The Bootleg Series, Volume 4
Live 1966 - The "Royal Albert Hall"
First Appeared at The Music Box, February 1999, Volume 6, #2
Written by John Metzger
Bob Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall Concert" is without a doubt, one of the most famous performances ever given by anyone. The classic show, which was recorded on May 17, 1966, has long been a rock and roll legend. This is partially due to the growing conflict between Dylan and his audience and partially due to its release on the bootleg tape circuit where the venue was mislabeled as London's Royal Albert Hall. (The show, which was just released as volume four of his on-going bootleg series, actually took place at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester).
The Stage Is Set
The poet had begun to change his style nearly two years earlier with the release of Another Side of Bob Dylan. The songs were more inwardly focused, rather than political, and various murmurs and complaints began to circulate among the most die-hard folk fans.
Dylan took things a bit further with his next album Bringing It All Back Home. The acoustic selections contained more obscure, psychedelically-induced, and surreal musings while the electric selections smoked with amphetamine-driven riffs.
The folk scene didn't know what hit them when Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. Dylan had already begun writing songs for his next album (Highway 61 Revisited) and had clearly drawn a line in the sand — daring the audience to cross it.
Backed by an electric band that included guitarist Mike Bloomfield, Dylan tore through his three-song set with a vengeance. The audience was not pleased, and Dylan grudgingly returned to the stage for a pair of acoustic encores that included a prescient It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.
Over the next 9 ½ months, Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited and began recording Blonde on Blonde between performances in the U.S. His concerts opened with a solo acoustic set, and much to his audience's dismay, they concluded with an electric set, further fueling the rage among the pure folk fans.
Backing Dylan was a group of musicians who would later become legends on their own. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel were then known as The Hawks and later rode to success as The Band.
About halfway through the American tour, Helm opted out of the group. Two other drummers completed the U.S. tour before Mickey Jones was hired and the entourage headed off to Europe.
Off to Europe...
While some fans in the U.S. had come around to Dylan's new electric sound, the British public and press had not been quite as receptive, and the headline following his appearance in Dublin called the event, "The Night of the Big Letdown."
The Free Trade Hall concert began simply enough. The audience was quietly reverent as Dylan took the stage for a stunning 45-minute, solo acoustic set that featured songs he had written over the past 16 months. It's almost eerie the way the congregation hung on his every word. They allowed his voice to echo through the concert hall and applauded politely at the conclusion of each song.
Dylan happily obliged. He stretched out many of his vocal and harmonica lines — allowing words and notes to suspend in the air, giving the audience plenty of time to contemplate their deeply-rooted meanings.
One can only wonder what transpired in the poet's mind as he delivered his lyrics. Surely he knew the electric set would be a challenge. It's hard to believe there wasn't even more meaning than usual behind many of his songs. At times, he seemed to taunt the audience by hinting at what was to come. "Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet. We sit here stranded though we all do our best to deny it," sang Dylan on a particularly haunting rendition of Visions of Johanna.
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue is also delivered as an admonitory word of advice to his fans. "The protest singer of the past has mutated into something new," Dylan seems to proclaim.
Of course, everyone already knew what that was, and they were not happy about it. The reverent audience of the first set quickly became a hostile mob that cursed the man they had attentively listened to just moments earlier.
Dylan and his new band reacted with an anger that built with each song they performed. As sparse as the recorded version of Baby Let Me Follow You Down (from Dylan's debut album) is, the live rendition contained here is densely packed with pure rock ‘n' roll angst.
Just listen to the way Robertson's fiery guitar leads lapped at the heels of each enraged lyric that Dylan delivered or the way Hudson's organ fills on Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues hovered above the melody before spiraling downward in an all-out attack on the song.
By the time the group hit Ballad of a Thin Man, Dylan was furious. He snarled each verse like a challenge to his critics. After the song concluded, someone in the audience screamed, "Judas." Dylan turned to his band and impelled them to "play fucking loud!"
Like a Rolling Stone blared through the concert hall as Dylan and his cohorts tore through the song. With one fell swoop, they took the condemnation of the audience, and threw it back in their face. Just like that, the concert was over. The audience was quiet, the stage stood empty, and a legend was born.
Of Further Interest...
The Bootleg Series, Volume 4: Live 1966 - The Royal Albert Hall
is available from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box