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Published: 2011/04/12
by Brian Robbins

Bob Dylan
In Concert – Brandeis University 1963

Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings

May 10, 1963 found a 21-year-old Bob Dylan’s name buried on the posters for a weekend folk festival at Waltham, MA’s Brandeis University. Folks like Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, and Jean Redpath were the headliners – the Dylan kid was one of the second-tier acts, with a chance to play two short solo sets.

At that point, Dylan’s debut album had been out a little over a year and hadn’t done a whole lot commercially. His sophomore effort – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – was still a couple of weeks away from being released when Dylan took the stage with his guitar, harmonicas, and neck rack. He didn’t have a name or a reputation to coast on – he was just another folk singer trying to make it. Dylan had to stand flat-footed and either win or lose the crowd on the merits of his performances that night.

In a move that would horrify most PR people nowadays, the songs Dylan doled out during his two sets had nothing to do with the album that was in the stores. Nor did he play many of the potential “hits” on the record about to be released. Anthems-to-be such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Don’t Think Twice”, or “Blowin’ In The Wind” were held back in favor of a mix of humor-laced talking blues and some mood-driven pieces. (“Masters of War” is the only song on this recording that would remain a staple in the Dylan catalog in the decades to come.) You could say that young Bob Dylan was about as commercially driven then as he is now … maybe even less so. The songs he played at Brandeis were songs he wanted to play; wanted to lay on the audience – not songs that would help promote his records.

And he played them well.

Luckily for us, someone was rolling tape that evening and captured Bob Dylan in action.

In Concert – Brandeis University 1963 includes seven songs taken from the evening’s two sets. We join the album-opening “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” already in progress as it lopes and chugs along; “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” closes things down with a blast of the young Bob’s dry wit, clever social commentary, dead-on timing and delivery. By the time he gets to the end of his tale of an innocent outing that went badly awry, the crowd is eating up every word; listening for the next one-liner tossed off between verses and roaring with laughter. In short, Dylan had them – they were totally his by the time he left the stage.

The hardest-hitting song of the evening’s performances was “Ballad of Hollis Brown”, documenting the despair and eventual mental breakdown of an impoverished South Dakota farmer. The guitar work is simple; the delivery is ominous and direct. Dylan’s lyrics make their case … and in the end, there seems to be no other way out than to reach for the shotgun:

There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm,
Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born

33 years later, Wilco would chronicle a character’s gradual mental breakdown in “Misunderstood”, letting the tension build throughout the song as waves of chaotic sound are used to good effect. In this performance of “Hollis Brown” Dylan accomplishes the same with nothing but the starkness of his voice and guitar.

Ah, that Dylan kid … he was good, wasn’t he? In Concert – Brandeis University 1963 is evidence of such.

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