By David Browne
October 12, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Live 1996: The Royal Albert Hall Concert

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Dear Soy Bomb:

We’ve never met, but consider me something of a fan. Your moment at the Grammys this year, when you leapt out of that pack of Gap-ad rejects and writhed next to Bob Dylan, was genuine live-TV history, and for that I applaud you. I would have named you one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year if I had that sort of clout. Plus, you dance almost as dysfunctionally as I do.

Still, given your age and professed lack of Dylan knowledge, you must have been wondering what connection you and those kids had with a jowly 50-plus boomer rocker. I don’t have any answers, but I can suggest you purloin a copy of ”Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert — The Bootleg Series Vol. 4” to help you understand why he mattered in the first place.

First, indulge me in rock history. After years as the folkie protest voice of a generation, Dylan integrated electric instruments (and amphetamine-laced poetry) into his music in 1965; the results, albums like ’66’s ”Blonde on Blonde,” were and still are mind-blowing. However, Dylan’s core folk fans, who equated rock & roll with crass commercialism, weren’t so cheered. (Imagine Trent Reznor working with the Spice Girls’ producer, or Master P making like M.C. Hammer.) When Dylan and his backing band the Hawks (later renamed the Band) toured the U.K. in 1966, the fans made their dissatisfaction known with jeers, and a bootleg tape of the May 17 show, long mislabeled the ”Royal Albert Hall concert” but actually recorded in Manchester (not London), made the rounds. Dylan’s own shroud of tourin’, it was a mythological document of a volcanic point in Dylan’s life. Now, 32 years later, Columbia — no doubt encouraged by the sales and Grammy success of ”Time Out of Mind” — has finally released it.

You have a right to be suspicious. Dylan’s previous live albums are a mostly forgettable, often grotesque lot from the ’70s and ’80s. What makes ”Live 1966” significant is that it is, amazingly, the first Dylan concert recording to be released from the ’60s. The first of the two discs is acoustic, just Bob, his guitar, and harmonica taking you on a magic swirling trip through Dylan’s barrier-smashing odes from this era: ”Visions of Johanna,” ”Just Like a Woman,” ”Desolation Row.” Even if the titles mean nothing to you, you’ll be floored by the intertwining wordplay and imagery, the fluidity of the melodies, the unflinching, laser-focused power of the performances. You’ll also be shocked by his voice. Unlike the death’s-door growl you heard at the Grammys, his throat here is gentler and more supple, somewhere between anger and resignation. Like you, I enjoy plenty of contemporary slouchy troubadours, but the first half of ”Live 1966” will make you realize how much more someone like Elliott Smith has to learn. A

Live 1996: The Royal Albert Hall Concert

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