When I first heard a bootlegged recording of Bob Dylan’s October 31, 1964, Philharmonic Hall concert, I was visiting a friend down in North Carolina about 16 months ago. It was a cold December week, and I was holed up inside my friend’s rented house, warming myself by the cozy space heater. The bootleg cassette was playing on the stereo, revealing a talkative Dylan alone with his guitar and harmonica before an attentive, receptive audience.
As is the case with many bootlegs, sound quality is often an issue. Poor sound does nothing to diminish the historic significance of such recordings, however, it certainly can color one’s first impressions of the recording. In my particular case, the aspects of the recording I remembered most clearly were not the songs performed, the comments made or the duets with Joan Baez in the second set. Rather, I remembered the massive amounts of hiss, a muffled fidelity beneath the hiss, and a running speed that was a tad too fast.
Fortunately, Columbia Records’ Legacy division has been preserving important “bootleg” Dylan recordings for posterity and making them available for legal purchase. The cassette I had heard 16 months ago is now available in strikingly clear fidelity as The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 – Concert at Philharmonic Hall (Columbia/Legacy), released March 30.
Gone is the ever present hiss of umpteenth generation cassettes. The speed is now as it was the day it was recorded. Most importantly, every subtle nuance of the performance can be clearly heard, making it far easier to concentrate on the actual content of the performance.
And what content!
Dylan was playing before an audience in New York, which at that point in his career was his adopted home. He had made his name as a rising young folk singer, though he was quickly outgrowing the tiny box of that category. This night was very likely the first time many in attendance had heard “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan’s psychedelic masterpiece that would become a huge hit for the Byrds the following year.
Though few knew it at the time, this song marked the end of the era of Dylan the folk singer. He had immersed himself in his childhood love of rock n’ roll and was in tune with contemporary developments in the genre.
The solo acoustic arrangement of “Mr. Tambourine Man” belied this fact, but in a matter of months Dylan would himself become a rock star and contribute significantly to the development of rock n’ roll.
It’s so easy to see this now, in hindsight. However, it wasn’t so easy at the time, since Dylan’s hardcore folkie audience was still getting plenty of what it wanted at his concerts. Songs like “The Times They Are A Changin’,” “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” had become legendary among his fans, and he gave them what they wanted.
Dylan was in a great mood at this concert, engaging the audience with between-song chatter, something that has been absent from his concerts for decades. He performed a handful of songs that were new or left off of his previous albums for one reason or another. “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” was a satirical look at the McCarthy-inspired John Birch Society and their fear of communists. It was axed from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Columbia) due to Columbia not wanting to be targeted with a libel suit. However, Dylan unapologetically performed the song in concert, much to the audience’s quite audible delight.
“Who Killed Davy Moore?” and “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay Up All Night)” were two other unreleased tunes that went over very well. The latter in particular, with its humorous verses from a sex-hungry man to an indecisive woman, elicited laughter from the audience.
Along with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan gave his captive Halloween audience two more previews of his then-still-unfinished album, Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia), in the form of “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” The latter, interestingly, was introduced as “It’s
alright Ma, it’s life and life only.”
When Bringing It All Back Home was finally released in 1965, the three tunes performed on this night would occupy most of side two, the album’s “acoustic side.” Side one, filled with mostly electric rock n’ roll numbers like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” would divide the folkies while adding a whole new segment of the population to Dylan’s audience. This divide would be further emphasized with the release of Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia) in 1966 and its accompanying world tour, which featured a first set of solo acoustic performances and a second set of full-on rock.
This simultaneously popular and controversial era of Dylan’s career has been well documented in an earlier installment of the legal Dylan “bootleg” series, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy).