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Anniversaries ending in zero tend to be big deals in the music industry, and such deals don't get much bigger than the birthdays of Bob Dylan, who turns 70 on May 24, and the blues pioneer Robert Johnson, who would've been 100 on May 8. Fittingly, Columbia/Legacy is marking both occasions with new releases.
Well, somewhat new. Dylan's acoustic In Concert: Brandeis University 1963 is obviously 48 years old. And neither The Centennial Collection (Johnson's complete recordings re-mastered) nor The Complete Original Masters: Centennial Edition (a limited-edition box set of Johnson 10-inches plus The Centennial Collection and a 1997 documentary and two discs of Johnson-era blues and Texas roots music) presents much that hasn't long been available.
The Dylan concert, however, can at least be said to have never been released. In fact, its tapes weren't even known to exist until last year when they were discovered in the effects of the late music critic Ralph Gleason. Recorded mere weeks before his 22nd birthday and the release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (the album that would make him famous), In Concert captures Dylan on the cusp of completing his transition from a precocious Greenwich Village waif to a generational spokesman nonpareil.
It isn't the songs themselves, which Dylan fans already own in one version or another, that make the performance feel alive so much as their context. For the most part, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Talkin' World War III Blues," and "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" have been regarded as the comic relief of Dylan's civil-rights-anthem phase. But at Brandeis they took up almost half the show, making "Masters of War" and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" feel like bones obligatorily tossed to the protest-hungry audience lest it think Dylan lacked gravitas.
The talking-blues punch lines did get a reaction, but the laughs were tentative, unlike the guffaws captured on other, later Dylan recordings of the songs. It's as if the young liberals who had paid $4.40 ($32 in today's devalued currency) to hear Pete Seeger, the Jeans Redpath and Ritchie, and the then little-known Dylan weren't sure, what with the country's increasingly strained race relations and the heating up of the Cold War, that it was OK to laugh.
Yet Dylan was clearly savoring his jokes and in so doing foreshadowing what would eventually be a long career of creating audience expectations only to defy them. In light of the headlines he has recently generated by not playing "Blowin' in the Wind" in China, In Concert serves as a reminder that giving people what they want as opposed to what he thinks they need has never been high, if anywhere, on Dylan's list of priorities.
As for Johnson, all that he most likely cared about when he recorded his entire 42-song output in 1936 and 1937 was making enough money to afford the booze and women that were the main perquisites of his itinerant 27-year life. Yet he was also genuinely talented and affecting, so much so that he was rumored to have acquired his gifts in a bargain with the Devil.
Less well known, and what Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?, the documentary included with The Complete Original Masters, establishes, is that when he was agonizingly dying from poison surreptitiously administered by a jealous husband, Johnson begged Jesus for forgiveness, even putting his request into writing.
To a certain kind of irony lover, the preservation of that episode alone will make the box's $349 price tag seem like just the thing in which to invest one's IRS refund.