CD review: Bob Dylan, The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (The Bootleg Series, Volume 9)

Of the 15 or so previously unreleased songs, I wouldn't rate any as lost masterpieces. A couple are interesting enough (check out "Long Time Gone" and "Hero Blues" for examples), but almost all are outtakes from his primary catalog for very good reasons -- it's jarring to hear the duds right alongside the big hits. Did Dylan know the difference at the time? I'd say he did, since the previously unheard songs were dropped from his repertoire immediately after this short time frame. There really isn't a whole lot of value added by including these cuts other than offering up the realization that Dylan was capable of writing a crappy song (many, actually).

The sonic quality varies, with the first few (and earliest) tracks sounding best. There's a fair amount of distortion, as no professional engineer was manning the controls, which isn't at all unexpected. It's just a fair warning.

The best of all of the tracks contained on this volume is the earliest-known recording of "Tomorrow is a Long Time." That one will get to you if you've ever yearned to connect with a loved one who is far away and too inaccessible. The version on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Volume 2 is comparatively watered down by time and instrumentation. This one kills. Don't listen to it while driving or operating heavy machinery. It could make a grown man cry (and it did).

As a huge bonus, the pre-order version of this package from came with a short live CD from Brandeis University that was recorded in 1963. On this, you'll hear what the presence of an audience could do to the performances. This little disc demonstrates what the Bootleg Series is at its best -- an outlet for the excitement that Bob Dylan could (and still can) evoke.


The Witmark Demos

This latest collection of informal recordings by Bob Dylan is a curiosity rather than a revelation, an audio catalog of his original songs recorded as transcriptions from 1962 through 1964. As such, it's surprising that Dylan treated many of the songs as performances, perhaps conscious that anything committed to tape would reflect his ability not just to write, but to sing and play. The "talking blues" numbers are a bit sedate compared to versions you can find elsewhere, but other than that, we are treated to mostly heartfelt renderings with some fragmentary takes, coughs, muffs, and other imperfections scattered here and there. Mostly, Dylan seemed to want to get the songs across meaningfully and he accomplishes this to a great degree, probably without the opportunity for second takes.

There is a broad range of styles represented here, even at this very early stage of Dylan's songwriting development. You may be startled at how adept he is at playing guitar in so many different ways. He's certainly not just strumming along. A few songs even have him at a piano, and although his chops are rudimentary on that particular instrument, the results are unique versions that you won't hear the likes of anywhere else.


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