Author's note: I originally wanted to call this a "Special Event", but seriously - calling it a "Special Post" seems pompous enough. As promised, the first of a series of non-song posts to the blog.
If there is one well-worn Musical Critic Cliche out there, it's this one: "Why do artists bother releasing live albums?" You get the feeling that the typical rock critic, upon receiving a package with yet another live album in it, fetches a massive sigh, adjusts his massive horn-rim glasses (*cough*), tugs on his sweater vest, and stares down at his fashionably holey skinny-leg jeans in aggravation and disgust. And let's be frank - they've got a point. What do most live albums amount to? A bunch of songs you've already heard, played anywhere from competently to sloppily to without the slightest trace of emotion, in front of crowds that scream obnoxiously through most of the performance. You could go ahead and toss most of them in the garbage, unless you're a rabid fan of the band in question and never did get to see them at the Spectrum that night in 1976.
The really interesting live albums, the one that justify their existence, usually have a few certain things going for them. They might be a performance of such massive historical importance that their musical merits are almost completely unimportant; Hendrix's Woodstock performance is beset by bad miking, nerves, and a shitload of jamming, but I'd never suggest that the show isn't worth hearing simply because it was Hendrix at Woodstock, for Christ's sake. They might be a performance so incredibly good that to leave them unheard would be a crime against music lovers; Jerry Lee Lewis' Star Club set is amazing for the way Lewis and his band tears through the set like a scythe cutting down stalks of wheat, the kind of show you pray to God you'll see every time you buy a ticket. Or it might be a performance where the songs so differ from the well-known album versions that they change the way you think about them; the second set of The Name Of This Band is Talking Heads recasts Remain in Light (and some of their older back catalog) as an even looser, funkier, and vicious collection of art-funk songs, with Adrian Belew coaxing alien squeaks and futuristic noises from his guitar. There are precious few live albums (At Folsom Prison/At San Quentin, Live at Santa Monica 1972, How The West Was Won) that reaches those heights, but the ones that do aren't just exceptional adjuncts to an artist's career, but every bit as important as any of their studio albums.
And then we have Bob Dylan, whose very career could very well be defined more by his live performances than his studio albums, who managed to remake himself as an artist on stage with virtually ever new tour that he undertook. And many of his live albums bear the mark of his genius, standing as worthy companions to the Electric Trilogy or Blood on the Tracks. Live 1975 recasts some of his greatest songs under the milieu of the Rolling Thunder Revue, possibly his finest moment as a performing artist. Before the Flood (arguably) catches Dylan at his most incendiary, firing off words like bullets as The Band snarls and roars behind him. Of course, Live 1966 manages to capture all three of the previously noted live album merits in one package; historical ("Judas!" ring a bell?), song reimagining (even the acoustic songs are markedly different in ways from the originals), and performance-wise (no further explanation necessary). Columbia, for their more despicable marketing practices, have done well by Dylan fans to put out more of his live stuff, exposing more people to the part of his career least represented by his official canon. To be able to hear this stuff now is nothing short of a blessing.
One of the more recent releases, and still one of the best and most importance, is the famous and beloved Philharmonic Hall 1964 show, where Dylan captivated a packed house at the height of his fame as an acoustic artist and leader of the folk movement. I'd heard the show before its official release on bootleg (I'd bet most of you had as well), but to have it in an official capacity means that much more, because now such an incredible performance is available to more than just the privileged few and those that can work Soulseek or have $50 to burn on bootlegs. But what I'm most grateful for in this show's release is that such a performance of incredible historical merit can be heard and digested by the general public. Live 1964, on top of being an astounding performance, catches Bob at a crossroads in his career, pulling away from the folk movement, immersing himself in drugs, and starting to leap into the unknown that his electric career really was (after all, it was no given that he would be successful in that arena). He may have looked like the Bob Dylan that sang "The Times They Are A-Changin'", but his mind was a million miles away from where it was when he wrote that song.
You listen to Dylan on that Halloween night in 1964, alone with only an acoustic guitar and his voice, and it's difficult not to marvel at how big and well-respected Dylan had to have been at that point in his career. As I've mentioned here, I've performed at my share of open mics, usually just with a guitar and my voice, and there is nothing harder than captivating an audience when that's all you've got at your disposal. It doesn't help that even after 10 years my guitar playing skills would best be described as "acceptable", but even if I was David Rawlings or Tim Reynolds with an acoustic, there's only so many ways you can hold attention when you're just by yourself. That, to me, is that what makes Dylan keeping an entire audience at rapt attention so extraordinary. I mean, yes, he's got some of the greatest songs anyone's ever written at his disposal, but you've still got to go out there and perform them sans accoutrement and hope the audience doesn't get bored and start talking to each other and falling asleep and whatever. And yes, the audience expected him to go out there by himself and wanted him to perform solo, but you'd expect even his most hardcore fans to get a little squirrelly 90 minutes into a two-hour solo performance (with a 15 minute break), right? That never happens, mainly because Dylan's lyrics are so incredible, and also because he could make the audience laugh as well (especially in "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"). That ability to keep an audience in so firm a grip is something that will always amaze me.
Then there's Dylan's setlist, which has two different aspects that contribute to making this such a damn cool show to listen to. The first thing is that Dylan is absolutely unafraid to play songs that hadn't been released yet, even if some people in the audience (or most - "John Birch"'s notoriety was such that a lot of people cheered for it) hadn't heard the songs. This is nothing new amongst artists - hell, Ryan Adams would play sets chock full of new songs, written anywhere from months before the show to some time during sound check. Of course, none of those songs are a "Mr. Tambourine Man", so a little perspective needs to be used here. Dylan hadn't released "Gates of Eden" or "It's Alright, Ma" by the time of the show, but he performed them all the same, and the audience was just as amazed then as the people that bought Bringing It All Back Home would be the following year. It takes gumption to perform songs that intricate, hard to comprehend, and head-spinningly dazzling as those without prior knowledge, and it says a lot about Dylan that he had that kind of gumption.
The other part of the setlist that appeals to me is that there's a legitimate dearth of protest songs, the supposed reason for Dylan to be on that stage in the first place. I mean, you've got the big ones like "The Times", "Hard Rain" (a protest song in name only, really), "Hattie Carroll", and "With God On Our Side" (as well as "Who Killed Davey Moore?", which is a protest song but not what you'd call a big one), but it's really surprising how little Freewheelin' and especially The Times are represented in the show. Another Side, as the newest current album, gets a lot of attention, which is noteworthy enough - you think the folk crowd was a little puzzled that "I Don't Believe You" got play but "Only A Pawn In Their Game" didn't? But you also have the new songs, none of which have anything overt to do with politics, and "Mama, You Been On My Mind", and "If You Gotta Go, Go Now", and many other songs that are all about Dylan's view of the world and not about, well, the world. Even the inevitable Joan Baez cameo is restricted to four songs, only one of which is a protest song, and one of which is a traditional. To me, the key to the whole set is "Spanish Harlem Incident", both because it's in the setlist at all (no "Blowin' In The Wind"???), and because Dylan approaches the song with full focus and delivers a strong performance. To him, nailing that song was as important as nailing any of the others, and it's a very interesting thing to hear indeed.
And all of this would mean absolutely nothing if it wasn't for the performance. Dylan is loose, playful, goofy, charming, and as funny as you would expect the guy who wrote "All I Really Want To Do" (a perfect closer for this type of show) should be. The fact that he was almost certainly as stoned as your typical Phish concertgoer probably helped; one listen to the "I Don't Believe You" intro (the guitar strums to buy time while he thinks of the first verse) or Bob fucking with Joan's rhythm during "Mama, You Been On My Mind" shows his frame of mind, and is hard not to outright laugh at. Perhaps, then, it's for the best that he didn't play some of his more somber songs - imagine "When The Ship Comes In" being introduced by that infamous "I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask" rejoinder? And it's probable that Dylan, in his frame of mind, had no desire to play those songs anyway. Dylan, on that night in 1964, wasn't thinking about his responsibilities as a Leading Lamp of the Folk Movement or about the painful shit that concerned him the year before. He was out to have himself one damn good time. And that's exactly what he did.
It is worth considering that, when you get right down to it, this show was an aberration in a career littered with aberrations. There's none of the attention paid to the protest songs from 1963 (take, for example, his earlier Carnegie Hall show, exactly the sort of set you'd expect Folkie Bob to perform), or the backwards-thinking Don't Look Back shows catering to an audience still a year behind, or (obviously) the electric blasts of 1965 and 1966. In this regard, most especially of all, we see a Bob Dylan in transition, not sure what his next move should be, but still making a move nonetheless. Live 1964 takes a snapshot of a night where Dylan, one foot in his past and another in his future, managed to hold an audience enraptured by his guitar, his voice, and his songs. We'd never get another show quite like it, and that makes me all the happier to have this one.