Saturday, March 11, 2017


When I first heard Dylan's camp was releasing every last decent recording they had from his mammoth 1966 world tour in a huge boxed set, I thought it was a bit of overkill. Granted, it was something historic, the famous first electric tour, with the first half acoustic, and the second half performed with The Hawks (soon to be The Band), the one where the audience routinely booed the blast of noise, wanting a return to his folk sound. But the sets were almost exactly the same the entire tour, so over 36 discs, you'd keep getting the same songs over and over. Plus, the most famous show on the tour, the one where someone in the crowd yelled, "Judas" at him, was already released back in 1998, so good Dylan fans have that one already.

For years, that oft-bootlegged show was called the Royal Albert Hall set, but it turned out that was wrong, it was from Manchester in the U.K. So as a stand-alone release from the 36-disc box is this two-CD set, referred to as the Real Royal Albert Hall show now. Slightly confusing, but we know what it means. It's the exact same set list, but listening through, it's a drastically different night. The audience is not as upset as Manchester, perhaps a bit hipper (The Beatles were there), although there was some rhythmic clapping in between a couple of songs, the British way of complaining. But Dylan didn't lose his temper, and there seemed to be a bit of appreciation between audience and star. That doesn't mean the music was less incendiary, at least not to any great amount. Robbie Robertson's lines still sting, and Garth Hudson's organ, fill-in drummer Mickey Jones (Levon Helm had quit the group, hating the booing) was pounding heavy, and Garth Hudson's organ was filling the hall with searing tones.

The acoustic set is what grabbed me the most though. What I thought would be pretty much a mirror of what I'd heard before in fact was a revelation. Dylan's reading of his songs changed substantially, mostly in the way he handled his guitar and the ubiquitous harmonica lines. When he wasn't singing, he was blowing, and coming up with new harp phrasings. You could hear him challenging himself vocally as well, approaching the melodies like a jazz singer. That same desire to mess with the formula would become his stock in trade decades later, and his vocal phrasing would only get better, allowing him to tackle these Sinatra and songbook standards over his most recent albums.

Not everybody is going to want to hunt for subtleties and wade through another 34 CD's to find these little moments, but I've come around to think that I for one would find it a thrill. Sigh, time to check to the bank balance. That big box is $120.

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