By Mark Guarino
Bob Dylan, “Live at the Gaslight 1962” (Sony Legacy/Columbia) 4 stars
Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home: The Soundtrack — The Bootleg Series Vol. 7” (Sony Legacy/Columbia) 3 stars
As Bob Dylan moves forward on his neverending tour schedule, his archivists are busy looking back. This fall, a bonanza of Dylan recordings are due, thanks both to a PBS documentary airing this weekend and also to the Starbucks coffee chain that is busy scouring exclusive music products to exclusively sell along with their double skim lattes.
Dylan-ologists drool when it comes to the Gaslight Tapes, long coveted bootlegs that showcase Dylan on the folk room circuit in New York City’s Greenwich Village. This official release, available only in Starbucks stores for the first 18 months of release, rounds up ten such tracks (hey Sony, why not more?), all pristine recordings before a crowd of dozens whose rapt attention is frozen in time. Dylan was 21 when he played these songs live and already it was obvious he was starting to veer away from Woody Guthrie’s footsteps and into his own stride. For hardcore fans, the album contains the earliest known recordings of two Dylan originals, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all Right,” two songs that would appear on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” his second album, in 1963.
The majority of the setlist are handed-down folk tunes about winos, drugs and murder — dark stuff for a baby-faced kid from Minnesota who glowed like an urchin on the cover of his debut album just one year earlier. Yet Dylan is rising up into maturity here. On “West Texas” he growls like someone three times his age, on “Cocaine” he mocks his fingers that speed past his control. Depressive folk blues like “Rocks and Gravel” and “Moonshiner” are so deliberately spooky that when Dylan moans, “the whole world is a bottle/and life is but a drip,” there’s little argument in return. He obviously is at a point where the songs are inside him, ready to fuel a lifetime of originals to follow (one line from “The Cuckoo” — “the cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies” is recycled on his 2001 album, “Love and Theft”). For anyone wanting an early glimpse of Dylan working out before taking flight, this is it.
Martin Scorsese is the unexpected force behind the seventh installment of Dylan’s long-running bootleg series. This one is designed to compliment the filmmaker’s current PBS documentary (also out on DVD), which traces Dylan’s Minnesota roots up through his electric transformation and Europe barnstorming. The story has been told many times and while it is surely the most seminal chapter in Dylan’s career, the concentration of music on this two-CD set is too familiar that even these outtakes and live cuts feel inconsequential and oversaturated.
Which does not mean there are not a few rewards. The set starts out in Dylan’s home state where a 1959 home recording of “When I Got Troubles,” an early original, is a peek into the boy who would later hit the rails for New York. The performance of the threadbare blues is nervous and sloppy, a rarity considering the cocksure performer he would become in just months. The set also includes two songs from the infamous “Minnesota Hotel Tape” bootleg, recorded in Minneapolis. “I Was Young When I Left Home,” an original woven with borrowed lyrics, is hypnotic and sad which makes sense considering the tenuous time in his life that gave it birth.
The better half of the set concentrates on Dylan’s electric transformation through albums “Blonde On Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” two periods that were better represented in previous installments in the series. Here, you can witness experimentation — “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” was once a knuckle-dragging blues tune, “Visions of Johanna” was amped up with a full band — but the real star of these studio sessions is guitarist Mike Bloomfield. His burning guitar fills give these songs flight, especially on the Newport Folk Festival version of “Maggie’s Farm” where his guitar squeals over the Butterfield Blues Band’s creeping rhythm. Pouncing after emcee Peter Yarrow’s schoolteacher chiding (“gentlemen, please don’t play for a second, thank you”), the band is lean and mean, a new, hungry force to be reckoned with in 1964 and strangely enough, still innovative today.