of the most appealing concerts of his career. Upon forgetting the opening verse to "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)", Dylan asks for a little help from the audience, which eagerly obliges. After performing the second live performance of eventual Bringing it All Back Home track "Gates of Eden" (and laying such surrealistic non sequiturs as "The motorcycle black madonna / Two-wheeled gypsy queen / And her silver-studded phantom cause / The gray flannel dwarf to scream / As he weeps to wicked birds of prey / Who pick up on his bread crumb sins" on his unsuspecting audience), Dylan, perhaps sensing some confusion on the part of the crowd, cracks "It's just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on."

Dylan would also serve up two additional Bringing it All Back Home tracks, the powerful indictment of oppressive authority "It's Alright, Ma (It's Life and Life Only)" -- later changed to "(I'm Only Bleeding)" -- and the slightly more familiar, swirling psychedelia of "Mr. Tambourine Man." But the night belonged to Dylan's folk repertoire. This is never more evident than when Joan Baez appears near the end, dueting with Dylan for three songs and singing the traditional "Silver Dagger" as he backs her on harmonica. The pair's seamless harmonizing on "With God on Our Side" is an absolute gem, the unofficial King and Queen of folk accepting the cheers of the student body during what would turn out to be a signature moment from the period; its Senior Prom, if you will.

During the encore, Dylan listens to (but ignores) requests from the audience (including one amusing call for "Mary Had a Little Lamb") before launching into "All I Really Want to Do." Though it might have been nice to hear "Chimes of Freedom" or "My Back Pages," the choice of the opening track from Another Side seems somehow apt, a farewell of sorts to the folk community -- especially considering, in pointed hindsight, his exclusion of the last verse: "I don't want to fake you out / Take or shake or forsake you out / I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me / See like me or be like me / All I really want to do / Is, baby, be friends with you." Who knows why Dylan chose to excise these closing lines (he may have simply forgotten), but their absence certainly speaks volumes about the divergent paths the artist and his core fan base were traveling.

Dylan the protest singer, the rocker, the country gentleman, the born-again electric evangelist, is ultimately cut from the same cloth as the best song-and-dance performers, more interested in putting on a great show than being the presumptive "voice of a generation" or a figurehead for someone else's cause. Live 1964 reveals a master craftsmen plying his trade, neither bound to his past nor intimidated by his -- or the decade's -- uncertain future.

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