BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 4: THE «ROYAL ALBERT HALL» CONCERT (1966; 1998)
1) She Belongs To Me; 2) Fourth Time Around; 3) Visions Of Johanna; 4) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue; 5) Desolation Row; 6) Just Like A Woman; 7) Mr. Tambourine Man; 8) Tell Me, Momma; 9) I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met); 10) Baby, Let Me Follow You Down; 11) Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues; 12) Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; 13) One Too Many Mornings; 14) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 15) Like A Rolling Stone.
It was only a matter of time before The Bootleg Series would turn into a chain of new releases — considering that Bob Dylan was one of the most heavily bootlegged artists of all time, and quite justly so. Perhaps the wait was intentional: in 1997, Time Out Of Mind proved to everyone that the old man still had plenty of incense left to burn, and it became safe to put out archival documents without expecting the average review to carry on in a «yes, believe it or not, there was a time when there was a reason to listen to Bob Dylan...» manner. Or perhaps it wasn't. Whatever be the case, over a stretch of seven years The Bootleg Series managed to enrich us with three fantastic live albums in a row — each one featuring a Bob Dylan that was completely different from the other two, albeit not exactly in chronological order.
The first choice was perfectly natural, almost predictable: the «Royal Albert Hall» Concert bootleg (quotation marks signify that the album was originally misattributed to a more famous location, even though the actual show was played at the Manchester Free Trade Hall) had been in heavy circulation since the early 1970s, and was traditionally held in awe by fans due to its containing the infamous «Judas!» episode. Fortunately, the official release went all the way to boot the boot out of competition — not only by including the complete show, together with the first acoustic half (the boot only contained the electric set), but also by cleaning up and remastering the original tapes, so that the final product is pretty much impeccable. (There are a couple spots on the acoustic part where Bob's voice suddenty turns distant and cavernous midway through the song, but that may have been due to some microphone problems or slight equipment malfunction, and it does not do much harm anyway).
Technically speaking, and also from the point of view of the continuously evolving setlist, there may have been better shows that were played by Bob on his British tour of mid-'66. But, of course, it is not really for performing quality that The «Royal Albert Hall» Concert has gained most of its fame — it is more for serving as a priceless historical document illustrating the endless conflict between «The Artist» and «The People». Should The Artist, offering his Art to The People, pander to The People instead of following his individual muse? Should The People expect to be given what they want from The Artist (especially if they're paying for it), or should The People respect the integrity and/or evolution of The Artist? Does The Artist have a right to force his actions on The People? Do The People have a right to force The Artist to amend his ways, even if they believe they are acting in Art's best interests? So many questions in that field, and they are all raised on Live 1966, even if not one of them is conclusively answered.
You probably know the backstory already, and what you don't know can easily be deduced from listening to the album itself. First part of the show — «traditional»: Dylan and his acoustic guitar alone on stage, lights dimmed, dreamy, mumbly voice, the audience holding their breath. Still weird, though, since the man has decided not to sing any of his old «protest» tunes, but is instead treating everyone to stripped-down acoustic versions of songs from his new, bizarre, modernist, «treasonable» electric albums. Only ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ dates back to 1964, and even that one refers to an imaginary, hallucinatory universe, rather than a world populated by Hollis Browns and Hattie Carrolls. The audience applauds politely, but nobody really knows what they feel —mesmerized? enchanted? confused? disappointed?
Second part of the show — «treason» starts in earnest: the Hawks appear onstage, set up their instruments, and Dylan leads them in an ear-piercingly loud electric set that includes not only recent songs, but also — treason! treason! — those old acoustic songs from the folk troubadour era, now reinvented as bombastic rockers. "This is called ʽI Don't Believe Youʼ. It used to be like that, and now it goes like this". 'Nuff said. The battle line is drawn.
Of course, like 99% of the stuff that eventually passes into legend, Dylan's clash with the «traditionalists» was always overstated. The acoustic set goes on without a hitch, and the first two songs of the electric set also feature no ruckus. «Trouble» kicks in after ʽI Don't Believe Youʼ, when hecklers first start peppering the stage with insults, and then join together in a clap-hands demonstration whose purpose is rather to show disrespect than to boo the man offstage completely. But listen closely to the album and it becomes clear that there is only one part of the audience, a representative, clearly audible group, maybe about a quarter or so of the hall, that is getting busy with heckling — and that Dylan actually gets more approving applause at the end of each «electric» performance than he gets «disruptive» applause from the hecklers. So picturing this as some sort of epochal «One Man Against The Whole Wide World» battle would be overdoing it: clearly, were it really like that, Bob would never have set foot on British soil, or removed it once and for all after the very first show.
Nevertheless, he does have to battle the hecklers, and the way he eventually wins over the majority of them, to me, is far more priceless than the famous «Judas!» — «I don't believe you... you're a liar!» exchange. At one point, as the counter-applause really threatens to spread to an alarming level, the man begins mumbling some slurred, incomprehensible story into the microphone: eventually, the hecklers calm down, as curiosity to hear what is actually being told gets the better of them, and just as the rhythm of the clapping hands breaks down and dissipates, Bob finishes the «story» with a «...mumble mumble grumble grumble... if you only just wouldn't clap so hard». At that point, even some of the hecklers probably couldn't help breaking into a general laugh, and the atmosphere becomes significantly lighter from then on. Just one of those little things, I guess, but sometimes they illustrate the greatness of great minds with much more clarity than «big things», don't they?
That said, Live 1966 does tend to get its fair share of «tepid» assessments these days, usually accompanied with the formula: «historically great, no doubt, but rather so-so as an actual musical performance». Well, it is probably true that the atmosphere was a bit too tense for both Dylan and the Hawks to concentrate exclusively on the music. The electric part, in particular, sets out to overwhelm rather than intrigue the listener — the emphasis is on being loud, on getting every decibel possible out of every instrument, with the six players on stage doing everything they can to sound like a big band, if not like a symphonic orchestra, but only with reference to volume, bombast, and power, not to «tightness», which may be found missing. And on the acoustic part, Bob largely neglects the guitar, concentrating most of his expressiveness in the art of singing and playing harmonica (ʽDesolation Rowʼ suffers the most, as it may be hard to endure all of its 11 minutes without the ornate baroque guitar flourishes of the original).
But then this is, after all, a performance in the «garage» spirit of the times: substance, energy, and revolutionary ideals first, technical quality second. So the band teeters on the brink of chaos every now and then, but they never descend into chaos (and, actually, it would be fun even if they did), and the maniacal strength of the proceedings is still with us — as ʽTell Me, Mommaʼ (a song that was frequently performed, but never made it onto any of the studio albums) opens the electric set, the band plays the first bars quietly and tentatively, looking for the groove, then drummer Mickey Jones gives the signal, and off they go into complete electric madness. Robbie Robertson, in particular, gets into the spirit brilliantly, and his sharp, gruff guitar leads, usually attested in brief splatches as they emerge from under the general rumble, are a worthy counterpart to Dylan's moaning, howling, and wailing (three preferred modes during the electric set).
I must say that, throughout both sets, Dylan does sound «trippy». Whether he was really on grass or acid, was just tired, or was just acting, is unclear, but if this manner of singing is typical of his 1966 tour (and, judging, by the real Royal Albert Hall performance of ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ on Biograph, it might have), it is seriously different from both the snappy, sneery performance style of Highway 61 and the more contemplative, peaceful manner on Blonde On Blonde. This here style is more «breathy», more «nasal», and, in moments of frenzy, more high-pitched than he usually goes. Later on, when the 1970s came along, he would resort more to shouting out the words, but here, he drags and drawls them out as if in an intoxicated haze. No mistakes, no slip-ups, but a sound that seems completely locked in on itself rather than targeted at the audience — an additional factor, perhaps, in enraging the hecklers, who must have gotten the feeling that the man is doing it all strictly for himself, and couldn't care less about whoever else was out there in the hall (a correct feeling, most likely). Unfortunately, in my case at least, it does not exactly make me want to listen to the album over and over again — even the great, fabulous conclusion of ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ ("play fucking loud!") has the feeling of an imposing distant volcano, erupting over the heads of the unfortunate nearby villagers rather than over your own: I get the feeling of admiring the scene from afar rather than being directly involved. But that's also the same thing that makes it such a fascinating historical document.
On the other hand, it must also be stated that the stripped-down acoustic versions, especially ʽVisions Of Johannaʼ, raise the «intimacy» bar rather than lowering it — the mystical nighttime aura of ʽVisionsʼ is enhanced through this minimalism, even if I do miss Al Kooper's ghostly organ (but not Robertson's squeaky guitar runs, for that matter). And in general, I'd say that acoustic reinventions of Bob's «beatnik-psychedelic» classics are more interesting, per se, than the electric reworkings of Bob's acoustic material, because most of the electric songs, mood-wise, sound the same in this setting, whereas the acoustic songs still preserve their individual faces. Plus, you get to hear Bob's harmonica better, and he behaves like a mean, evil beast with the instrument, particularly on the opening ʽShe Belongs To Meʼ and on the closing ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ — some of the shrillest, wickedest blasts you'll ever hear.
All in all, this is probably not the «greatest live album of all time» from anything but a purely historical point of view, and this may not even necessarily be the greatest live Bob Dylan album of all time (at least the next two volumes in the series give it quite a bit of competition), but, regardless of that, you have much left to accomplish in your life if you have not yet heard a good sample of Bob Dylan live circa 1966, and no better sample exists than this. As for historical importance, my only quibble is that people who praise Live 1966 to high heaven for that importance should stop dissing Live At Budokan — which, for my money, quite matched Live 1966 in the overall «braveness» of approach, even though the Fan War of 1965-66 was ultimately won and the Critical War of 1978-79 was ultimately lost. Of course, nobody could call Dylan's reinvention of his back catalog in «mock-Vegas format» a «key moment in rock history». Yet I think that, to most people, Live 1966 is important not for holding a particular vital place in history — but for simply showing how one man can hold his obstinate ground against many and emerge victorious, sort of like a rock music equivalent of 12 Angry Men, and so, let us not forget that this was far from the only such battle in Dylan's lifestory, even if it's naturally the first one to be featured on the thumbs up list for such achievements.
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