This 36-disc box set presents every surviving tape of Bob Dylan’s 1966 world tour, capturing combative audiences and transcendent performances nearly every night.
Put on nearly any of the 36 discs in Bob Dylan’s The 1966 Live Recordings box set and it will probably be perfect. Capturing the songwriter at the crest of his magical ’60s peak and culminating with a series of exhilarating performances in Manchester, Paris, and London, the imposing block of music documents Dylan facing down confrontational audiences while making some of the most ambitious creative leaps of his career. Causing controversy in some quarters by playing electric guitar in front of a rock band and seemingly abandoning his topical political songwriting, the shows depict an ongoing battle between Dylan and self-righteously betrayed folkies. Debuting material from the not-yet-released Blonde on Blonde alongside recent hits and new electrified arrangements of old tunes, Dylan is luminous and fragile-sounding during his opening solo acoustic sets, and equally fierce and possessed during the electric second halves, backed by the quintet that would soon become the Band, who match him in super-charged vitality.
A classic tour from start to finish, the set’s only drawbacks owe more to the format than the music: Various incomplete or missing songs, a few over-saturated vocal tracks, five CDs worth of grotty audience tapes, and the fact that Dylan performs nearly the same set lists in nearly the same order at every stop of the tour, from Long Island to Stockholm. Thoroughly consistent, especially by Dylan’s later live standards, the repeated performances from the 22 represented shows might be seen as feature, not a bug. Listening to oblique narrative epics like “Visions of Johanna” and dense truth attacks like “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” over and over, each becomes like a sculpture viewed from different angles, each liable to reveal something new about the lyrics or melody or interplay between musicians.
The 1966 Live Recordings builds itself around discs 19 and 20, a long-bootlegged show from Manchester officially released in 1998. Containing the notorious back-and-forth in which an audience member calls Dylan “Judas!” and Dylan snarls back, “I don’t be-lieveyou, you’re a liar” (and to the musicians “play fuckin’ loud”), the Manchester show also finds the just-exactly-perfect balance of performance, soundman Richard Alderson’s mix, and high drama. Listened to in the context of the gigs on either side of it, one hears Dylan and the Group (as they were capitalized at the time in the British music press) circling around the tempos and inflections of what would become the classic performance of the material.
But each disc—even the barely listenable audience recordings—has its own rewards for the committed Dylanologist, from on- and off-stage histrionics to a range of varied mixes, each with its own personality. Turning 25 on May 24th in Paris (discs 26 and 27), Dylan goes into near meltdown, attempting desperately to get his acoustic instrument in tune. “This never happens to my electric guitar,” he deadpans, a punchline deployed many nights, part prop theater (“This machine confuses fascists”), part a musician’s nightmare of gear damaged in transit. Slurring his words, Dylan is deeply inside of both himself and his songs, his Woody Guthrie drawl blurred into the oft-caricatured nasal howl. One takeaway, though, and perhaps the perpetual Dylan hot take, is that the dude actually is an amazingsinger, lingering sensuously on every syllable during the quiet acoustic sets and occupying every bit of smarter-than-thou word-play and put-downs when the electric guitars come out.
“It takes a lot of medicine to keep up this pace,” Dylan told journalist Robert Shelton that year, and various accounts (including those of liner-notes writer Clinton Heylin) hint at Dylan’s prodigious chemical intake during his extended world tour in 1966. Dylan had been touring in the electric/acoustic format since the previous summer, cramming in studio sessions between an extended fall tour with his new accompanists. The former backing group for Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, the ex-Hawks played 60 gigs with Dylan in the fall of 1965 and spring of 1966, drummer Levon Helm bailing in late November, before the start of Dylan’s first world tour in 1966. Helm and others can be heard on the scant fall ’65 audience tapes released as downloads last year, and Sandy Konikoff can be made out (barely) on the audience-recorded discs from the American leg, stuck rightfully at the end of this set. But it’s the hard-hitting Mickey Jones (later seen in bearded form as neighbor Pete Bilker on ABC’s “Home Improvement”) who galvanizes the band from April of 1966 onward, providing gun-shot snare-cracks to start songs and a dependably rolling thunder. “In my group, the drummer is the lead guitar player,” Dylan would tell a press conference a quarter-century later, and Jones totally wails.
Often dismissed in the British music papers, the Group was anything but typical, owing especially to the double piano/organ attack of Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. Filling the corners of each song with soulful R&B color and sometimes lost in the mix, Manuel can be heard especially on the May 14th show in Liverpool (disc 14), adding on boogie-woogie filigrees to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Though Hudson’s solos are few and far between, one of the recurring pleasures of the box comes with his conversational fills between vocal lines every night on “Ballad of a Thin Man,” with Dylan taking over for Manuel at piano. Perhaps the keynote for the entire period, Dylan milks the tune for every last insult.
With Jones driving them, Manuel, Hudson, Danko, and lead guitarist Robbie Robertson make room for one another, all while heeding Dylan’s urgent rhythm playing, an electrified bandleader for barely six months by the time of the box set’s chronological opening on February 5th in White Plains. Climaxing all sets but one with “Like A Rolling Stone”—a #4 hit in the UK the previous year, #2 back home—was almost a joke in itself, a reminder that none of this electricity should be any sort of surprise. With most of the violent upheavals of the ’60s still building towards a fever pitch, Dylan had gradually moved away from overt topicality beginning with 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, adding electric instruments to the mix for 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home. And, every night, “Like A Rolling Stone” makes a thrilling conclusion, Dylan yawping out the vocals, Robertson and pals transforming the sparkle of the 1965 studio rendition into an ethereal punch.
Speaking almost entirely in parables in interviews and press conferences, the Bob Dylan that stood in front of audiences in 1966 had an unearthly air, a beautiful and vibrating young alien. “Bob Dylan got very sick backstage and I’m here to take his place,” he announces in Glasgow (disc 21), but whoever it is that’s wearing the Bob Dylan mask positively glows. The folkies were right, of course, in that he and his lyrics had drifted far from topical concerns, replacing them with a personal expression that spoke more to the abstract intellectual autonomy of the counterculture than the ongoing issues of the New Left. But sharpened even beyond that, the acoustic sets possess a stark beauty, like a series of elegant black-and-white portraits.
It would be the last time Dylan regularly performed extended solo acoustic sets, and it is a form he has mastered. Finding a subtlety in his harmonica playing, it ranges from spare melodic statements like the introduction to “Fourth Time Around” to more abstract honkings (such as the concluding solos in “Desolation Row”) perhaps more akin to what soundman Richard Alderson had recorded as house engineer at avant-garde label ESP’-Disk. At times, such as on the terrible February 5th audience tape from the Westchester County Center in New York, Dylan squonks up and down the harp for comedic value, but mostly it’s an instrument as weird and pliable as Dylan’s voice.
The long-haul listening experience of 29.5 hours of music provides able space for contemplation, a manner of observing Dylan’s work in real time, hearing him earn giggles for his then-unreleased “Norwegian Wood” answer song “Fourth Time Around” in Sheffield (disc 17) and endlessly tweak the work-in-progress electric set opener “Tell Me, Momma” at every stop of the tour. Dylan doesn’st settle on a single set of lyrics throughout the 20 surviving performances of this song, which was never recorded in a studio; the official lyrics in his published lyrics book (and on his website) bear only fragmentary resemblance to any version documented on the box set. A lost classic, never performed again after 1966, each version flashes by in a perfect torrent of Dylan-esque babble, as if he were scribbling in a notebook, trying out endless variations.
To Dylan, his sets with this Group seemed to represent the next step in his work. Though only Robbie Robertson featured on Blonde on Blonde, in stores a few weeks after the tour concluded, Dylan would rush-release the Liverpool recording of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” as the B-side of the last pre-album single, “I Want You.” In addition to spending post-show time with the Group and his entourage reviewing Alderson’s recordings, Dylan continued to work off-hours on even more new songs, with a half-dozen fragments of hotel songwriting sessions with Robertson included on last year’s The Cutting Edge, almost all abandoned after the tour.
Operating at high speed in every regard, Dylan’s career would take a major turn after a motorcycle accident in Woodstock in July, canceling the next legs of the tour, eschewing live performance until 1969, and staying off the road until 1974. The 1966 Live Recordings, then, are a definitive cap on one of the most productive and astounding periods in any popular artist’s creative history, a story so familiar it’s become an archetype and myth. While the recordings sound pristine as might be hoped, give or take occasional distortion, the accompanying packaging is left a bit wanting. The long liner note essay by longtime Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin is excellent, but the mere quantity of music seems to demand even more material than the set provides, or even just more caring annotation of what is included, like the dates of film stills or even the names of the concerts’ venues. (Heylin’s own recent book Judas! From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall is an excellent start.)
The box set offers dramatic resolution, too. During the tour’s penultimate gig, at London’s Royal Albert Hall (disc 29), Dylan’s syllable-crunching shout-singing bounces gracefully off the Group’s elastic crunch, a performance every bit as transcendent as Manchester. But on the last night (disc 31), Dylan finally snaps, and after the electric set-opening “Tell Me, Momma,” offers a completely earnest and logical explanation for the music. “I like all my old songs, it’s just that things change all the time, everybody knows that,” he says in part. It’s so earnest, in fact, that he finds himself speaking words that one would rarely associate with the future Nobel laureate. “The music is… the music is… I would never venture to say what it is,” Dylan trails off, perhaps even shocking himself in his attempted candor. But on this final night of the tour, mostly, Dylan finally sounds too far gone, his voice weak. He and the Group seem to fray in places, and in doing so reveal the other 21 performances for the high-wire achievements they were and are. “You can take it or leave it, it’s up to you,” Dylan says, and the choice still exists, the answer out there blowin’ somewhere.