When Dylan went electric

By Tom Von Malder | Nov 25, 2016
Photo by: Legacy Recordings The cover of the new Bob Dylan live in 1966 set.

Owls Head — Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings (Columbia/Legacy, 36 CDs). It is hard to imagine now how much it shocked audiences back in 1965 and 1966 when folk singer Bob Dylan went on tour with a backing band -- four-fifths of whom became The Band in 1968, after backing Dylan on "The Basement Tapes" -- and performed his second sets with electric guitars. Of course, audiences today have had up to 50 years of Dylan being electric. Even back then, my senior year in high school, I was unaware of the controversy, being more into Motown and show tunes at the time.

When Dylan released his fifth album, "Bringing It All Back Home," in March 1955, he was backed by an electric band on side one, while side two continued his solo work with acoustic guitar. However, he was clearly embracing the rock sound when he released the single, "Like a Rolling Stone," on July 20th that year. Five days later came his infamous performance at the Newport Folk Festival, when he was joined by Mike Bloomfield and Barry Goldberg of The Electric Flag. Sections of the audience booed Dylan that day.

This wonderful and, indeed, historic new box set chronicles Dylan's 1966 world tour, plus U.S. shows in Pittsburgh, White Plains, N.Y. and Hampstead, N.Y. The 23 shows collected here are every known recording from that mythic, controversial tour. The recordings, many of which have never been circulated in any form, are taken from soundboards, CBS Records mobile recordings and audience tapes. With the exception of the Manchester concert on May 17, 1966, released as "Bob Dylan Live 1966 – The Bootleg Series Vol. 4" (Columbia/Legacy) in 1998, a pair of songs appearing on the 1985 "Biograph" compilation and a smattering of others, the overwhelming majority of tracks and performances are previously unreleased in any format, official or bootlegged. At times, one can hear combative audience responses.

"While doing the archival research for 'The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12,' last year's box set of Dylan's mid-60s studio sessions, we were continually struck by how great his 1966 live recordings really are," said Adam Block, president of Legacy Recordings, in a press release. "The intensity of Bob's live performances and his fantastic delivery of these songs in concert add another insightful component in understanding and appreciating the musical revolution Bob Dylan ignited some 50 years ago."

All the songs on here were written by Bob Dylan (vocal, guitar, piano, harmonica) with the exception of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," a traditional song arranged by Dylan. He is accompanied by Robbie Robertson (guitar), Rick Danko (bass, backing vocals), Richard Manuel (piano), Garth Hudson (organ) and Mickey Jones (drums). Sandy Konikoff plays drums on the White Plains and Pittsburgh shows only. Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson, all Canadians and members of Ronnie Hawkins' backing band, the Hawks, would go on to become The Band, with the addition of American drummer Levon Helm, who bailed on this tour. (I always found it strange how The Band sounded so traditionally American, especially in Robertson's brilliant songwriting, despite being four-fifths Canadian.) Jones was from the Johnny Rivers band.

According to the producers, Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, Dylan's sound engineer, Richard Alderson, began recording large portions of each show, starting May 1. The recordings were  taken directly from the mixing board -- the same audio mix played over the PA system at each venue -- and thus have "louder vocals and sound drier, with less hall ambiance." Columbia Records, Dylan's label at the time, recorded four shows -- Sheffield, Manchester and two London shows in England -- for a possible live album. However, the electric set of the Sheffield show presented here is from the mixing board, as the label recording was too distorted. The final five shows, including all three American ones, are out of chronological order and only included for completeness, as the audio quality is very degraded.

The bulk of the shows are from April and May, starting with a show in Sydney, Australia (2 CDs) at which the crowd seemed very accepting. Throughout the tour, Dylan is on top of his game as a performer, with nice versions of "Fourth Time Around," "Visions of Johanna," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Just Like a Woman" and a lengthy "Desolation Row" during the acoustic sets. In Sydney, Dylan's harmonica playing is particularly delightful on "Desolation Row" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." The loudness of the vocals makes Dylan sound like he is braying a bit , as the electric set starts with "Tell Me, Mama" and "I Don't Believe in You (She Acts Like We Have Never Met)." Terrific are "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Positively 4th Street" (the only time it was performed; for most shows, it was "Like a Rolling Stone" instead). Generally, while song order might change, the set lists remains steady. The Manchester show is one of the most incendiary, along with Glasgow and Liverpool. The peaks are the two London shows -- at the Royal Albert Hall -- in which Dylan address the crowds a lot, saying that he likes his old songs, but "things change," before launching into "I Don't Believe You." On the second night, he introduces the song by saying, "It used to go like that and now it goes like this -- and rightfully so." In his long talk intro to "Tom Thumb's  Blues," he songs about the meaning of the lyrics and people not getting them, but says "it just means nothing."

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan was forced to put out these tapes due to a European copyright law that stipulates all recordings enter the public domain if they remain unreleased for more than 50 years. That also could be why we have seen, during the last few months, so many CD sets that gather rather old radio broadcast concerts by many name artists. The box set comes with a 24-page booklet with liner notes by Clinton Heylin, a consultant on the project and author of "JUDAS!: From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall: A Historical View of Dylan's Big Boo," the definitive written account of Dylan's historic and pivotal 1965-66 world tours. Each of the individual CDs is housed in a custom sleeve featuring stills from color film shot by D.A. Pennebaker, whose footage from Dylan's 1965 and 1966 tours became the cinéma vérité classics, "Don't Look Back" (1965) and "Eat The Document" (1966). Grade: box set A+

Columbia/Legacy will also release Dylan's performance at the Royal Albert Hall from May 26, 1966 (two days after his 25th birthday) as an album entitled "The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert." For decades, Dylan's performance in Manchester was incorrectly labeled "The Royal Albert Hall Concert." Now, the real Royal Albert Hall concert is finally being released, mixed by Grammy-winning engineer Chris Shaw. "The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert" will be released as a 2-CD collection on Dec. 2; the 12-inch 2LP vinyl edition of the album arrives Nov. 26.

The Band: The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary (Warner/Rhino, 4 CDs, 4:06:42, + Blu-ray disc, 117 min.). On Thanksgiving Day 1976, The Band took the stage for the very last time at the Winterland Theatre in San Francisco. The concert, billed as The Last Waltz, with its own orchestral theme, has become one of the most revered performances of all time. For the show, The Band -- bassist/fiddler/vocalist Rick Danko, drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, keyboardist/horn player Garth Hudson, pianist/vocalist Richard Manuel and guitarist/vocalist Robbie Robertson -- were joined by an all-star group of music legends, including Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and Neil Young. The evening also was captured on film by director Martin Scorsese. Released theatrically in April 1978 to critical acclaim, "The Last Waltz" is still considered by many to be the greatest concert film ever made. This is the first release to contain both the film and audio CDs. The audio portion is the same as the 4-CD set release in 2013. The audio portion is also available as a 6-LP vinyl version for the first time.

For those who already have the Blu-ray release and the 2013 audio release, this set comes in a handsome, 74-page hardcover book, loaded with photos, as well as newly-penned liner notes by music journalists David Fricke and Ben Fong-Torres, and a classic essay from 1977 by author Emmett Grogan. The Blu-ray carries over from the previous release a featurette, "Revisiting The Last Waltz," and audio commentary by director Scorsese.

The band is one of those classic groups of which nearly every song is dear to my heart. Disc one alone contains marvelous -- and often high-energy -- versions of "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Shape I'm In," "Life is a Carnival" (horns arranged by Allen Toussaint,), "The Weight," "This Wheel's on Fire" and "Stagefright" -- all but "This Wheel's on Fire" (by Danko and Bob Dylan) were written by Robertson alone and one was a collaboration with bandmates. The riches continue on disc two, with "Rag Mama Rag," "Ophelia" and "Acadian Driftwood," all by Robertson. Then much of disc two is given over to guests, including Young ("Helpless," with Mitchell on backing vocals, and a cover of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds"), Mitchell ("Coyote," "Shadows and Light," "Furry Sings the Blues"), Diamond ("Dry Your Eyes") and Morrison ("a cover of "Tura Lura Lural," his own "Caravan"). Guests on disc one include Hawkins, Dr. John, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters (excellent on "Mannish Boy" and a cover of "Caldonia" with pianist Pinetop Perkins).

It should probably be noted how many of the people involved have passed. The Band has lost Danko, Manuel and Helm. Both Waters and Perkins are no longer with us, as are Butterfield, Charles, Toussaint, Roebuck "Pops" Staples and Mavis Staples. The Staples sing on "The Weight" on disc four, part of "The Last Waltz Suite."

Disc three has the classic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (with lots of horns, again arranged by Toussaint), before Dylan stops by for five numbers, including "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met," "Forever Young" and "Baby Let Me Follow You Down." Nearly everyone comes out to join on Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," even drummer Ringo Starr, guitarist Ron Wood and guitarist Eric Clapton. Those three also stay out for the two jams that follow, with Stephen Stills joining on guitar for the second jam.

Other versions include a 2-CD audio version of the original soundtrack with newly remastered audio; and a limited-edition (2,500 copies) collector's edition that adds a second Blu-ray disc with a rarely seen 1990s interview with Scorsese and Robertson, a photo gallery and a 5.1 audio mix of the original album. Additionally, the collector's edition comes with a 300-page book, bound in red faux-leather, with a full replication of Scorsese's shooting script, rare and previous unseen photos, set sketches, three foldout storyboards, an essay by screenwriter Mardik Martin and a forward by Scorsese. Grade: set A+

In related news, Robertson has just issued a new memoir, "Testimony" (Crown Archetype), in which he writes about his days with The Band, his personal journey and his creative friendships with some of the greatest artists of the past 50 years. Robertson also is issuing a companion musical anthology, also called "Testimony" (UMe)," with 18 tracks that mix live and studio recordings that span his entire career.

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