Album Review

When is 36 live Bob Dylan CDs from 1966 not enough?

Bob Dylan - The 1966 Live Recordings

Credit: SONY

The new 36-CD box set, The 1966 Live Recordings, is an amazing journey back to an exciting time in music history. It follows many of the dates from Bob Dylan’s legendary, groundbreaking half-acoustic, half-electric tour of that year. (See my previous, more generalized review.) Dylan, backed here by ⅘ of The Band (then known as The Hawks) in the second half, featured a blissed-out psychedelic troubadour, a combative pied piper, tap dancing on the razor blades on the edge of his psyche. (Block that metaphor!)  This, along with The Cutting Edge box set, is as close as anyone is going to get inside of Dylan’s mind during his most creative period. Many of the shows here are complete, but not all. However, once you delve into it, 36 CDs may still not be enough.

Since I was too young to get into him when I was a child, I began buying Dylan’s older albums out of order after seeing him, with The Band, in January, 1974. Before I even got to Blonde on Blonde, I bought a double album bootleg through a mail order record store. I had heard about this mysterious, unreleased show where people booed Dylan for playing electric music with a rock band! It was called, Zimmerman … Looking Back. Side three was not from this tour, but the rest was. Side four was acoustic Dublin, and the first album captured the infamous “Royal Albert Hall” show - actually live from Manchester we found out years later - complete with the “Judas!” shout. Unlike most vinyl bootlegs of the era, these were professionally recorded, and it showed. It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last, that the limits of my musical knowledge would be stretched by Dylan. I couldn’t take it all in at the time, but the myopic obsession of youth was a powerful motivator. I was hooked, but really didn’t understand why or how, as it was unlike anything else I’d heard, yet I knew it was cool. And dangerous. And illegal. And what’s more important than that to a music fanatic than that when you’re young?

On The 1966 Live Recordings, the acoustic sets feature pristine, glacial performances. Here, Dylan is fragile, delicate.  Otherworldly. Celestial. Cooler than his tweed suit and perfectly quaffed hair.  Seven songs lasting a total of about 45 minutes, three of them from the as-yet-unreleased double album, Blonde on Blonde. Much like the audience, I heard some of these songs for the first time in this setting. Poetry in song, weighty words floating on air, superlatives failing to capture its ethereal elegance.

Then comes the battle of The Band. Eight glorious songs. The music is dense, tight yet loose, sounding like the soundtrack to a barroom fight. Some songs stay steady, while others, like “Ballad of a Thin Man" (with Dylan at the piano) and the fresh-off-the-typewriter “Tell Me, Momma,” growl and howl like a man who was seeing too much, yet craving  more.  

At most of these performances, Dylan’s stage was like a boxing ring, ready to go all 15 rounds and take on any foe. The acoustic sets are similar, yet they are not. Sometimes he speaks, sometimes he doesn’t. Maybe Dylan will introduce a song, maybe he won’t. Sometimes he’s grounded, sometimes he’s so on-the-edge you can almost picture him weaving on stage, so into-the-moment you wonder if he will fall over from exhaustion any minute. The harmonica solos are carefully worked out, yet Dylan’s aural colors may take him outside the lines, beyond the borders, maybe even off the page. They are also full of humor, especially during “Desolation Row,” where one solo consists of Dylan blowing up and down and up and down like a little child with a new toy. . 

As expected, the electric sets are more exciting, and more diverse. If you’re lucky, you get Dylan’s rambling introduction to “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” about a painter (who appears to age ten years with every recitation) during his “Blue” period. There’s also the expected preambles to “I Don’t Believe You” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Then there’s the music, unlike anything before or since. Holy music thundering down from Mt. Olympus (Block that metaphor, part two!), plus the random hecklers and responses. Each one is fascinating for different reasons.

There’s too much content to comment on all of it here here. Besides, I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. However, everything leads to the final three shows of the tour, all professionally recorded by CBS - one in Paris, and two shows actually from the Royal Albert Hall. If you want drama, these are the essential shows.

The tour is winding down here, and it has taken its toll. If Dylan expected to celebrate his 25th birthday in Paris without incident, he was sadly mistaken. This was when Dylan began comparing his folk guitar to his electric one while tuning. He’s clearly fed up yet still amused, sounding like he’s enjoying the ridiculousness of these interactions with the featherweights in the darkness. (The six-minute tuning introduction to “Just Like a Woman” is a definite highlight.) The electric set is extremely raw, with Dylan losing his voice, trying to get through, a yearning from a deep, dark, yet groovy  place. Maybe it’s just the mix, but Richard Manuel's honky tonk piano really shines here. Things continue to unravel in the most volatilely awesome way in London, with more long, rambling introductions. The music is also a little looser. Dylan adds little nuances to some of the acoustic introductions, and his spectacularly laconic yet devastating putdowns that predate both Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten ... A perfect end.

Almost.

Then the coda - Five CDs of audience recordings, a couple of which automatically popped up with the bootlegged Jewels and Binoculars tracklistings on my iTunes, are a great way to wind down. The U.S. recordings in particular, in contrast to the European shows, feature a more animated crowd, one that gets the humor in Dylan music. It’s also a reminder of our roots, where we all came from. Once upon a time, it was all we had.

Of course, if you want just a taste, the separate upcoming release of the first Royal Albert Hall show is an essential one, the perfect tease. However, don’t blame me if you’ll want more.

In closing, I have just a few little tidbits of information:

  • Each of the 36 CDs has a color photograph of Dylan from 1966, taken from D.A. Pennebaker’s footage. Great idea, but it might have been more accurate if,  for instance, a CD with an image of Dylan at the piano on the cover actually included “Ballad of a Thin Man,” or any shot identifiable as being from either an acoustic or electric performance always included matching content.

  • The CD’s themselves have either a red, white, blue, or black background, with a variety of print colors. I’m not sure of the logic involved (if there is any), other than the final five audience recording all being black.

  • I question two of the facts presented in Clinton Heylin’s liner notes. The first is his declaration Keith Butler as the one who yelled “Judas!” in Manchester, when at least one other person, John Cordwell, also claimed that title. He also writes that the world tour started on April 9, 1966, in Honolulu, when according to filmmaker Sandi Bachom and soundman Richard Alderson, there was a warmup show at  Riverside College, in Orange County, California, earlier in the week.

  • Someone pointed out the cover of the box features “20 pounds of headlines.” Many of the headlines there and within are hysterical (“KOOK OR GENIUS” one reads).