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New CDs: a Dylan classic, a subdudes revival

Stewart Oksenhorn

Here are two trips back in time worth taking. The subdudes – reunited and it sounds so good – have released their first studio CD in eight years. And a two-CD set finds a young Bob Dylan strutting into a posh New York City venue and charming an audience.

The subdudes, “Miracle Mule”

produced by the subdudes and Freddy Koella (Back Porch)

There were a whole lot of reasons given for the 1997 breakup of the subdudes. Singer-guitarist Tommy Malone told me he wanted to play more electric guitar, which didn’t fit in with the band’s acoustic roots rock. Singer-keyboardist John Magnie said the band burst from not reaching the expected commercial heights. A friend of mine, a big fan of the ‘dudes, said recently that he heard about some bad dealings on the corporate front.

But one thing you never heard was that the subdudes had hit the end of the trail artistically. “Miracle Mule” finds three-quarters of the original band – all but bassist Johnny Ray Allen – picking up just where they left off. Everything that people treasured about the original quartet is intact: soulful harmonies, subtle dynamics, well-crafted songs, a laid-back vibe built on acoustic guitars and the incomparably vibrant tambourine of Steve Amedee.

The ‘dudes are at their subdued, minimalist best on “Known to Touch Me,” a heartfelt exploration of the world’s wonders. The band stretches into new territory with “Standin’ Tall,” a honky-tonker about reaching out to the world. It’s all so good that when Malone sings “I’m Angry” – “I’m angry/’cause I thought that your heart was true/… angry ’cause I still love you” – he might be thinking about those seven years the band lost to who knows what.

Bob Dylan, “The Bootleg Series, Vol 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall”

(Columbia/Legacy)

It’s 1964, and Bob Dylan is riding high with raging, finger-pointing songs. The 23-year-old, the sensation of the politicized folk-music world, is playing in the folkie hotbed of New York City, his adopted hometown, at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), the most upscale venue of the day. Onstage with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, Dylan sings protests (“Who Killed Davey Moore?” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), apocalyptic visions (“With God on Our Side,” “Gates of Eden,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”) and anti-love songs (“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met”), “It Ain’t Me, Babe”).

So why is the Dylan onstage Halloween night of 1964 of such jolly good spirits? Throughout this perfect-sounding, impeccably played two-CD set, Dylan talks casually with the audience, tells jokes, laughs constantly and generally seems like a guy you’d love to have a backstage beer with. After stumbling over the beginning of “I Don’t Believe You,” he asks, “Does anyone know the first verse to this song?” Before the “All I Really Want to Do” encore, a fan calls out for “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” “God, did I record that?” laughs Dylan. “Is that a protest song?”

He’s even a perfect gentleman with Joan Baez, who joins him on four songs; on “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” presumably written as a kiss-off to Baez, the two seem to giggle their way through the tune.

The answer to Dylan’s engaged, buoyant mood is that “Concert at Philharmonic Hall” catches Dylan in one of those critical transition moments – not unlike the notorious Newport Folk Festival the following year, when Dylan famously plugged in. Dylan in late ’64 is not the Dylan of his first three, politically oriented albums. Earlier that year, he had released “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” which featured more personal, and more humorous, songs. His next album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” was just a few months away. That groundbreaking work would include such definitive, ambiguous songs as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Gates of Eden,” both of which are previewed here. In late October of 1964, Dylan was breaking free from his earnest folk-movement roots but was not just yet the acid poet-jester captured in the documentary film “Don’t Look Back,” from the spring 1965 tour of Britain.

This is Dylan finding his way from one thing to another, from part of the pack to something that had never been seen before. As Dylan says here, apropos of Halloween and much more, “I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m masquerading.”

Dylan seems to be enjoying the process of transformation, and he uses his looseness to bring all kinds of emotion to the songs. “If You Got to Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got to Stay All Night)” gets all the sly, sexual innuendo of the song. “Gates of Eden” is full of foreboding; “All I Really Want to Do” is playful as can be, Dylan literally howling the chorus to audience laughter.

This is essential Dylan, on a par with “Live 1966,” the so-called “Albert Hall Concert” with Dylan backed by the Band. A bonus here is the thick booklet with an essay by Sean Wilentz, the American historian who attended the Philharmonic Hall concert as a 13-year-old.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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