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Play A Song For Me
Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Volume 6: Live 1964 - Concert at Philharmonic Hall
Posted: March 31,
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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