Best Ever? Bob Dylan Live in 1966
Many noteworthy events happened 50 years ago: France withdrew from NATO, India suffered its worst famine in 20 years, Medicare began in the USA and the Supreme Court decided the Miranda vs. Arizona case, which established rights for people accused of a crime.
The entertainment industry also had its share of landmarks in 1966: The first Star Trek episode was broadcast on TV, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was published, The Sound of Music won the Academy Award for best movie, and New York’s old Metropolitan Opera House was abandoned.
Now, with the release this week of a 36-CD box set Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, it’s clear that another event must be added. Nineteen-sixty-six was probably the most significant — and many Dylan historians say “best” — year of the American troubadour’s career.
The box set, which will be released Nov. 11 by Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, contains 36 live concerts Dylan performed in the USA, Europe and Australia. The concert recordings are a mixture of soundboard tapes, recordings from mobile trucks and audience tapes. Four members of Dylan’s band — Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson — went on to found the Band with Levon Helm.
The timing of the massive release was a stroke of fortune for the record company — less than a month after the Swedish Academy surprised the world by announcing that Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, captures “every known recording” from the prolific singer-songwriter’s groundbreaking 1966 tour, Columbia/Legacy says. That’s three-fourths of the 48 shows Dylan performed that year, according to Dylan historian Olaf Bjorner.
The box set is a treasure trove for Dylan fanatics. Nearly all the concerts have never officially been released. Dylan’s 1966 concerts were performed just months after he switched from adored folk artist to brash rock and roller. The move from acoustic to electric guitar — beginning with his July 25, 1965, appearance at the Newport Folk Festival — stirred controversy. There is debate whether Dylan was booed at Newport for going electric or other reasons, including poor sound quality at the venue and the short set he played.
But concerts that followed left no doubt that many folk purists were angry about Bob’s conversion to rock music. A month after Newport, he was booed at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York. And even the following year — at the May 17, 1966, show at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, which is rereleased in the new box set — a man in the crowd shouts “Judas” at Dylan after he plays his electric song “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Dylan responded: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” He then commanded his band to “play it fucking loud,” and they broke into a rowdy version of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Dylan’s live shows were not the only notable moments of 1966 for the artist. That year Dylan and his wife, Sara, saw the birth of their first child, Jesse, and Dylan recorded in New York and Nashville what many Dylan fans and critics say is his best studio album — the double LP Blonde on Blonde. The album was released a day before the Manchester concert and included many of Dylan’s greatest songs, including “Just Like a Woman,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and the epic 11-minute-plus “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
Dylan’s 1966 tour ended on May 27 at London’s Royal Albert Hall — a performance that spans two discs of the 36-CD box set. It would be the last Dylan concert until eight years later, when Dylan launched a comeback tour with the Band. After the Royal Albert Hall show, Dylan went home to Woodstock, New York, where, on July 29, 1966, he was injured in a motorcycle accident. He then disappeared from the public eye and spent time with his family for many years.
“Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race,” Dylan wrote in his autobiography Chronicles: Vol. 1. “Children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me, and I was seeing everything through different glasses.”
Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings documents the final chapters in Dylan’s rat race before his long break from music. Legacy Recordings President Adam Block explains the genesis of the 36-CD package.
“While doing the archival research for The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12, last year’s box set of Dylan mid-’60s studio sessions, we were continually struck by how great his 1966 live recordings really are,” Block says. “The intensity of Bob’s live performances and his fantastic delivery of these songs in concert add another insightful component in understanding and appreciating the musical revolution Bob Dylan ignited some 50 years ago.”
Dylan is truly America’s most important musical artist of the 20th Century, and, for his biggest fans, the box set is a must-buy. Having seen Dylan perform more than 50 times and meeting him once, I consider myself one of those fans, so the box has special meaning.
I will not declare the box the best live album ever, though, because, in July, I made that declaration for Van Morrison’s three-CD/DVD box set, It’s Too late to Stop Now … Volumes II, III, IV & DVD, released by Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings. And, for casual Dylan fans, the new box repeats the same 15 or so songs, or less, with no encores, from city to city.
Another bonus for Dylan devotees are the sleeves that house the CDs. Each sleeve is a color still of Dylan taken from the film shot on that tour by D.A. Pennebaker, the director of Dylan documentaries Dont Look Back and Eat the Document.
Separately, Columbia/Legacy is releasing one of the concert’s from the box set — the May 26, 1966, recording of Dylan’s performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall — under the title The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert. That title will correct the 1998 Dylan release, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4, which said it was the Royal Albert Hall Concert, when it actually was the May 17, 1966, Manchester show.