Q: How many folk singers does it take to change a light bulb? A: Four. One to change it, and the other three to walk out of the room because it went electric.
Bootlegged to death over the years, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert received its first official release in 1998, and went straight to #19 on the UK chart. Many trad-folk followers in attendance bleated and booed before departing the Manchester Free Trade Hall (where this show was actually recorded) on 17th May, 1966, a concert that would forever go down in infamy, while those who stayed would unknowingly become part of history. Two sets separated over two CDs. The first presents the acoustic half of the evening, and the second, well I’m sure you the reader already knows how that one goes.
Manchester Free Trade Hall was one of four shows professionally recorded by CBS utilising a state of the art 3 track stereo machine (the others being Sheffield on May 16 and London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 26 and 27). Several other performances were also captured during his Australian tour (from which a couple of excellent high quality recordings have surfaced), however it was the Manchester gig that was deemed to be the best.
What is interesting is that most of the songs performed acoustically are older than those played electric. He begins and closes the acoustic session with “She Belongs To Me” and “Mr Tambourine Man” respectively, from his 1965 LP Bringing It All Back Home, while two cuts from his yet to be released Blonde On Blonde album were included, along with the beautiful “Visions of Joanna” and the gentle, delicate “Just Like a Woman”. Dylan is no technician when it comes to the guitar (nor vocals for that matter); what’s more important is the conveyance of emotion. The sort of thing he achieves quite effectively.
The eleven minute “Desolation Row” has a few lovely guitar flourishes here and there (including a pretty flamenco section), along with enough nasal gazing from Bob to last any listener a lifetime. Another song from Bringing It All Back Home is “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, whose lyrics were heavily influenced by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and the whole symbolism movement of the 19th Century.
In some respects, there is an immediate urgency in his voice, as if he couldn’t wait to get the whole thing over and done with – in order to unleash his full arsenal of electric artillery onto what must have been a largely unsuspecting audience.
Backed by future Band members (here still known as The Hawks) Robbie Robertson (guitar), Rick Danko (bass), Garth Hudson (organ), Richard Manuel (piano) and Mickey Jones (drums), when Dylan walked out on to the stage for the second half, looking less like a folk singer and more like your typical mid-sixties beatnik-hipster and the worst thing of all, was that he was holding an electric guitar! This could mean only one thing – electricity, amps, and loud music.
The often ramshackle performances are held together by the sheer energy on display. Dylan seems pretty stoned throughout, delivering his cynical almost hallucinatory sermons with the sort of deviance typical for him at the time. The set opens with the previously unreleased “Tell Me, Momma”, a song that includes some blistering guitar solos by Robertson, the first of many throughout the set. “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” from Another Side Of Bob Dylan, is given a radical reinvention, before thundering his way through “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat”.
“One Too Many Mornings” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” are given raucous yet soulful readings and see the band in full flight behind Dylan’s multi-syllabic vocalisations, especially “Ballad of a Thin Man”, where Hudson’s organ twirls itself around the instruments, like a boa constrictor trying to strangle the listener through every note.
After the famous “Judas” call from a member of the audience (a defining moment if there was ever one), Dylan and The Hawks bring down the house with a positively hall shattering “Like A Rolling Stone”, one of the finest versions ever heard, so much so that it’s extraordinary it took more than thirty years to see the light of day. Dylan spits out the words like venom at the crowd, defying expectations in the process, which is exactly what rock ‘n’ roll ought to be: challenging, insolent and rebellious.
Nowadays acoustic/electric gigs are common place, almost expected even, as a way of warming up the audience before the sonic storm. However back in the ‘60s, when folk was often still considered as folk, rock was rock, and pop was, well, whatever pop was at that point, what Dylan effectively did was break those barriers (no more Maggie’s Farm him in other words) not so much for our sake, but for his own.