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The official "Albert Hall" concert

By Richard C. Walls

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  In a way, it seems appropriate that the "new" Bob Dylan release Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert -- The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Sony Legacy) wasn't really recorded at the Royal Albert Hall but at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, since what becomes a legend more than a little factual distortion? Especially when it lends the proceedings a certain air of distinction. This sounds like a landmark concert, and if it was, in fact, one of a series of landmark concerts that came among one of a series of landmark tours, then what bootlegger wouldn't be forgiven for wanting to add a note of singularity to his product by slapping on the name of a famous building?

Aside from that, everything you might have heard about this former bootleg and now spiffy official release is probably true. A little scene setting is in order. The concert was recorded on May 6 (they got the year right). Dylan had already released his first two offerings of folk/blues/rock gumbo, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and had recorded but not released the collection that would cap the trilogy, Blonde on Blonde. The famous Newport Folk Festival fiasco was well behind him, and he had toured through the States to a mixed reaction: largely approving but often with a vocally contentious segment on hand to express that highly developed sense of betrayal endemic to the doctrinaire.

The Manchester date came toward the end of a period of almost non-stop touring that had started in the US and gone through Europe. By then the pattern of dissent had become set -- one would sit politely through the acoustic first half of the concert and then, if so moved, yell out accusing inanities during the offending electric second half. The English had also perfected a particularly annoying sort of protest, unison mid-tempo clapping between songs, which is very distracting to someone trying to count out a beat.

Although one listens to this hubbub with a certain smugness now (has anyone been on the wrong side of history more often than these clowns?), after hearing the acoustic half of Albert Hall you might want to grant the grieved a little sympathy. It's that good. Not only was Dylan at his songwriting peak, but his singing was as expressively varied as it would ever be, precarious tonality and all.

Especially, it seems, on those songs of which he surely must have been growing tired. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" here becomes notably jaunty, with the singer at times seeming to parody the tension between the need for a line to scan and his need for it to say what he wants it to ("For-GET the DEAD you LEFT/They will not follow yooou . . . "). On "Tambourine Man" the chorus always lands on the same spat-out word ("There is no place I'm going . . . TOOO . . . "), mocking the song's earnest melodicism. In both cases, the effect is at once comic and forlorn.

Acoustic rendering also gives us a kinder, gentler "Visions of Johanna" than the acid-etched version on Blonde on Blonde and, more surprisingly, a "Just like a Woman" that seems drained of its venomous misogyny. Singing with more delicacy than usual, Dylan actually sounds almost sorry that he has to enumerate the poor girl's bitchy traits.

After all this weird beauty, then, one can empathize with someone who's hesitant to hear a sonic wall of rock slathered over everything. Until the band kick in. Or rather, the Band, since it's Robbie Robertson on guitar, Rick Danko on bass, Garth Hudson on organ, Richard Manuel on piano, and Micky Jones sitting in for Levon Helm on drums. Right away Dylan sounds different -- bolder, more sarcastic, his pipes pumped up to a yowl as evil as his lyrics. "Everybody sees you on your window ledge/How long's it gonna take you to get off the edge?" he bellows on one of his patented rattlesnake blues, "Tell Me, Mama," and you think, yep, punk is born.

Not that this part of the concert isn't rife with its own type of subtlety. Hudson's choice of organ fills is consistently droll, and Robertson's edgy roots-rock guitar actually improves a Dylan chestnut like "I Don't Believe You." Of course, the Manchester crowd weren't listening to this digitalized and via headphones, so maybe it just came across as smeary colors. But even if they can't be blamed for not understanding the perfect expression of post-disillusionment ("If you want to see the sun rise/Honey, I know where/Yes, we'll go and see it some time/We'll both just sit there and stare") of the then newly minted "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," they still had to be pretty dumb for letting an amped sound deafen them to the classic protest aspects of "Just like Tom Thumb's Blues." I mean, really.

At one point between songs some eager punter shouts out "Judas!" and elicits some applause. Dylan turns to the band and says, unheard by the audience but caught on tape, "Play it fucking loud." The imperatives of art grow stronger under the Philistine's unseeing gaze. Here's the proof.

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