2007 was an eventful year for the living folk rock legend known as Bob Dylan (a.k.a. Robert Allen Zimmerman). He continues to tour at the ripe old age of 66, and last year shared stages with Elvis Costello, an influential veteran songwriter in his own right who has been doing his act for three decades.
This was also the year of Dylan tributes, in the form of the very well received movie and
soundtrack I’m Not There and retrospectives like the triple disc set Dylan. He also recently re-recorded “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” exclusively for the Expo Zaragoza 2008 world fair in Spain, which is designed to help the Zaragoza economy and work towards maintaining clean and safe water there. And a new original song, “Huck’s Tune” appeared on the soundtrack to the 2007 film Lucky You.
As for this treasure, which was released late last year, The Other Side Of The Mirror captures previously unseen and raw footage of a young Bob Dylan performing some of his most legendary songs over a three-year span in Newport, Rhode Island. By the end of this run, he broke new ground for popular music, became an influential folk and rock star, and won over legions of fans in the process.
Followers of folk music were just getting to know Dylan on a national stage by 1963. His rather simple guitar work, matched with dynamic and extremely gifted lyrical talent related and spoke to the “counterculture” of the time, and wasn’t afraid to be political or question the status quo of society (“Blowin’ In The Wind” comes to mind, for example). And though he was not yet the biggest star on the scene, he had started to build a following and establish musical relationships with some highly respected singers who were successful in their own right.
The beautiful and powerful voice of Joan Baez shows up with Dylan on quite a few of the nearly 20 performances in this DVD. One of the highlights of these early collaborations was when she, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Freedom Singers joined Dylan for a powerful, gospel-ish version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” during his 1963 appearance at Newport. Talk about a sign of the times, it was a true blend of racial and musical harmony, performed during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.
Baez also joined Bob — or “Bobby” as she once called him — during the antiwar ditty “With God On Our Side” early in his 1963 outdoor set (July 26 afternoon workshop). Together, their loud and in tune voices drowned out Dylan’s slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitar (for the most part). Perhaps because of the guitar sound, Academy Award-winning director/producer Murray Lerner seamlessly switched to the July 28 night performance about halfway through the song.
At the 1964 Fest, country music giant Johnny Cash sung Dylan’s praises and called him the best songwriter since Pete Seeger. Seeing the “Man In Black” sing a clip of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” on this DVD was a pleasant surprise. And Dylan, a true showman by this stage, gave the nighttime crowd (July 26) a rousing, show-closing version of “Chimes Of Freedom” on harmonica and guitar. Afterwards, it was funny watching the poor stage announcer getting frustrated with an audience that wanted more Dylan and didn’t give a hoot for whoever was coming next. Dylan did come back out to the stage eventually, but only to thank the crowd for going crazy for him.
A bit earlier in the ’64 set, Baez, playing to the audience, did a pretty good imitation of Dylan’s singing style — “Bobby Dylan singing Joan Baez” — before the two of them did a quick, but spot-on performance of “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” Baez and Dylan were both rising stars at this point and on-stage duets like this were something to see; the song itself influenced another famous male-female duo’s hit, Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” And they were far from the only superstar artists to get inspiration from Dylan in the ’60s, as everyone from The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix to Peter, Paul and Mary either covered or were inspired by Dylan’s work.
One constant in all these performances that speaks of Dylan’s multi-dimensional personality is his penchant for humor and charm. He writes serious music all right, about social justice, war, politics, etc., but he often does so with dry wit and brilliant poetry (see “Talking World War III Blues” from his 1963 performance, for example).
But in 1965, Dylan was truly expanding his musical horizons, and thus traded in his acoustic for an electric guitar and for the first time, brought a full band on stage at Newport on July 25. The crowd of folkies didn’t much care for the bluesy “Maggie’s Farm,” and astoundingly, really didn’t appreciate what would later be considered one of the greatest pure rock songs of all-time, “Like A Rolling Stone.” The boos weren’t that loud after “Maggie’s Farm,” but they were noticeably louder after “Rolling Stone,” and Dylan seemed bothered by it as he and his band flubbed the ending, then walked off stage. Once the crowd heard Dylan would be coming back with his acoustic however, they applauded, then were begging for more Bob Dylan after his final performance at Newport, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
True music fans, as opposed to folk purists, appreciated Dylan’s musical transformation from acoustic folkie to full-band rock and roll at his ’65 Newport set. As director Lerner sees it (in his exclusive interview on the DVD), the booing wasn’t all that bad or widespread, but those who did boo Dylan that day in 1965 probably feel like fools now. What many people seemed to not realize though is that Dylan actually started out playing electric guitar, then realized the power and beauty of the acoustic guitar. The rest, as they say is history.
In all, The Other Side Of The Mirror is fast becoming one of my favorite DVDs in my ever-growing collection at home. At over 80 minutes, it is pure performance-based, with very few short interview and rehearsal clips in between songs. There is no narrator talking through the music, and it all has crisp, clean sound no matter what the setting (day or night).
As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I honestly didn’t care much for Bob Dylan and his body of work, and didn’t know anyone my age who did either. But as I’ve gotten older and (hopefully) wiser, my own musical horizons have expanded to the point where I’m listening to more types of music and classic rock than ever before.
Compared to what passes for Top 40 or mainstream folk music nowadays, Bob Dylan’s music from the early-to-mid ’60s sounds like a breath of fresh air. And a digital film like The Other Side Of The Mirror makes me appreciate his (and Joan Baez’s) inspiring and influential talent all that much more. I highly recommend this DVD not only to longtime Dylan fanatics, but to the casual fan (like myself) who could learn a lot from this early but important period in Dylan’s career and pop music in general.
Here’s a clip of Dylan performing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the 1964 Newport Festival.
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