Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol.4: Bob Dylan Live 1996, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

So, when I arrived at the Dylan portion of this project, I relistened to this album and (somehow) came away unimpressed and decided I would remove it from my collection. Fast forward about ten months, and I was pet/house-sitting in Seattle and my hosts had a turntable and vinyl collection (they had two turntables/collections, actually, but one was explicitly off-limits, which is a distinction I respected (as in, honored, and also respected, as in thought approvingly of) and among the few albums available to me and that I wanted to listen to was this one. So I put it on. And I came away with a new appreciation. But now I was mistrustful of my own ears and decision-making. So I waited another two months or so and listened to my copy at home again. I am keeping it. Incidentally, I think my original decision came after listening to the acoustic side and not really paying attention to the electric side, as I was probably getting a little Dylan-weary at the time.

What I Think of This Album

This is the renowned concert at which someone in the Manchester crowd yelled “Judas” at Dylan for the sin of going electric, and he responded “ I don’t believe you . . . you’re a liar,” which borders on nonsensical (though the catalyzing accusation is itself a bit off-base – who is the Jesus in this scenario?) And then Dylan commanded his band – which was in actuality, the Band (minus Levon Helm, though they were the Hawks at that time) – to “play it fuckin’ loud” as they launched into “Like a Rolling Stone.”

This is a two disc set, as it should be. How else to properly document the show? The first half of the set (disc one) was acoustic, with Dylan playing solo. The second half of the set (disc two) was Dylan and the Hawks playing electric. Splitting this into two physically distinct records drives home the nature of what the audience experienced. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the context. There is no way to divorce the myth from the music, and indeed, one listens for the legendary heckle with anticipation as “Ballad of a Thin Man” subsides. And that is the album’s great flaw, no fault of Dylan’s of course:  it is more significant as a record than as a record, even as the electric side provides white-hot versions of already-great songs.  

The first disc finds Dylan in classic folkie form, warmly received by the audience. At this point in 1966, Blonde On Blonde was not available in the U.K., so three of the seven songs of the acoustic set were new to this crowd. What strikes me most about the acoustic portion is the harmonica playing. The runs on “Desolation Row” are pretty great, and they add mournful touches to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. More generally, this version of “Visions of Johanna” probably justifies its otherwise indefensible length. “Fourth Time Around” sounds a lot like “Norwegian Wood,” and is speculated to be some sort of mocking response to that song. But side one is not the reason anyone owns this album.

The electric side actually offers a gift apart from the confrontation. Set opener “Tell Me, Momma” is a verifiable rarity, never recorded in the studio and never played live other than on this tour. I don’t know why, because it’s a strong tune; Dylan’s vocal is inspired and the Hawks are tight and play with passion (particularly Robbie Robertson on guitar and Garth Hudson on organ). In fact, the entire second side bridles with energy. Versions of “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” and “One Too Many Mornings” are outstanding. You can hear some indistinct heckling and what observers describe a derisive slow clap as Dylan warms up for the third track. Hudson shines and Robertson lays down some nasty lines on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” You can hear more catcalling and extended mock-clapping before “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” kicks in, which is thrillingly delivered.

The audience again gets spicy, growing more agitated as the set progresses, and you can hear them for a fourth time in the space between “One Too Many Mornings” and “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the latter of which’s lyrics translate well to the situation unfolding in the venue. After “Ballad,” it gets strangely quiet. Then comes the infamous denunciation, which garners the approval of the crowd, and there are more shouts, leading to Dylan’s retort, followed by the blistering closing performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.” 

The concert indeed was held at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (also the site of the seminal Sex Pistols concert in 1976), though the album carries the title – now in quotes to reflect the historical inaccuracy – the “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. Not officially released until 1998, bootleg versions of the show had existed since about 1970, and not unreasonably someone got the source show wrong and the name stuck. As if the concert was not historically significant enough, it turns out that shortly after the 1966 tour ended, Dylan was in the motorcycle accident that took him out of the public eye for more than a year, and he would not tour again until 1974.

The reason Levon Helm was not with the Hawks at that time was that he had been taken aback by the negative reaction of U.S. crowds during the autumn 1965 shows and left the tour after a few weeks, choosing instead to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Tell Me, Momma” is a great, semi-lost Dylan song.

Release Date

October, 1998

The Cover Art

Ho to the hum.

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