Wednesday, March 31, 2004

On The Cusp of History

One of the most exciting things about being an historian (stop laughing at the back) is finding a document that gives strong indication of transition or change, maybe even revolution. Sometimes these changes are not even conscious - they are just implied in texts produced at a precise moment in time. Change and development through history is rarely linear, often cyclical, and it rarely happens overnight - but it's a real pleasure to find clear examples of it.

Such is the feeling I get when listening to the latest edition in the ongoing Bootleg Series of rare material and live concerts from Bob Dylan. In fact, Live 1964: The Halloween Concert is almost as fascinating for its value as a historical document as it is for the wonderful music it contains. It captures a young Dylan on the cusp of a major transition, one that would completely revolutionize music. Here, he performs the old protest songs so admired at the time for their courageous sermonising, but he also plays many of the love songs that had offended many on the 'Another Side of Bob Dylan' album. He delivers tentative versions of wildly original new material that would later appear on the acoustic side of 'Bringing It All Back Home' album. It was this album where Dylan first introduced an electric band to his songs and started to forge what he called 'that wild mercury sound'. Dylan would return to Britain to play an acoustic tour in 1965, but by then 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' had already created shock and awe among the Dylan fanbase, and the snarling, sniping sturm und drang of 'Positively 4th Street' and 'Like A Rolling Stone' were just around the corner. The film of that tour shows a confrontational, intelligent, but uncompromisingly facetious Dylan, clearly bored with much of the material he was performing.

That confrontation is not apparent on Live 1964. Certainly, by playing unfamiliar material such as 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' and 'Gates of Eden' he challenges his audience to wade their way what must have sounded like epic poetry in stunned silence, but he is also in deeply playful spirit. At this show, he had an extraordinary rapport with his audience. 'Don't be scared', he says at one point - 'it's just Halloween, and I've got my Bob Dylan mask on. I'm masquerading!' What a characteristically brilliant remark that alerts us to the fact that this is not Robert Zimmerman, but Dylan, a master songwriter and entertainer. He frequently laughs, even forgets the first line of 'I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)' and has to get audience members to help him out. The audience love it - from the big cheer that greets 'Who Killed Davey Moore', a song that had not even been issued on record, to the roars of liberated hilarity during that masterful song of seduction 'If You Gotta Go...'. The Bob Dylan of today is a much more elusive figure - still iconic, but largely unprepared to interact with his audience in such a playful way.

The new songs are extraordinary performances, despite some of the lines being fudged. 'It's Alright Ma' is slow and full of twists and turns, the vivid lyrics phrased in a way that is both innovative and controlled. 'Gates of Eden' is mystical and enigmatic - the performance here is full of clarity and tension, even if the audience may have been confused about just what the hell their hero was singing about. He gets huge ovations at the end of both, indicating that this audience was prepared to let him progress from singing political protests, even from singing love songs.

The first half of the concert gives free reign to the literary, poetic Dylan with his baffling images and imaginative phrases that now such a part of modern vernacular. The second half of the concert is perhaps more crowd-pleasing, although the melody to 'Don't Think Twice' is given a fearsome reinvention. Joan Baez contributes to four tracks that today sound a less impressive, and somewhat of their time. Their harmonising together is consistently uneasy, occasionally even painful, at its best on 'Mama You've Been On My Mind', at its worst on a hurried 'With God On Our Side', which largely buries the moving quality of the recorded version. For the encore, Dylan gets numerous requests, even one for Mary Had A Little Lamb. 'God, did I record that?' he sniggers, 'Is that a protest song?' In light of that final serio-comic repudiation of his spokesman status, the most appropriate song may well have been 'My Back Pages'. Instead, Dylan plays a howling, hilarious take on 'All I Really Want To Do', his language at its most inventive, his voice at its most harsh and untamed. How wrong his critics were at this point - the songs on 'Another Side...' were complex, but simultaneousy hugely affecting. He had just begun to emphasise the more individual, human side of his art. They remain highlights of his catalogue.

This album is unlikely to convert any people that find Dylan's untechnical, nasal singing unpleasant - although his claim in 'Don't Look Back' that he hit all the notes he wanted to hit seems justified in the light of this superb performance. His phrasing is precise and clear, his voice carried by a striking power and conviction. It is deeply fascinating to hear Dylan captured at the point of no return - soon he would alienate old folkies forever and deliver the body of work that still mesmerises today. In the performances he gives here, there are the signals of a consummate performer who, whilst looking back to his folk heroes such as Woody Guthrie, had no choice but to follow his ceaseless inspiration. It's a marvellous package, with personal and informed sleevenotes from Sean Wilentz and many evocative photographs. The sound is excellent, and the recording captures the atmosphere of the occasion with masterly authority.

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