Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Live 1964

Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Live 1964

On Halloween night 1964, a 23-year-old Bob Dylan took the sage of Philharmonic Hall in Manhattan, a stage never before tread by anyone from Dylan’s cadre of downtown beatniks and folksingers, and delivered to his respectful audience a beautiful, nuanced, and unbelievably mature reading of his catalog-which at that early date already included almost all of the true 60s folk songs that Dylan would ever record. In the coming year, Dylan would make the controversial and much deconstructed left turn that would lead him to rock-and-roll stardom, and then onto a trajectory of switchback turns that left his fans delirious trying to keep up.
It’s very, very easy to fall into the trap of framing Bob Dylan and sticking him on a museum wall-pop music’s Mona Lisa, gaining legend from being hard to understand, and acknowledged to be “great’ because everyone says he’s great. Live 1964 does as good a job as any single release can of illuminating why that label was originally slapped on him. Within the limits of his voice, Dylan could then and can still convey wild mood swings of joy, anger, sensitivity, coyness, sarcasm, innocence, and accusation, all with utter honesty. There probably has never been a pop singer who could do that with quite the same facility.
That night was in many ways the climax of the first chapter of Dylan’s career. Dylan played alone except for four duets with Joan Baez, and nothing on that night’s set list would have given away what was to come. But what is remarkable about this recording is the reminder it provides of the sophistication of Dylan’s music even to that point. Anyone who thinks they know the limits of “folk’ music-three chords on one guitar, maybe a screeching harmonica-will surely be schooled by “Gates of Eden”‘s counterintuitive chord changes, and by the aching rise and fall of “To Ramona”‘s lyrics.
The critics who pegged Dylan’s music as “protest songs’ were actually never near the mark, but “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (or Else You Gotta Stay All Night)” and the other myriad seductions and kiss-offs represented here reveal clearly that Dylan’s lyrical subject matter came close as often to the preoccupations of early rock and roll as they did to social injustice (a quick listen to the Mermaid Avenue collections prove that this is true of Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie as well).
Dylan put it all out there that Halloween night. He was in strong, clear voice, and the crowd’s reverential quiet allows you to hear clearly the skill of his guitar playing (something that’s still rarely reported on about Dylan). Only a few times does the song seem to get away from him, as on “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” He seems so bent on making every word understood that a little of the song’s ferocity is lost. Joan Baez had her typical trouble harmonizing with Dylan on “Mama You Been on My Mind”-it’s his fault, not hers, since he never sings a song the same way twice. On this cut, remarkably, she makes fun of him after he drops a line, letting out an exaggerated Dylanesque wail. From there the two mumble reminders to each other about what verse they’re supposed to be singing and otherwise step on each other’s toes, but the crowd eats it up.
Live 1964 comes as close as anything can to providing someone like me, born 13 years after that concert, with a sense of what was in the air, and what it was like to see Bob Dylan as a young, obnoxious, brilliant rock star, rather than as this thing called a “legend.”