Bob Dylan: The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert! (Columbia/Legacy Recordings)


Bob Dylan
The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert!
Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings

One of rock music’s most notorious bootlegs is erroneous. For decades, Bob Dylan’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966 has been the stuff of legend; performing with The Band behind him, he is in the process of inventing what we now call rock and roll. The audience—full of folk purists—hate it. They boo him, and, infamously, a heckler is heard yelling out, “Judas!” Dylan slyly responds, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar,” and then proceeds to tell his band to “play fuckin’ loud,” as they launch into one scorching version of “Like A Rolling Stone.” It’s the stuff of legend, that.

One problem, though: it didn’t take place at the Royal Albert Hall. No, this legendary concert took place at the Manchester Free Trade Center. A minor point, to be sure.

However, the Royal Albert Hall show from that tour was recorded, and as a teaser from a box set containing all known recordings from his 1966 tour, the show has been released individually as The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert!, and it’s easy to understand how this mistake took place, as both performances share the same setlist, in the same running order. Aside from the banter, the shows even sound interchangeable.

On this tour,Dylan’s sets consisted of two parts. The first half consisted of an acoustic set, while after a break he would return to perform a band set. The acoustic set offered here is downright haunting; his renditions of “Visions of Johanna,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” and “Just Like A Woman” are easily some of his finest live performances to date. It’s hard not to imagine an audience being completely enraptured of the man; the silence from the audience is palpable, as you could easily hear a pin drop.

Most of the second half consists of material he’d released over the previous year. In this set, three early songs, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” and “One Too Many Mornings” get the rock band makeover, and though over the years they would become staples of his live set, here they sound awkward and clunky; they’re the only songs here not written or recorded with a full band, and Dylan’s arrangements are quite shaky and tentative. They’re not bad, but they’re not necessarily good.

This, of course, raises an interesting point: were the negative reviews given to the tour a result of folk “purists” refusing to accept his newfound rock band style, or did the criticism come as a result of him giving them a perfunctory, if not slightly dull performance? It’s an excellent question. It’s easy to understand why an audience might not care for the second half of the show, especially as the first set was a transcendent experience of Dylan at his best. One must remember that an artist’s experimentation with their material doesn’t guarantee that the audience will like it—or that the experiments will actually be good. Over the course of his career, Dylan would become a master of rearranging and remaking his classic material—often to the disdain and puzzlement of his audience.

Still, one can’t fault Dylan for wanting to shake things up and try different things. The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert! highlights the contradiction and the frustration that was and is Bob Dylan in concert: a man who can take the audience to heights of ecstasy and escape one minute, and then turn around and confound and frustrate them the next.

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