Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bob Dylan Live At Carnegie Hall 1963

Released November 15, 2005
In 2005, Columbia Records released a six song EP composed of songs from Dylan's Carnegie Hall concert that took place on October 26, 1963. The year had witnessed Dylan's meteoric rise with the release of the The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and his historic debut at the Newport Folk Festival. "The Times They Are-A-Changin'" opens the disc in a sedate, but earnest, call to arms for the new generation. "Ballad of Hollis Brown" followed; a version that matched the stark intensity that would appear on the LP The Times They Are-A-Changin. Dylan introduced the melancholy "Boots of Spanish Leather" as a song about "settling for less." Next "Lay Down Your Weary Tune", which according to Dylan's official website is the sole live performance. The version here is slower and more meditative than the studio recordings available on the Bootleg Series. It's deeply moving and effective. Then "North Country Blues," a song that paints a portrait of the mining industry's decline in Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Interestingly, Dylan wrote the song from the perspective of a miner's wife who watches her family come apart after the company decides to close the mine because in South America people "work for almost nothing." An intriguing song to compare with Dylan's 2006 track from Modern Times "Workingman's Blues #2" as a foreshadowing of globalization. The EP concludes on "With God On Our Side." War's always been a fascination with Dylan, in his memoir he credited Von Clauswitz's On War as an influence on his songwriting. Few songs better encapsulated the horror of 20th Century conflict (and the scourge of Cold War propaganda). Overall, a worthwhile record of Dylan performing his early songs as he was finding his voice as an artist.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack

Released August 30, 2005
The Documentary

Martin Scorsese was called into service to edit the documentary that would cover the first 25 years of Dylan's life. No Direction Home is arguably the best documentary made about Dylan and offers an excellent introduction to anyone unfamiliar with his work. Dylan granted over ten hours of interviews with his manager Jeff Rosen, adding compelling commentary to his own life story. Many who knew him in the early days also appear: friends from Minnesota, Suze Rotolo, Dave Von Ronk, Liam Clancy, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and many others. The true magic in No Direction Home is Scorsese's impeccable editing skills. The film begins with footage of Dylan performing in 1966 with the Band at the height of his powers, then shifts back to the early years. The effect builds a suspense and significance to the narrative. Access to Dylan's archive allowed for lots of rare footage never seen by the public.

The Soundtrack

Overall, a worthy addition to the Bootleg Series. Although a few of the tracks had appeared on previous releases (and would appear on future ones), there's a wonderful collection rare recordings and alternate versions. Highlights on the first disk include "When I Got Troubles," one of the earliest Dylan recordings. A live version of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is another highlight, with Dylan beginning the performance sounding melancholy, but gradually adding a majesty to each verse. "Dink's Song" is another stirring early performance. An early version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" with Ramblin' Jack Elliot providing on backup vocals. Several live tracks are included, including an early performance of "Chimes of Freedom," with Dylan delivering a soulful vocal.

The second disk illustrate's Dylan transition into folk rock, symbolized by the performance of "Maggie's Farm" at the Newport Folk Festival. An alternate version of "Desolation Row," played with electrical instruments adds a psychedelic quality. "Visions of Johanna" is also supported by the Band, casting light on the early version of Blonde on Blonde. Much more would come on the 2015 release The Cutting Edge, but the No Direction Home soundtrack is a worthy companion piece to the series and its narrative arc. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

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

Released March 30, 2004
One of my personal favorites in the Bootleg Series is Bob Dylan's Halloween Concert at the Philharmonic Hall. A pivot point in his early career, the show showcases his early songs and suggested what was to come. The concert, performed in two sets, featured songs from his first four albums and new material that would appear on Bringing It All Back Home. On this particular evening he appeared relaxed and good natured before a packed house, joking "I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask tonight."

Dylan began the show with "The Times They Are A-Changin" in an almost jaunty heralding of a new age. Next came the only live version on record of "Spanish Harlem Incident." "Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues" was a staple of Dylan's early live shows, still a crowd pleaser in 1964 (once again relevant in the current climate). "To Ramona" displayed Dylan's interest in writing daring love songs that were also political. "Who Killed Davey Moore" was another early effort that never appeared on an album, a song about a boxer who tragically died after a fight. 

The next three songs offered something new, even revolutionary, for the audience. What on earth did they make of "Gates of Eden"? Was it a protest song? Beat inspired poetry? Dark and mysterious lyrics suggested abstract art as folk song. "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (or else you gotta stay all night) could be a Top 40 pop song with its playful lyrics, a possible Beatles parody. And then another showstopper with "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), a terrifying secular sermon that was a different from anything Dylan had written up to that point.

The first set closed with more familiar songs. Dylan forgot the lyrics to "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met) and got some help from the audience. "Mr Tambourine Man" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" were performed with precision and passion.

After a brief break Dylan began the second set with some familiar favorites. "Talkin' World War III Blues" got a thunderous applause. Then stirring performances of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." 

Joan Baez joined Dylan for "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," one of their favorite songs to sing together. Baez took lead vocals on the traditional "Silver Dagger" with Bob on harmonica. "With God On Our Side" was another duet they performed together many times. An exuberant "It Ain't Me Babe" could almost be a dialogue between Baez and Dylan at that particular moment in time. Dylan closed the evening on a light note with "All I Really Want to Do."

The Dylan of late 1964 would be vastly different than the Dylan of 1965, the Dylan of 1966. The Philharmonic Hall concert showcases the artist coming into his own, signaling a new direction.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue

Released November 26, 2002
During the autumn of 1975 Bob Dylan embarked on an impromptu tour known as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Each show was designed to be a theatrical extravaganza, going against the grain of the arena rock that dominated the decade. This edition in the Bootleg Series features performances from the autumn of 1975. 

The CD opens with a rocking version of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Home With You," from the 1969 album Nashville Skyline. The guitars of Mick Ronson and T-Bone Burnett combined with Dylan's excitable vocal brought new life to the song. In fact pretty much every song Dylan performed on the tour got a major reboot, no longer recording stuck in amber on a record, but live bytes of creativity being rediscovered and redefined. "It Ain't Me Babe," is a defiant song of lament from the the 1964 LP Another Side of Bob Dylan that gets converted into a rally cry of personal liberation. The solemn poetics of "A Hard Rain's A- Gonna Fall" is now driving rock and roll song with dizzying apocalyptic imagery. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" reminded audiences Dylan still cared about social justice (detractors still took him to task for not writing protest music).

Next followed two from the yet to come Desire album: "Romance in Durango" and "Isis." Then two acoustic numbers the classic "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the moving "Simple Twist of Fate" from Blood on the Tracks. Joan Baez joined Dylan for "Blowin' in the Wind" and then one they performed many times a decade earlier, "Mama, You've Been on My Mind." The first CD concludes with Dylan and Baez doing a duet of "I Shall Be Released" with a country music twang.

The second CD starts with two more acoustic numbers, both songs from Bringing It All Back Home, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit." Then "Tangled Up in Blue" an instant classic with some slightly revised lyrics. Baez joined Dylan again for the traditional song, "The Water is Wide." An impassioned version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry)" captured the spirit of Highway 61 Revisited. When someone from the crowd demanded a protest song Dylan responded with "Oh Sister." A lawsuit settlement prevented Dylan from performing "Hurricane" so this particular bootleg is one of few live versions out there (although it doesn't come close to the stirring version on Desire). "One More Cup of Coffee" and "Sara" would also both appear on Desire. Dylan even took audience requests and played "Just Like A Woman." The CD appropriately closes with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

At best, this volume in the Bootleg series captures a sense of the excitement of the Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour produced two immediate albums Desire and a live album that caught the tail end of the tour entitled Hard Rain. The 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, Dylan's lone directorial effort, also resulted from the tour. 

These shows were a Dylan no had ever seen before: interactive, political, theatrical, and completely possessed with the spirit of the music.