Album & DVD Reviews: Bob Dylan - The Spirit of Radio, Plus Music from Girls on Grass and Nils Lofgren, and a Woody Guthrie Tribute Concert

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The Spirit of Radio collects three CDs’ worth of Bob Dylan’s seminal early radio performances and interviews. Especially considering that these recordings are more than half a century old, the sound quality is excellent. The CDs, which include informative liner notes, have been available separately and together in the past but have often been difficult to find or prohibitively priced. That situation should change with an April 5 reissue from MVD Entertainment. 

The first disc captures Dylan’s hour-long appearance on Folksinger’s Choice, a New York radio show, in March 1962, only weeks before the release of his eponymous debut album. The then 20-year-old Dylan performs numbers by Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, and Woody Guthrie, along with a few traditional tunes and three of his own early songs—“The Death of Emmett Till,” “Standing on the Highway,” and “Hard Times in New York Town.” 

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The music is noteworthy but the conversation with host Cynthia Gooding—one of Dylan’s first extensive interviews if not the first—is arguably even more fascinating. A transcript of this discussion appears in my book, Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, and as I note in my introduction to it there: “Gooding, a folksinger herself, establishes excellent rapport with the young Dylan, who seems eager for her approval and asks, after nearly every song he performs for her, whether she likes it. She appears to grasp the extent of his talent and responds enthusiastically.”

Gooding, incidentally, ends the conversation by asking Dylan whether, when he’s rich and famous, he’ll still be wearing the corduroy cap that he has on during their talk. His response: “Oh, I’m never gonna become rich and famous.”

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A second disc preserves a 1963 appearance on Studs Terkel’s Chicago radio show. Dylan is still relatively unknown at this time, but his performance demonstrates that he is growing artistically at an astounding pace: the cover songs that he performed for Gooding are gone, replaced with seven mostly stunning originals, among them “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Besides singing these songs, Dylan speaks with Terkel for nearly 40 minutes and, again, the conversation is at least as fascinating as the music. Dylan talks about Woody Guthrie, about writing “Hard Rain” during the Cuban missile crisis, about his old friends in Minnesota, and more.

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A third disc offers a grab bag of shorter radio and TV appearances, some of which go back even further than the one with Gooding. First up is a radio broadcast of a July 1961 performance at a hootenanny, where Dylan plays six traditional numbers and one by Eric Van Schmidt after being introduced as “a fellow who’s been around the New York area for about a year” and who “also performs in various coffeehouses.” Next come two additional traditional numbers, both from an appearance exactly three months later on the WNYC radio show of folksinger Oscar Brand. Dylan is still focusing on traditional material at this point and also still telling the tall tales he was prone to offer at this time, such as that he was raised in New Mexico.

The remainder of the disc focuses on later material and, again, we see reminders of how rapidly Dylan is evolving. He is still obscure enough at the time of a 1963 radio broadcast that Oscar Brand feels the need to spell out his name, but musically he has matured significantly: as in the appearance with Terkel, he is beginning to focus solely on original material. He delivers “Girl from the North Country” and “Only a Hobo” for Brand in 1963; sings “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” on TV’s Steve Allen Show in 1964; and, on Les Crane’s TV program in 1965, performs “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “It’s Alright Ma” (which at the time was subtitled “It’s Life and Life Only”). This latter appearance includes a 17-minute interview in which Dylan pretends to be shocked when Crane tells him that Allen Ginsberg advocated legalizing marijuana on his show. Dylan also says he was influenced by Cole Porter (“you’re putting me on,” replies Crane) and announces that he’ll be starring as his own mother in a “horror cowboy movie” that takes place on the New York Thruway. 

Any serious Dylan fan is bound to consider these discs priceless, but they’re yours for around 25 bucks.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Nils Lofgren, Blue with Lou. E Street Band member Nils Lofgren has been happy to work in Bruce Springsteen’s shadow for more than three decades now (hey, who wouldn’t be?), so you might not realize just how potent this guitarist and vocalist can be as a solo artist. There have been occasional hints, such as “Black Books,” which ranks among the high points on the soundtrack albums from The Sopranos. But there’s no better evidence of what Lofgren can do in the spotlight than the new Blue with Lou, his first album in eight years. The record gets off to a bit of a slow start in my view, but the bulk of it is beautifully sung and emotionally powerful. Lofgren had some noteworthy help here: half the tracks were cowritten with the late, great Lou Reed, to whom Lofgren pays tribute on the title cut. In addition, Branford Marsalis plays sax on one number and a small male choir is a big plus throughout. Lofgren sings about things he cares about—ranging from his marriage to the loss of his family dog and his friend Tom Petty—and the results are affecting.

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Various Artists, Woody Guthrie All-Star Tribute Concert 1970 (DVD). After the great Woody Guthrie died in 1968, two star-studded benefit concerts celebrated his life and music. The first took place in New York City only about four months after he passed away; the second happened two years later in Los Angeles. In 1972, Columbia and Warner Brothers jointly issued a 35-track album that contained highlights from both shows, but for some reason, it wasn’t until 2017 that a complete recording of both concerts appeared on disc. And now, nearly half a century after the L.A. event, we finally have a DVD that embraces at least some of its performances, including ones by Woody’s son Arlo and such other folk luminaries as Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the late Richie Havens and Pete Seeger. It’s an enjoyable film but at about 80 minutes doesn’t come close to capturing all of what went down at the Hollywood Bowl, not to mention New York. Perhaps no good footage exists of the rest of these shows. Or maybe we’ll have to wait another 50 years to see it. Meanwhile, I’m glad to have this film.

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Girls on Grass, Dirty Power. The Girls on Grass quartet is actually half male but their moniker seems appropriate: the spirited lead and backup vocals, by Barbara Endes and drummer Nancy Polstein, respectively, help give them a sound that’s reminiscent of such latter-day “girl groups” as the Bangles, the GoGos, and Blondie. This auspicious sophomore release features potent rock guitar work from Endes, David Weiss, and bassist David Mandl and also benefits from Endes’s witty lyrics, which range from the personal to the political. In “Got to Laugh to Keep from Cryin’,” she sums up a relationship in just four lines: “Left my man for a woman who looks like Aimee Mann / We made out in the can / Then she broke my heart / After that auspicious start.” In “Because Capitalism,” meanwhile, she asks, “Why do we have the biggest army but their families need food stamps and you’d get rid of those too?” And then there’s “Commander in Thief,” about you know who, in which she sings, “The regular rules don’t apply / I come from superior genes…Do you dare to disagree? / I’ll fix it with a tweet / I’m your commander in thief.”

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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