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Masked and Anonymous

Bob Dylan
Bootleg Series Volume 6: Live 1964—Concert at Philharmonic Hall (Sony)

‘Don’t let that scare you. . . . It’s just Halloween, [and] I have my Bob Dylan mask on,” jokes the nascent poet-philosopher upon finishing a harrowing debut of his newest composition, “Gates of Eden.” The night before All Saints Day, when martyred Christian spirits are said to return, Dylan himself was on the eve of a very unusual, certainly unpredictable greatness, one that would permanently change the face of music and popular culture. The Manhattanite folkheads who trekked uptown to see their princely boy genius had every reason in the world to be a bit scared, if not suspicious.

Just weeks after the release of Another Side of Bob Dylan, the last and most self-reflective of his early solo albums, autumn 1964 found Dylan smack between phase one and phase two of his career. Outgrowing the conventions of protest-folk, Dylan was in the process of abandoning his still-precocious themes of politics and love, ready to dive headfirst into his own mind, chasing epic, LSD-drenched visions and single-shot imagery. Supplement that with an electric rhythm section, and you’ve got the man behind rock’s first major revolution.

But on Halloween night, minus a few duets with Joan Baez, Bob was still standing on stage alone, with rock & roll still a dream or two away. The night finds Dylan in unusually high spirits, playing with a relaxed fervor, ribbing the audience and generally enjoying being Bob Dylan. The then-standard opener “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” played with an almost flimsy seriousness, arouses the aura of gravitas lite that would characterize the evening. Dylan appears to be trying out his newest persona for one of the first times—the Beaujolais-swilling hipster-romantic, bored with it all yet still discerning. He sounds livelier, wittier, happier and more detached than ever before. His slack cool manages to fix the spotlight on the songs rather than himself, effortlessly playing with heart and top skill. In effect, he’s learning to free himself from the weight that comes with the burdensome fact of performing as Bob Dylan.

It’s that masked presence that also helps Dylan jump so casually between songs of such varying and profound subject matters. From moral refereeing (“Who Killed Davey Moore?” “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) to paranoid social digs (“John Birch Paranoia Blues,” “World War III Blues”), to love and love’s dissolution (“To Ramona,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe”), Dylan sounds fully relaxed switching up his thematic gears. Maybe it’s because the audience has the material virtually memorized, as if the actual communication act had already occurred, and Dylan can just lie back and play the Pied Piper.

The Dylan-Baez duets near the show’s close (an interesting listen if only because the two were lovers at the time) see Dylan’s easy-goin’ snarl still command top bill to Baez’s overzealous, near-maniacal belting. Despite being a bit annoying, her presence really adds a pleasant harmony, normally unwelcomed by Dylan’s plain-faced aesthetic. Bearing in mind our modern-day clash of jihad-meets-“God continuing to bless America,” their version of “With God on Our Side” stands as blankly poignant as ever.

Overall, this show is a nearly perfect document, thanks in part to a crystal-clear recording tape. Dylan’s vocals sound truly beautiful (note: anyone who says they would like Dylan “but can’t get past his voice” has never really sat and listened to him). Even the most casual Dylan fan would be remiss to not check out this rapturous performance—an excellent slice of a fully actualized Bob Dylan, Version 1.0.

—John Suvannavejh

Steve Kuhn
Promises Kept (ECM)

Performing and recording for more than 50 years, pianist Steve Kuhn has had a career marked by quiet audaciousness. At age 13 he was hired by baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff to play in his band, and then spent the rest of his teens working in Boston jazz clubs, backing everyone from Coleman Hawkins to Chet Baker. His further explorations and studies found him folding European classicism into the mix, which had become part of his singular voice as both a player and a composer by the time of his first trio in the ’60s (with drummer Pete LaRoca and bassist Steve Swallow).

Promises Kept is the result of a longstanding desire by Kuhn to record with strings (perhaps the promise referenced in the title was made to himself). The natural fit of his compositional inclinations, as well as his thoughtfully articulated playing, makes it clear why he’s seen this desire through to fruition. Six new pieces composed specifically for this album are joined by four earlier ones (including the mesmerizing “Life’s Backward Glance”), here expanded to allow for the added buoyancy of the 15-piece string section. Kuhn isn’t merely a centerpiece in this set, he’s a graceful component in its gentle orchestral sweep.

—David Greenberger

Jawbreaker
Dear You (Expanded Reissue) (Blackball)

They sold out—at least that’s what the kids said. Jawbreaker’s first three albums were solid slabs of heart-on-sleeve, indie-mope-punk that found their way straight to the margins of many a notebook in the early ’90s and stirred a great deal of “next Nirvana” predictions in the post-Nevermind major-label feeding frenzy. When the band decided to go ahead and make the big leap to a major label (DGC) for their fourth record in 1995, the kids cried foul, all but turning their backs on their former heroes. It’s almost as if they were about-facing a lyric from Jawbreaker’s flagship song “Boxcar” right back at them: “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone.” In the end, the kids won, so to speak—Jawbreaker disbanded following the touring cycle for Dear You. In an ironic, but not wholly surprising display of fickleness, there was great lament over their loss from the same too-cool-for-school types who phooied the album’s very existence.

So what was all the fuss about? A pretty darn good album-that-should just didn’t get the attention it truly deserved, that’s what. A recognized progenitor of today’s emo scene, Dear You was a bold step forward for the band who, admittedly, betray some of their earlier youthful quirkiness, instead emphasizing some serious power-pop leanings. At the time of its release, the album was a refreshing change of pace in a growing sea of grunge hangers-on and character-free alternative rock, and nearly 10 years later, songs like “Chemistry,” “Oyster” and “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault” still stand head and shoulders above most of the whine-heavy pop-punk today.

There’s a tunefulness and introspection in Dear You’s original 13 tracks that delineates a clear path from the band’s scruffy punk pedigree to the more wide-eyed pop of Blake Schwarzenbach’s current project, Jets to Brazil. Sure, his characteristic rasp is less pronounced here than on earlier recordings, but it’s a fair bet that moving toward a smoother vocal sound not only benefited his melodic leanings, but may also have saved him from needing some pricey throat surgery down the line. Rob Cavallo’s snappy production gives a lustrous sheen to the snarling guitars and Adam Pfahler’s Bonham-sized drumming. That’s not to say the album is edgeless—the cacophonous intro to “Fireman” and the abrasive arpeggiating of “Accident Prone” and “Jet Black” are as much Sonic Youth as they are Green Day.

Long out-of-print on CD—it was fetching upwards of $80 on eBAY in recent years—Dear You has finally been reissued on Pfahler’s Blackball Records label. The newly “expanded” version features vastly augmented artwork and five additional tracks, including a smartly chosen cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Into You Like a Train,” and a revamped “Boxcar” that almost found its way to the original release. Shame that it didn’t—a line like “My enemies are all too familiar, they’re the ones who used to call me friend” would have been all-too-apropos at the time—but its inclusion now adds a fitting postscript to a band who, hopefully, will be more than just a footnote.

—John Brodeur


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