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

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

“It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading,” enigmatically quips the 23-year-old Bob Dylan in front of a packed audience at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on 31 October 1964. Before the show, the throng of devoted fans might have thought they knew what they’d be getting that night, but in reality, the young Dylan was already miles ahead of them all.

Earlier that year, his third album, The Times They Are A-Changing, with its combination of protest songs and romantic poetry, cemented Dylan as a folk troubadour of the highest order, as veteran folkies continued to hail Dylan as the heir to Woody Guthrie’s crown. By the time summer rolled around, Another Side of Bob Dylan proved to be a departure from the rather rigid structure of the previous album. This record was intimate, yet adventurous, as songs like “My Back Pages” and “Spanish Harlem Incident” had Dylan suddenly taking a turn for the absurd, perfectly encapsulated by the inspired line, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” That fall, Dylan fans, always an incredibly hip bunch, were even familiar with his as-yet unreleased song “Mr. Tambourine Man”, where his foray into surrealism really started to blossom. The fans thought they were on top of things, and that Halloween night, Dylan would indeed show them the Bob Dylan of the past, and the Bob Dylan of the present. Little did they know, though, that the tiny glimpse of the Bob Dylan of the very near future that he would give them would signal a radical change in not only Dylan’s career, but popular music as a whole. The rollercoaster had finished its first steep climb, and the passengers had a chance to quickly see what was ahead of them before the wild ride began. And what a two year ride it would turn out to be.

The newest addition to Bob Dylan’s ongoing archival project, Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall – The Bootleg Series Volume 6, differs greatly from Volumes 4 and 5, but it’s one that should greatly please Dylan fans. Originally recorded by Columbia Records with the intention of releasing the performance as a live album, the tapes were shelved, but this memorable concert still made a name for itself among fans, as several bootlegged versions appeared over the years, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest Dylan bootlegs of all time. Now, nearly 40 years later, producers Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, who also worked on Volumes 4 and 5, have dusted off the old master tapes, and have put together a sparkling version that will render all the old bootlegs useless.

Live 1964 couldn’t be more different than its predecessors. Unlike the fiery, contentious Live 1966: “The Royal Albert Hall” Concert and the crazed brilliance of Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, Live 1964 is much more intimate, warm, and good-humored. Dylan, accompanied by only his acoustic guitar and his harmonica, turns in one of his most charming performances ever recorded, as the surprisingly gregarious Dylan jokes with the audience between songs. Before “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”, he kids, “This is about the people they say they’ve never seen you. I’m sure everybody has met somebody that swears they’ve never seen them… Hi! I never saw him!” and then proceeds to forget the words to the song, asking the crowd to help him out. The high-spirited (perhaps in more ways than one?) Dylan’s timing is impeccable, as he holds the audience captive all the while; between songs, the crowd banters back and forth with Dylan, and when he plays, they sit in rapt silence.

The concert’s 100-minute set is comprised of equal parts political commentary, romantic ballads, and Dylan’s newer material. Crowd-pleasing (to namely the older folkies) political staples like “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Talkin’ World War III Blues”, and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” are performed impeccably, greeted by enthusiastic cheers, as are the unreleased, but well-known songs “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and the deliciously satirical “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, Dylan’s infamous parody of the anti-Communist John Birch Society and the cold war hysteria of the early ’60s. In direct contrast to his political material is the then-unreleased “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night)”, which generates some laughs, thanks to the song’s sexual innuendoes.

As Dylan’s career went on, he continued to play around with live performances of his songs, and his performance of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” gives you an indication that he has already begun toying around with his phrasing, as he begins shouting each line, gradually raises his voice, and finishes the line with a nasal howl: “Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, BABE!” This catches the audience a bit off guard, and you can hear some scattered chuckles early in the song. Dylan’s performance sounds strangely upbeat for such a tender song, but it works.

Dylan especially shines on the material from Another Side of Bob Dylan. The mysterious “Spanish Harlem Incident” is performed with gusto, and you can just picture young female fans quivering as Dylan passionately declares for all to hear, “I am homeless, come and take me/ Into reach of your rattling drums.” The beautiful waltz of “To Ramona” features a great vocal performance by Dylan, his voice gently quavering on the last line of each verse. “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”, with Dylan’s temporary brain freeze, is an all-out charmer, and the wide-eyed “All I Really Want to Do” closes the show, as Dylan breaks into a perfect yodel during the chorus.

The album’s highlights are the three new songs Dylan pulls out, which would eventually feature prominently on 1965’s Bringing it All Back Home. “Mr. Tambourine Man” was one fans were already familiar with, as Dylan had performed it earlier that summer at the Newport Folk Festival, and you can understand the audience’s positive reaction to the song. By mid-1964, it was Dylan’s most accomplished composition, a quantum leap from his early material, paving the way for his most ambitious work yet. Introduced facetiously as “A Sacrilegious Lullaby in D Minor,” the majestic “Gates of Eden” hints at the surreal, Fellini-esque characters that would populate Dylan’s next three albums: “The motorcycle black Madonna/ Two-wheeled gypsy queen/ And her silver-studded phantom cause/ The gray flannel dwarf to scream.” If Dylan’s wordplay on that song surprised listeners, that was nothing compared to “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. After Dylan introduces it as “It’s Alright Ma, It’s Life and Life Only” and gets a few laughs, he quips like a con man, “Yes, it’s a very funny song.” He then begins the epic song that would go on to rank as one of his greatest ever, reeling off verses inspired by Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, enunciating the words carefully for the baffled, fascinated audience to absorb. Although he muffs the penultimate chorus, the performance is powerful.

In the concert’s second half, Dylan is joined by Joan Baez, with whom he was sharing the bill that night. Although Baez tends to oversing during her duets with Dylan, the pair’s rapport is irresistible, Baez’s gregariousness contrasting with Dylan’s comically surly persona (Baez: “We’re gonna do one of Bob Dylan’s earlier songs.” Dylan: “Go ahead, see if I care!”). “Mama You Been On My Mind” is whimsical, the performance charmingly sloppy, Baez choosing to sing “Daddy” instead of “Mama”, while “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is just plain lovely. Baez takes a solo turn on the gorgeous rendition of the traditional ballad “Silver Dagger” (a song omitted from several bootlegged versions of this concert), while the two harmonize wonderfully on the early Dylan classic “With God on Our Side”.

Before closing with “All I Really Want to Do”, while audience members shout requests, someone yells for Dylan to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Dylan retorts, “God, did I record that? Is that a protest song?”, a sly poke at the genre he had already abandoned for good. Three months after this concert, Dylan would turn heads again with the half-electric Bringing it All Back Home, and by the end of 1965, would have a Number One single in “Like a Rolling Stone”, create a furor with his electric set at Newport, sport a shaggy haircut and dark glasses, film Don’t Look Back in London, and release one of the greatest albums in rock ‘n’ roll history, Highway 61 Revisited. But to that audience on Halloween, 1964, it was just another incredible Bob Dylan concert.

As Sean Wilentz writes in his excellent liner notes, “The show was in part a summation of past work and in part a summons to an explosion for which none of us, not even he, was fully prepared.” Live 1964 may be less thrilling than the previous two live albums, but that doesn’t diminish the show’s significance. It sheds light on a crucial period in Bob Dylan’s career, as one chapter of his illustrious career closed and another was just beginning, and is essential listening for Dylan fans and rock historians alike.

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