The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert
Last month saw the release of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, a 36-CD box set documenting Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of Australia and Europe with The Hawks, the band that would later be known as The Band (although with Mickey Jones, rather than Levon Helm on drums) – essentially multiple versions of the same show: an acoustic set of Dylan solo and an electric set with The Hawks.
One of the concerts from that tour, the May 17 show at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall was a widely circulated bootleg for many years incorrectly labeled as the Royal Albert Hall Concert (which took place on May 26). In 1998, the Manchester concert was officially released as Volume 4 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series. Now, both shows are part of the huge box set.
Personally, I don’t feel a need to hear every concert from that tour. I was actually quite satisfied with the 1998 release of the Manchester concert. But, The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert was released yesterday on its own, and I have listened.
Make no mistake, it is great. The acoustic set is superb – solo Dylan at his best – and the electric set was intense and fierce. If anything, Dylan and The Hawks sound like they’d gelled even more as a unit in the days since Manchester. And you don’t hear the hostility that some in the audience had during the electric set in Manchester. There was no idiot in the audience yelling “Judas,” this time around.
But, the songs are the same songs played at the earlier show, and in the same order. So, I would say either The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert or The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert is an essential part of any Dylan collection.
Here is my review of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert written in 1998 for Sing Out! magazine.
The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
Over the course of a long career, Bob Dylan has released many live-concert albums. Oddly enough, until the official 1998 release of these 32-year-old recordings, none of those live albums date from the 1960s, the decade in which Dylan was at the forefront of redefining how we make, listen to, and think about folk music, popular music and rock ‘n’ roll, and how those strands collide, intersect and combine with each other. This 2-CD set is a vital addition to any list of Dylan’s most important albums.
In the summer of 1965, Dylan stunned and polarized the Newport Folk Festival with the loud electrification of his music. Not long after, he hooked up with a Toronto bar band called The Hawks (later rechristened The Band) and began a long tour that eventually brought them to Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in May of 1966 (not London’s Royal Albert Hall as was marked on the bootlegged tapes, although they would play at the Royal Albert a week or so later). On each stop, Dylan would play a solo acoustic set followed by an electric band set. These sets are represented by the album’s two different CDs.
Dylan’s performance of the seven songs on the acoustic disc are absolutely stunning. He opens with “She Belongs to Me,” a beautiful and already familiar love song. Other songs that would have been familiar to the audience include “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” widely interpreted at the time as Dylan’s farewell to protest music, the epic and surrealistic portrait of urban isolation “Desolation Row,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” heard here in a glorious nine-minute version.
He also turns in versions of three extraordinary songs – “Just Like a Woman,” “Fourth Time Around” and “Visions of Johanna” – from Blonde On Blonde which had just been released in the U.S. but was not yet available in England.
Throughout the acoustic set, the audience is quiet and reverential. Things changed after the intermission.
The electric set presented an artist intent on breaking new ground facing off against an audience that included many who did not want to accept those changes. Often openly hostile, the audience seemed to spur Dylan and the Hawks into playing with a rock ‘n’ roll intensity that seemed to reach 15 on a scale of one to 10. As he already had with folk music, Dylan was expanding what was possible in rock music.
Near the end of the concert, Dylan snarls his way through his accusatory “Ballad of a Thin Man” with its refrain of “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” The audience might as well be the Mr. Jones Dylan was addressing. And, true to form, someone in the audience yells out “Judas” to a smattering of applause. “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar,” Dylan responds. He can then be heard off-mike telling The Hawks to “play fucking loud” as they launch into a powerful rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
From today’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine the controversy that raged over Dylan’s music in his early-electric period. But Dylan’s insistence on breaking new ground in those years expanded the possibilities for all who followed after him. The only thing I find hard to understand now is why he sat on the official release of this album for more than 30 years. Without doubt, it is THE live album of his career.