Electric: The day Dylan changed Review: 'Royal Albert Hall' bootleg is a pure, angry rock performance that knocked traditionalists out on their ears.

October 13, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Ours is such a jaded era.

As much as we might complain about declining standards and compromised morality, the truth is, we just aren't as easily outraged as people used to be. These days, the only way a pop concert can generate controversy is if the artist in question does something truly outrageous onstage -- tortures animals, has unprotected sex, calls forth Satan or the like.

There was a time, though, when people would object to an artist's performance on strictly musical terms. It didn't happen often, but there were occasions when an audience would decide that a performance was too raw, too rhythmic or too electrified and would respond by hissing, heckling or walking out.

In other words, they'd react the way the crowd does to Bob Dylan on "Live 1966: The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert" (Columbia Legacy 65759) arriving in stores today.

Released as the fourth volume of the Dylan "Bootleg Series," this double-CD set represents a two-fold slice of rock history. Not only does it capture Dylan at his most controversial and confrontational, moving from acoustic folk to electric rock and daring the traditionalists to do anything about it, but it also represents the first legitimate (and complete) edition of one of the most famous bootleg albums ever.

"Live at the Royal Albert Hall" -- the concert actually took place at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, but the tapes had been mislabeled -- began turning up in record stores in late 1970 and was hardly the first Dylan bootleg to wend its way onto the market. But it was easily the most startling.

Here was Dylan in his mid-'60s prime, midway between "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde," and backed by what would eventually become known as the Band -- and yet many in the audience were openly hostile to him. Some hissed; others tried to disrupt his performance by loud, rhythmic clapping. One fan went so far as to yell, "Judas!"

"I don't believe you," came Dylan's angry, acid reply. "You're a LIAR!" And then, after turning to the band and telling them to "get ... f---ing loud," he launches into a tauntingly intense version of "Like a Rolling Stone," venting his rage at the traditionalists who taunted him. Dylan's drawling delivery never seemed so powerful or pointed; it was as if were twisting a knife with each yowled, "How does it feeeeeel?"

This was rock and roll as warfare, and Bob Dylan was taking no prisoners.

Some 32 years have passed since that tumultuous night in Britain, yet the emotional impact of that performance remains undiminished. If anything, the "Live 1966" set makes the show seem more vivid than ever, in part because the sound is so astonishingly clear, but mostly because it puts the event in perspective by offering the whole show, instead of just the electric portion.

Back then, Dylan played two sets each night. For the first, he'd play the folkie, taking the stage with just his acoustic guitar and harmonica rack and running through the sort of material that by rights ought to have placated his traditionalist fans. Then, after an intermission, Dylan would return with his electric guitar and a full band, ready to rock.

Bootleg buyers got only the second half of the show, where Dylan's daring was most obvious, but the acoustic portion of the show also had its share of provocations.

Most obvious was "Fourth Time Around," an homage to (or, perhaps, parody of) the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." Given the traditionalists' carping that Dylan had "gone pop," this sly nod to the most "pop" act in Britain was clearly a case of Dylan thumbing his nose at the folk community's sense of aesthetics. But because he rounded out the set with such favorites as "She Belongs to Me," "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," all was quiet on the audience front.

Things weren't so placid during the second set. Introducing "I Don't Believe You," originally an acoustic tune from the album "Another Side of Bob Dylan," Dylan drawls, "It used to be like that, and now it goes like this." Suddenly, the stage is awash in music, with Robbie Robertson's arpeggiated guitar chords ringing beneath Dylan's harmonica as Garth Hudson's organ swirls between them. It's a magnificent moment, as beautiful as it is inflammatory.

And so it went. The music gave no quarter, and Dylan didn't give an inch, pushing his musical vision with single-minded determination. That night in Manchester wasn't the only time he fought that battle, but thanks to "Live 1966," you don't have to have been there to appreciate his victory.

Bob Dylan

"Live 1966: The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert" (Columbia Legacy)

Sun score: ****

Sundial: To hear excerpts from "Live 1966," call 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6107.

Pub Date: 10/13/98

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