I. Play a song for me…
Bob Dylan saw a very different future for folk music. His fifth studio album, Bringing It All Back Home, was released in March 1965, featuring one traditional acoustic side and one electric side. Underscoring the fact that his embrace of (gasp!) electric rock-and-roll was no fluke, Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25. From some appalled audience members came a chorus of boos. Others cheered. Dylan had electrified not only his own act, but folk music itself – ferociously melding it with pop and rock and blues. In a fertile 14-month period chronicled on last year’s appropriately-titled box set The Bootleg Series Volume 12: Bob Dylan 1965-1966 The Cutting Edge, Dylan and his compatriots crafted three epochal albums (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde) that influenced a generation. But the hungry, driven artist didn’t stop there. On February 4, 1966, he launched a world tour in Louisville, Kentucky. It continued in North America (including the mainland U.S., Canada, and Hawaii) through early April, at which time it moved to Australia and Europe. The tour wrapped up at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 27, but not before entering the cry of “JUDAS!” into the history books, and catapulting the artist and his extraordinary band (soon to be The Band) to a whole new level of sound of fury. All of this is documented on Dylan’s extraordinary new 36-CD, 295-track box set from Legacy Recordings: The 1966 Live Recordings.
The 1966 Live Recordings features every known recording of the world tour from February 5 in White Plains, New York through May 27 in London. Four of the concerts were captured professionally in stereo by CBS Records, with the majority coming from mono soundboard recordings, and five shows from mono audience tapes. Some shows are complete, others truncated, yet all are fascinating. The prospect of listening to 23 shows may indeed be a daunting task for many fans – especially considering that the shows were primarily based around the same 15 songs, night after night. Yet, shockingly, each concert takes on its own character thanks to the alternately combative and enthusiastic interplay between artist, band, and audience. Tension is palpable from show to show, even as Dylan seized upon the controversy to further his own mystique and his desire to create meaningful, powerful music completely on his own terms.
II. This is what salvation must be like, after a while…
In crafting the setlist that remained consistent throughout the tour, the self-professed, latter-day “song and dance man” certainly structured each evening like a seasoned showman. The setlist drew on five of Dylan’s six previously released albums – Bob Dylan (1962), The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963), Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), Bringing It All Back Home (1965) and Highway 61 Revisited (1965), as well as on Blonde on Blonde which was released on May 16, 1966, not long before the tour ended. (Note that some scholars believe the double-LP was actually released in June or even July.) No selections were drawn from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).
Dylan began each concert with a solo voice-guitar-and-harmonica acoustic set that would sate his longtime fans’ appetites, but would also (as word spread about the tour, as it did via numerous reports) build suspense for the big post-intermission plug-in. When The Hawks – guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson and drummer Mickey Jones – did finally swoop in, the catcalls and boos began. It couldn’t have helped that the electric set opened with “Tell Me, Momma,” a song that Dylan never recorded in a studio version and would have been unfamiliar to the attendees. Yet, immersing oneself in these discs, it’s clear that the protests were not all spontaneous; some “fans” likely arrived at the shows ready to vocally mourn the apparent loss of Bob Dylan, Folksinger.
During this opening set, Dylan performed some electric numbers in acoustic style including the ironic love song “She Belongs to Me,” the darkly impressionistic epic “Desolation Row,” and the fresh Blonde trio of “Fourth Time Around,” “Visions of Johanna,” and “Just Like a Woman.” He faithfully revisited “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The performances across these 36 discs are particularly enlightening when it comes to the Blonde tracks, which take on a natural, unforced intimacy even when Dylan played large venues. Though the dreamlike fantasia “Visions of Johanna” was recorded in Nashville during a weeklong break from the tour in February 1966 (following abortive versions laid down in New York the previous year), Dylan’s interpretation of it evolved and altered as the tour carried on. At one point, in Melbourne on April 20, he even renamed the song as “Mother Revisited.” (Though far from garrulous, Dylan certainly bantered with the audience during these shows more than the usually-silent artist does today, i.e. the dry “These are all protest songs….come on!” in defense of his new sound on May 26 at Royal Albert Hall.)
III. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
The rip-roaring “Tell Me, Momma” set the tone for the seven-song, electric half of the show. Of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” Dylan introduced it in Sydney on April 13 (Disc 2 of the box set) as “It used to go like that, and now it goes like this,” preparing the audience for the makeover of the acoustic Another Side of Bob Dylan song. The carnival-esque sound that would define much of The Band’s best work was already evident at this early performance and those that followed. Garth Hudson’s jaunty organ washed over, under and throughout Dylan’s pinched whine with precision. Robbie Robertson’s guitar provided the perfect accompaniment for many a jingle-jangle evening, while Richard Manuel’s barroom piano, Rick Danko’s bass, and Mickey Jones’ drums anchored the songs in a rock-solid, rootsy bed of rhythm.
The transformation of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” from Dylan’s debut LP into a searing rock-and-roll plea was even more galvanizing. Even in the charged atmosphere of many of these shows, the twangy “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” provided a welcome shot of comic relief. Rick Danko added the concerts’ only backing vocals on brief interjections in “One Too Many Mornings,” one of Dylan’s strongest love songs (just listen to The Association’s sparkling cover for an alternate window onto the song) rendered in impeccably ramshackle fashion by The Hawks. The snarling “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“Do you, Mr. Jones?”) was seemingly never played twice the same way by Hudson, wielding his organ with funereal flourishes. Sydney got a bitingly delicious “Positively 4th Street,” with Dylan savoring and even extending each lyrical jab, in the closing slot that typically went to his other big hit single of equal vitriol, the landmark “Like a Rolling Stone.”
IV. And the silent night will shatter to the sounds inside my mind…
The May 26, 1966 show at London’s Royal Albert Hall – the penultimate concert of the tour, and of this box set – has received a standalone issue from Legacy. It’s known as The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert due to the fact that the May 17 show at Manchester Free Trade Hall, with the “Judas!” attack on Dylan, was misidentified as the Royal Albert Hall show when it was famously, and frequently, bootlegged. This concert was, of course, previously issued as the fourth volume of Dylan’s Bootleg Series. The “real” Royal Albert Hall show is one of two in the box from the venue, the other being the closing night on May 27. The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert is one of the best-sounding in the box, as an official CBS Records recording. (In addition to the two London shows, the label also captured the Manchester and Sheffield dates. The vocals on the electric portion of the Sheffield date were so distorted, however, that this presentation uses the soundboard audio for the second half of the concert instead.)
Dylan’s confidence, apparent from the earliest show in the box (February 5 in White Plains, sourced from a low fidelity audience tape) had only grown by the time his traveling show arrived in London. So did his cocksure, even combative, attitude and belief in his music and its power. The acoustic set of Real Royal Albert Hall, opening with Dylan greeted by enthusiastic applause, is fierce, taut, and hypnotic. By this point in the tour, the artist had full command of even his most intricate compositions such as “Johanna” or “Desolation Row,” the interpretations of which had been fluid from night to night. Polite applause opened the electric set, too, though it seems woefully inadequate for the full-throttle attack of “Tell Me, Momma,” so much more crisply and tightly played than the early shows, with scorching guitar lines propelling a supercharged groove. Dylan was on the defensive introducing the storming “I Don’t Believe You” (“This is an old song…I like all my old songs. I don’t know who said that I didn’t…”) and then tearing into his harmonica and robust vocals with relish. A fast and furious “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” highlighted Richard Manuel’s piano and Robbie Robertson’s electric guitar; indeed, the attack on each song just became more assured and heavier with each consecutive outing. By the time of the blazing, hellfire-and-brimstone “Like a Rolling Stone” finale, Dylan had run the gamut of emotions with those in attendance – a forceful bond between performer and audience that is happily still palpable listening all these years later.
V. How does it feel?
Unlike the lavish, oversized The Cutting Edge last year, The 1966 Live Recordings is a compact affair. The discs are housed in a small cube containing each disc in a paper sleeve (with spine) and a 24-page booklet. Every sleeve is adorned with a unique live photograph, while the booklet contains a note from the producers as well as an essay from Dylan historian Clinton Heylin. A great deal of sleuthing certainly went into the assembly of this set. None of the shows were professionally recorded by CBS/Columbia during the tour’s early months; the concerts prior to May 1 are presented either in very rough-sounding audience recordings or, in the case of the Australian shows, soundboards recorded for broadcast. The quality of these television recordings is good, even if Dylan sometimes seems too close to the microphone. The audience recordings are mainly included for completeness’ sake; they are sequenced following the main body of the box as Discs 32-36 because, the producers candidly admit, “the audio quality is so degraded that the sound detracts from the overall listening experience.” Indeed, these discs are rough listening, but will still prove rewarding to the most dedicated listeners.
As of May 1, Dylan’s sound engineer Richard Alderson recorded large parts of every concert directly from the mixing board; these represent the same mix that went out over the PA in each venue. The sound isn’t as supple as on the four CBS-recorded shows, with an emphasis on Dylan’s vocals, but the soundboard recordings are uniformly of high quality. Each disc is adorned with a period Columbia replica label in a different color; the “180 Sound” riff on Columbia’s “360 Sound” stereo slogan is amusing for the mono discs, but the designation has oddly been kept for the four stereo concerts, too! Andreas Meyer and Rebekah Wineman have finely mastered all tracks for sonic consistency. Though undoubtedly prompted by the E.U. copyright laws that can see recordings falling out of copyright after 50 years if not utilized by their rights-holders, this box is manna for Dylan collectors and historically-minded fans alike. It’s also an essential complement to the digital-only collection of the artist’s 1965 live recordings issued last year as a bonus in conjunction with The Cutting Edge.
The 1966 Live Recordings is the remarkable story of Bob Dylan and The Hawks, but one of the most rewarding aspects of this musical journey is how vividly the audience becomes a character in the story at each and every venue. Like a well-trained actor, Dylan and his band’s performances ebbed and flowed as a result of the mood set by the audience, with the songs sharpening and evolving as the tour progressed. It ain’t hard to be immersed in the often-ragged, joyful noise preserved on these 36 discs, as you discover that they really were where it’s at.