Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bob Dylan: Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (The Bootleg Series, Volume 4) (Columbia/Legacy)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer)

Hype something too long and, even if it turns out to be one of the greatest rock-and-roll performances of all time (as this long-awaited Dylan two-disc live set most certainly is), its impact will be diminished. In the thirty-two years since Dylan and the Hawks (later the Band) performed these fifteen songs at Manchester's Free Trade Hall (hence the quotation marks around "Royal Albert Hall" in the title), several--and in some cases many--less legendary but almost-as-good versions of these songs have implanted themselves in the minds of Dylan's fans, rendering these versions only marginally more impressive.

For instance, in the case of the acoustic "Visions of Johanna" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and the electric "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)," nearly identical and contemporaneous versions have been available legitimately on Biograph since 1985 (with bootlegs of the rest available starting at $20 since the Johnson administration). So instead of recommending itself more to hard-core fans than dabblers, as most archival sets by established artists tend to do, this document will probably prove more revelatory to neo-Dylanites than to old-timers.

Or maybe not. The disc containing the electric performances of songs such as "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Ballad of a Thin Man" that drove the folkie purists nuts is wonderful. Dylan's druggy singing and the Hawks' rugged, densely textured swirl provide both a captivating reflection of those ever-a-changin' times and a powerful example of why electricity is man's best friend. As for the notoriously finicky crowd, its main fault wasn't its vociferous disapproval of the plugged-in Dylan but its reverential awe at the feet of the unplugged one. Like, anyone who doesn't laugh at the line in "Visions of Johanna" about the jelly-faced woman with the mustache who sneezed and couldn't find her knees is really uptight, man.

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