Release Date: 10.13.98
Record label: Sony Music
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
Sometimes an Electric Guitar Makes the Best Weapon
by: steve rostkoski
Bob Dylan's transformation from folksinger to rock 'n' roll poet in the mid-sixties horrified many of his early fans. Traditionalists saw his use of loud amplified instruments as a corruption of folk music's purity. In 1965 and 1966, Dylan hit the road with an electric band, confronting his listeners face to face with his new rock oriented sound. Bootleg recordings of these incendiary performances have circulated among collectors for decades. Now the most famous of these bootlegs, known as the "Royal Albert Hall" show (even though it comes from the May 17, 1966 performance in Manchester, England and not the later show at the London venue) has finally been officially released. Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert documents one of the most fascinating and electrifying concert battles in music history.
On the first disc of the two CD set, Dylan plays solo, armed with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica. Perhaps because he still carries the tools of a folksinger, the audience responds to Dylan's seven song acoustic set with respectful silence and warm, enthusiastic applause. One listen to the lyrics, however, and it is clear that Dylan is well past the protest songs of his folk music roots. Like the work of the Beat poets, "Visions of Johanna" and "Desolation Row" pile one surrealistic image on top of another to present a world full of absurdity and madness. Dylan's performance too is otherworldly. His rough ghost of a voice sounds as if it is coming from out of a dream. But Dylan is obviously tuned into every word as he twists and turns the meaning of his prose by emphasizing different aspects of each syllable. The halting tenderness of "Just Like a Woman" is breathtaking and the harmonica solos in "Mr. Tambourine Man" are so hypnotic that Dylan seems to lose himself in their simple beauty as they spiral around his simple but effective guitar strumming. As the first half of the show ends, it appears that Dylan's masterful performance has captivated the skeptics in the audience.
The sound of electric guitars tuning up opens disc two and warns that the second set is an altogether different story. A distant voice and boot-stomp count in the beat before Dylan and his backing musicians called the Hawks, later named the Band, explode into the opening number, the previously unreleased "Tell Me, Momma." The sound is loud and dense, with Robbie Robertson's splintering guitar riffs and Garth Hudson's hurdy-gurdy keyboards giving the roar a playfully ominous texture, as Dylan shouts like a madman and asks, "Tell me, Momma. What's wrong with you? This tiiiime?" The crowd hesitates a moment before applauding as if stunned by the assault. Dylan quickly plays a melody on his harmonica and introduces the next song, saying, "That was "I Don't Believe You." It used to go like that, now it goes like this." A searing rocked-up version of a tune from his folk days follows, coming across like a psychedelic, acid-dosed version of Buddy Holly.
The battlelines are drawn. From now on, angry audience members greet each song with shouts and slow rhythmic handclapping to show their disapproval. Yet somehow, Dylan rises to the challenge and puts the protesters in their place every time. At one point, in order to quell the disruptive clapping, Dylan mumbles nonsense into the microphone until people quiet down in order to hear what he's saying. Once the noise subsides, he clearly implores, ". . . if you only wouldn't clap so hard." You gotta hand it to Bob. Who else carries out crowd control with such finesse and humor?
The music itself is also a response to the hostility in the air. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is more menacing than ever. In the charged atmosphere, its chorus, "You know there's something happening here but you don't know what it is. Do you Mr. Jones?" becomes a scathing put-down of those unwilling or unable to accept his new direction. Before the final song, one of the dissenters equates Dylan's move towards rock music with the ultimate betrayal and shouts, "Judas!" "I don't BELIEVE you! You're a LIAR!" sneers Dylan, unable to hide his contempt of the tormentor. Without missing a beat, he launches into a blistering "Like a Rolling Stone" that shakes the foundations of the already astonishing original version, leaving no doubt that Bob Dylan and his electric guitar get the last word as the tumultuous evening comes to a close.
For those who haven't heard it, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert will be a revelation. None of Dylan's studio recordings comes close to capturing the ferocious intensity heard on this live album. Collectors who already know how great the show is through the magic of bootleg tapes will want the official release as well. The sound quality is fantastic and the set comes with a booklet full of rare photos, along with informative text. Even though it took over thirty years for this monumental album to see the (legitimate) light of day, it was well worth the wait. Bob Dylan music, or for that matter, music period, doesn't get much better than this.