Bob Dylan – [Album]

Sunday, 19 June 2011

In my mind, Bob Dylan's career really took off in 1965, when he strapped on an electric guitar and released Bringing It All Back Home. This is not just because I'm more of a rocker than a folkie, it's because his entire songwriting style changed at this point and allowed his true genius to come through. Everything before that was just prelude. Listening to this CD from a 1963 concert only confirms that feeling.

First, the basics. This is a previously unknown live recording of Dylan early in his career. The original tape was discovered in the basement of Ralph Gleason, founder of Rolling Stone magazine and an early supporter of Dylan. It captures the singer at a 1963 folk festival at Brandeis University. There is no information about who recorded it or how it came to be in Gleason's possession (it was discovered in his extensive collection of music artifacts after his death) available, nor is it clear how much of the concert was recorded, as the CD starts in the middle of a song ("Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance"), and is barely over forty minutes long. Still, although forty minutes (with an intermission in the middle) seems like a short concert by today's standards, it was more the norm in 1963, especially for a concert that was part of a festival. There is enough to present how Dylan sounded at that time, and enough that fans of Dylan's early folk period will definitely want this CD.

The sound quality is surprisingly good; it was obviously a professional recording, not an audience tape. The performance is dynamic, as Dylan reveals his talent and personality. He demonstrates both political conviction and a good sense of humor.

Even with that said though, as entertaining as they are, the songs here just don't compare to his later work. The songs do demonstrate Dylan's songwriting talents – clever wordplay and an ironic humor, and especially his storytelling ability, all of which would power his later works – but the difference is that those talents are put in the service of another agenda here: the political message of the songs. This is especially true on the "Talking Blues" numbers. Take "Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues,” which makes some strong points about the Red Scare of the time, but doesn't really move beyond the obvious. It also points out another problem with such political material: how quickly it can become dated. How many people today even know what the John Birch Society was, or what it stood for? Likewise, "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" is concerned with an event that members of the audience might remember, but which is completely lost in history today. Neither of these songs stand up very well today.

There are a couple of strong, lasting songs here, notably "Masters of War" which is subtle enough to carry the weight of its message, and remains disturbingly relevant today. Likewise, "Bob Dylan's Dream" is a more general song and actually points to one of the directions Dylan would take and maintain over the years following this show, in its criticism of black and white thinking along with its perception of the inevitable changing times.

Still, if one compares even these songs to the songs on Bringing It All Back Home, or any of his next few albums, the differences are stark. The key is that, in the later years, Dylan's talents are put in service of the song, not the message. That different approach would end up proving to be the thing that would allow the singer's music to be accessed by a much (much) larger group of listeners and, with out meaning to be coy, makes all the difference.



Bob Dylan in Concert: Brandeis University 1963 is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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