[27 April 2011]
This has nothing to do with Bob Dylan the musician. Bob Dylan in Concert: Brandeis University 1963 has to do with Bob Dylan the image.
Six months ago, Columbia Records released The Bootleg Series Vol. 9—The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964. Essentially, this edition of The Bootleg Series is a rendering of the songs Dylan recorded for other artists to play. It’s a brilliant collection of tunes that includes early recordings of future classics (“Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Boots of Spanish Leather”) and not as popular, but still revealing songs like “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, “Ain’t Gonna Grieve” and “Hero Blues”. Bundled with the release’s special edition was a live recording of Dylan at Brandeis University Folk Festival in 1963. With The Witmark Demos, and their informative liner notes, as context, the live recording at Brandeis serves as a rare glimpse of Bob Dylan pre-fame, pre-“The Times They Are a-Changin’”.
Such a glimpse at a star waiting to be born deserves its own release, right? Yes and no. At a scant seven tracks and 38 minutes (the actual playing clocks in at around 30 minutes; Dylan always has been quite the talker), by itself the recording comes off as a blip, almost a musical non-sequitur, which isn’t to discredit Dylan’s candid, relaxed and humorous performance. It’s just that a recording of this brevity requires a substantial amount of material to explain its importance. Without knowing the musical and political climate at the time, and without knowing Dylan’s future place in both camps, this disc is slight at best.
That’s not to say the music is slight. Quite the opposite, actually. Dylan’s wit is razor-sharp on “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, his anger forthright on “Masters of War”. His guitar/harmonica playing is loose and sardonic, both essential Dylan qualities that he later explored to their fullest on twin home runs Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. The recording’s sound is impeccable, which should come as no surprise considering the original tape was found in Ralph Gleason’s basement after his death. But overall, this release exudes suggestion and hint, as if it’s a knowing glance from an old friend, only coming from someone who’s misidentified you.
Brandeis University 1963 is a Columbia/Legacy cash grab, seven out-of-context tracks from a then-unknown folk singer hawking Woody Guthrie. Bob Dylan’s first record had recently flopped, commercially and critically. Low on a playbill behind performers such as Jean Ritchie and Pete Seeger, Dylan wasn’t the act audiences showed up to see. He didn’t steal the show like he would at the Newport Folk Festival. This disc, and it’s trimmed liner notes, presents itself as an unearthed gem, as Bob Dylan before he became Bob Dylan, but falls well short of that mark. Without context—this performance was mere weeks before The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan hit shelves, a few months before the March on Washington and the Kennedy assassination—Bob Dylan in Concert: Brandeis University 1963 is an excellent sound recording of a 21-year-old songwriter with a guitar and a harmonica, and nothing more.
If you’re a Dylan completist, this disc is worth the price, but money has it most Dylan completists purchased The Witmark Demos’ special edition packaging last October and have been enjoying Brandeis University 1963 since.