By David Browne
October 16, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert the Bootleg Series Vol. 4

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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-o, 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.

From what I’ve heard of your performance-art gigs, you’re used to hostile crowd reactions, so you should relate to the second half of this set. The fans wanted more balladry with social-protest undercurrents. What they heard instead was a clanking assault. The audience attempts to disrupt the band by shouting ”Judas!” or clapping out of time (Dylan witheringly mutters, ”If you only wouldn’t just clap so hard”). Yet the musicians play on. Imagine, in this focus-grouped age, actively giving the audience something they don’t want.

Again, you’re probably mumbling ”’60s folk rock — how quaint.” But Soyman, babe, trust me: There’s nothing antiquated about the full metal racket Dylan and his band made on stage. From the snarl of Robbie Robertson’s guitar to the carnival-carousel tone of Garth Hudson’s organ to the prodding sneer of Dylan’s voice, it’s a joyful mess, reflecting Dylan’s own precarious mental health and his need to leave the folk ghetto. At times the music is so ramshackle that the Hawks sound as if they’re making it up as they go along. Yet that sense of exploration electrifies the music in multiple ways. Listen to the once acoustic ”I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” which now has a frazzled, hair-pulling intensity; Dylan sounds as if he’s on a ledge. It’s only unfortunate that the remaining songs of the electric set weren’t always up to that level. The revamped ”Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and the never-recorded ”Tell Me Mama” choogle like a grand funky railroad, but it’s a shame that stronger songs from this period — ”Highway 61 Revisited,” ”I Want You,” and so on — weren’t performed in their place.

So there you have it — Dylan at his prime, available at an emporium near you. And since this recording has never been officially released before, it is — hint, hint — eligible for a Grammy nomination next year. But you didn’t hear that from me. A

Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert the Bootleg Series Vol. 4

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