By Jeff Burger
A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Spirit of Radio, a box set of Bob Dylan interviews and performances dating from as long ago as 1962. Those were early days indeed for the former Mr. Zimmerman, but another collection turns the clock back even further: Carnegie Chapter Hall, which originally appeared in 2011 and is being reissued in May, captures Dylan in his first formal concert performance on Nov. 4, 1961, when he was all of 20 years old. At the time, he had been in New York for only about 10 months and was virtually unknown outside of Greenwich Village, where he was just starting to attract attention
A little over a month before this concert, Robert Shelton had published his now-famous New York Times rave review of a gig at the Village’s Gerde’s Folk City, in which he’d noted, “Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.” Those prescient words didn’t exactly lead to long lines at the Carnegie box office, however: according to the extensive notes that accompany this album, a mere 53 people showed up for the concert, paying $2 each for admission. (Folklore Center proprietor Izzy Young, the early Dylan fan who promoted the show, offered him $20 for his performance and he accepted half that amount.)
Aside from audio dropouts on the first cut, the sonic quality of this recording is generally excellent, especially given the age of the tape and the fact that it wasn’t recorded with a release in mind. Moreover, the 70-minute, 14-song program seems cohesive, even though it was patched together from bits and pieces: seven of its songs have been bootlegged for years, another five surfaced in 2004, and two more were discovered in 2008. (Tapes of eight additional songs from the show have never been found.)
The program includes versions of six of the 11 numbers that would wind up on Dylan’s eponymous March 1962 first LP: the traditional “Pretty Peggy-O” and “Gospel Plow”; John Lair’s “Freight Train Blues”; Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die”; and two originals, “Talkin’ New York,” Dylan’s humorous recounting of his efforts to make it as a musician, and “Song to Woody,” his Guthrie tribute. (On both of those tunes, the lyrics differ a bit from those on the debut album.) Also here are Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre,” whose melody“Song to Woody” echoes, and “Talking Merchant Marine”; Dylan’s “Man on the Street” and “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”; Joseph Newman’s “Black Cross”; Bessie Smith’s “Blackwater Blues”; and the traditional “A Long Time Comin’” and “In the Pines” (aka “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”).
Between songs, Dylan talks at some length to the audience, something he hasn’t done in decades. At one point, he says he hates including many of his own compositions because there are a lot of other good ones. Then he laughs and adds, “Put in a plug for my own songs here too, might as well.”
That rather self-deprecating comment notwithstanding, Dylan radiates self-confidence during the concert, perhaps partly because of the Shelton review and the fact that he signed with Columbia Records nine days before the gig. Throughout, also, his intense and highly personalized performances make clear what Shelton saw in him. I’d pay a whole lot more than $2 to have been in the audience.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Summer of Sorcery. Nils Lofgren, who has spent more than three decades in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, recently stepped from the shadows to issue his first solo album in eight years; now it’s the turn of Little Steven Van Zandt, who has been with Bruce even longer and is releasing his first solo collection of new and all-self-penned material in nearly two decades. (In 2017, he offered Soulfire, in which he reinterpreted songs from throughout his career.) To perhaps an even greater extent than Springsteen, Little Steven favors a wall-of-sound approach, and he achieves it on this album, which employs Phil Spector-like production flourishes and a powerful 14-member backup group that includes a full horn section and a trio of backup singers. It’s a party record from start to finish, and one that reflects Van Zandt’s wildly diverse influences—everything from 60s R&B and pop to mambo and the blues. The album is a little uneven but the highs are high indeed. Among them: “Love Again,” which Van Zandt describes as a Sam Cooke tribute; the catchy “A World of Our Own,” and, especially, the eight-minute, album-ending title cut, an exuberant number about the magic of a new summertime love.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.