Bob Dylan: Live 1966 – The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
Jordy: It has always been difficult for me to listen to the man-and-his-guitar format. Rock, in the end, is how a small group of musicians produces a singular, simultaneous sound. Dylan’s acoustic set on the “Royal Albert Hall” Concert is the former yearning to be the latter. Each of the songs he performs in it was originally recorded with an ensemble (“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” are the closest to their original studio releases, lacking only the electric guitar and electric bass counterpoints, respectively). The stripped-down acoustic versions from this bootleg sound raw and that’s not a compliment. Furthermore, Dylan is in a fog throughout the set, allowing his strumming, vocals, and harmonica to wander arbitrarily.
Adam: The Dylan we hear on the acoustic half of this show is unique. We know he’s burned out and quite possibly high on amphetamines. He sounds detached from the music, and he sings in a slightly lower register than we are used to. I think the unique sound of his voice here, coupled with the sparse instrumentation and the hushed reverence of the crowd (it’s easy to forget there is a crowd at all except when we hear applause between songs) makes the set feel intimate and romantic. I think the best example of what I’m trying to say is in “Visions of Johanna.” Listen to Dylan’s phrasing here: “The country music sta-tion-plays-soft” and “Just Louieeeeese and her lover soooooo entwiiieeeeened/and these visions of Johanna that connnnnnn-quer my mieeeennnd.” It obvious he wants no one but Johanna. Paradoxically, given the detachment present in the performance, I think that this version is more expressive and romantic than the studio version.
Jordy: In deference to your argument, I can’t rightly pan Dylan’s acoustic set apart from the basis of my own preferences. And I like how you wrote the “Visions” lyrics with the drawn-out vowels just like Dylan sings it. That’s exactly how I do a Bob Dylan impression. But this makes me think about how the acoustic set is Bob Dylan doing a bad Bob Dylan impression. For this reason and others, the first disc pales horribly in comparison to Dylan’s electric set with the proto-Band heard on the second disc. As a historical document, the “Royal Albert Hall” concert’s real significance is in showing Dylan boldly shedding his skin in complete disregard, if not outright contempt, for this British audience and, indeed, his audience at large. As a musical document, it is as exciting and vibrant now as it ever was. These are loud, slightly unhinged performances by musicians who haven’t quite reached their prime in terms of chops but display a stomping passion for an art form that was only just coming into its own.
Adam: With regards to disc 2, you’re absolutely right. It is an incendiary performance on all counts. I think the drummer on that tour, Mickey Jones, put it best in No Direction Home when he said that the band “kicked ass and took names.” The same worn-out, drugged-up Dylan from the first disc sets fire to the crowd once he’s backed by the Hawks. In the snippets of film footage from this show at the end of No Direction Home, it’s clear that Dylan is just as detached as he sounds on disc 1, but the band seems to give him the energy and confidence necessary to pull off what is ultimately an inspiring testament to individualism. On the first disc, regardless of how romantic I think it sounds, Dylan is giving the audience more or less what it wants. The acoustic set is his entreaty to the crowd to stick with him. By the time the tour hits Manchester, Dylan knows they won’t like the second half of the show, but his will to be an authentic performer outlasts the boos and the catcalls, and eventually, long after the show is over, the crowd will catch up to him.
Glenn: Perhaps now’s the time for me to jump in and say that in many ways Dylan sounds just as detached and burned out on the second disc as on the first. Sure, the band is fired up and Robbie Robertson is spraying sizzling leads all over the place, but Dylan still sounds hungover and, if not bitter, then weary. For me, the essential performance here is “One Too Many Mornings”: a little out of tune, a little slow, a little long but full of longing [Jordy: I love the wailing harmony in that song when they sing “be-hii-iind”]. That, to me, encapsulates this romantic burned-out feeling that Adam points to. I have a question for y’all, though: in the No Direction Home doc, a true believer folkie kid calls Dylan’s backing Band “incredibly cheesy,” something like that. My question: what was this dude smoking? To me the band sounds loose and loud and even amateurish at times, but so far from any precedent. I can’t think of a band that played rock like this before the Band. Can you?
Adam: I think the folkie kid’s mindset was that folk was the ultimate form of music, and perhaps the ultimate form of human expression. He may have also seen folk as a reaction to the popular music of the day, which was dominated by the likes of the Beatles (lest we forget this show took place in Manchester, a mere 50 miles from Liverpool) whom this kid, and most of the other people who were into folk at the time, were probably sick of. So, the people who had such a vehement reaction to Dylan’s band probably saw the fact that he’d started using a band as selling out to the “pop” trends of the day, which they obviously despised. Hindsight lets us see that Dylan was in no way selling out; he was blazing his own trail.
4 Essential Tracks:
“One Too Many Mornings”
“Ballad of a Thin Man”
“Like A Rolling Stone”