A Halloween treat: Bob Dylan at Philharmonic Hall, New York City, October 31, 1964

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[Bob Dylan gave his Halloween 1964 concert 50 years ago tonight. Tapes of this performance were a coveted bootleg among collectors for many years. Sony issued the set in 2004, as an entry in the Bootleg Series — which continues with the pending release of The Basement Tapes Complete on November 4, 2014.]

October 1964 appeared to be a tough time for Bob Dylan. The previous August saw the release of his fourth LP, Another Side of Bob Dylan, an album which stridently marked a new thematic direction for New York City’s folk idol. Although hating the new record’s accurate title, Dylan was purposefully shedding the mantle of political lightening rod and protest singer. Instead of commenting on social injustices, here was a collection of odd love songs and brooding introspections. These solo performances are, typical for Bob during this era, engaging and inspired. But the songs! An eight-minute diatribe about his ex-girlfriend’s sister, a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho plot, lusty musical longings, and advice directed toward former lovers and would-be friends. Including more than a few strange moments, the album was met with furrowed brows by Dylan aficionados expecting songs of protest that railed against society’s injustices.

Another Side of Bob Dylan of remains an oddity of the Dylan canon. Although containing two of his most recognizable tunes (“All I Really Want to Do” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe”), the unusual nature of the album extended to its very sound — a surprisingly strident and brittle aura that seemed “to cry out for electricity,” to quote a good line from a critic whose name I have long since forgotten. The new record did not appear to present a logical extension of his previous album, The Times They Are A-Changin’,” released just six months before. Here, the listener must retune expectations or get off the train. And the Dylan trip was really just getting under way.

Perhaps Dylan was affected by the negative press and hard feelings over the new LP. He rarely if ever performed most of these songs live. The New York City Halloween concert of 1964 is apparently the only place he has ever performed “Spanish Harlem Incident,” and even with this song’s inclusion in his set that night, he still played less than half of his new record’s selections. Even the great “My Back Pages” and “Chimes of Freedom” go unperformed. But happy or not with his recent past, on this night Bob was looking toward the future. Although his next album (Bringing It All Back Home) would not come out for five months after this concert, Dylan performs three major centerpiece numbers from that unreleased work, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and premiering “The Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Yet even while offering a sometimes challenging program, Dylan courts the crowd beautifully. Switching between selections hoped-for and songs unknown, he offers the audience several unreleased older jewels that would have been highlights on any other artist’s album of the time, including “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and “Momma, You Been on My Mind.” The former he places between the two new heavy numbers of the night (“Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma”), to allow the audience to breath, no doubt. Along with these more linear love songs, he also performs two of the protest songs that were long-withheld from official release — “Who Killed Davey Moore” and Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues.”

And while he mixes the old with the newer-than-new, Dylan’s instincts never fail him concerning pace and balance. Listen closely to the opening of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” He begins the guitar lines for “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” but stops and mutters, “Nah … I can’t …; I’ll do this instead,” and proceeds with a fine version of “Hard Rain.” Hollis Brown’s individual plight no longer spoke to him; it was confining. “Hard Rain” contains lyrics which refuse to focus on one man or a specific incident, instead suggesting a number of strikingly complex, yet more universal interpretations. This rich, apocalyptic selection is the prototype from which the evening’s three new songs evolve, and offers the most important early example of his “chains of flashing images,” as Dylan himself described his lyrics to the late Ralph J. Gleason.

Although on a different plane from this dense new material, Dylan gives strong readings to the few songs he does sing from Another Side of Bob Dylan. “To Ramona” sounds like a true plea for the woman to help herself, and he uses the opening of “I Don’t Believe You” to lighten the serious mood which “It’s Alright, Ma” has created. (I maintain that the alleged forgetfulness bit at the start of “I Don’t Believe You” is a clever crowd-control ruse of an experienced performer.) And given the strong rendition of the previously mentioned “Spanish Harlem Incident,” one can only wonder why this number immediately fell out of Dylan’s active repertoire. Still, Bob did not ignore the new Another Side LP. Both “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “All I Really Want to Do” were deemed strong enough even at the time of their release to close the concert and to use as an encore.

I have often said that the young Bob Dylan had talent dripping from his fingertips. This Halloween 1964 recording is not a performance by that Dylan. Instead, this is a maturing Dylan in a creative growth spurt, and during this show we hear him evolve right before our ears. In hindsight, it is perhaps ironic that on his then most-recent, and somewhat scorned LP, Bob is explaining his situation as straightforwardly as any artist can be expected to. He insists to those who want him to be their eternal folk champion, “It ain’t me, babe. It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for.” And to those who won’t forgive him for not including overt finger-pointing political songs on the new record, he tries to cast aside their heated disappointment, explaining, “But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”

Yes, perhaps these were tough months for Dylan. His most recent LP had such a hostile reception that longtime fans worried, and the artist himself would rarely acknowledge many of these songs at concerts for decades to come. Yet, the attitude Dylan displays at this show is positively buoyant. He is writing some of the best songs of his career, and immediately showing them to his fans. In fact, the inclusion of a large number of new and unfamiliar selections was a gutsy move. He could have easily relied on a pure oldies show, which he clearly refused, and still refuses to perform. (Notice here, for example, the omission of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” then his most recognizable anthem.)

The summer following this concert, Dylan will release the partially electric Bringing It All Back Home, and will front a rock band at the Newport Folk Festival. The October 1964 performance heard here is an important link between Bobby Dylan, the folk darling of Greenwich Village, and Dylan the electric traitor. Neither label was ever accurate, of course. But this concert demonstrates that with such a talented individual as Bob Dylan, not even his own devoted audience could possibly know what to expect from him, and would struggle with their own reaction to his changing art. What is indisputably clear from this recording is the fact that a young man — armed with only a guitar, a harmonica, and his own original songs — was able to hold an audience rapt for more than 90 minutes; I still find this wildly impressive. As the audience in the hall that night demonstrates, the wisest and most rewarding thing one can do is to listen to the concert with a focus and intensity that matches Dylan’s breathtaking performance.

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