“Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast,” Bob Dylan laments in “You’re a Big Girl Now” (1972). Time also, as Hamlet notes, and often, is flexible, open to interpretation, and may, like a crab, run backward. This past Saturday night in Roanoke, Virginia, Dylan sat down at his piano for the second song of a show, and I gasped. The opening number was “Things Have Changed,” for which he won an Academy Award for best original song in 2000. His Oscar statuette sat to one side of him, next to the marble head of a woman, a lyric muse, as Dylan moved to the big grand piano. He sat down, shifted on the piano bench, and took off his big white hat, ruffling his fingers through his hair, and wham, it sprang into an eminently familiar silhouette. He flexed those long fingers, and began to play “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Time — precious time — froze. The audience was completely still. The cool suit, the boots keeping the beat, the whole backlit outline at the piano from toes to face to that unmistakable coiffure: was it 2016, or 1963, or sometime, any time, in between? In the words of Dylan’s fellow Nobel laureate in literature, William Butler Yeats, who was also a balladeer and singer of songs, saw I an old man young / Or young man old?
You kept feeling that you had no sense of time throughout the show, in great baffling bursts. As Dylan sang alternate words for “Tangled Up In Blue,” people who had clearly known it only one way for forty years murmured, shushed each other, excitedly compared “what’d he say?” notes at the end.
Now I’m goin’ back again
I’ve got to get to them somehow
Yesterday is dead and gone
Tomorrow might as well be now.
The box sets that keep on coming from Sony/Columbia make you feel this way, too. You mightn’t have been alive *ahem* when Dylan was making some of these recordings, but beginning with Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991, and intensifying recently in the richly packaged and produced Volumes 11 and 12, The Basement Tapes Complete and The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, the Bootleg Series makes you feel giddily like a fly on many long-ago walls.
Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings (release date: November 11) does not include a full recording of every concert by Dylan and the Hawks/Band in 1966, nor does it purport to. According to the most reliable source, Olof Bjorner, Dylan and his band, consisting of Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and (for a few shows in North America) Sandy Konikoff or (for the rest of the world tour) Mickey Jones, played forty-eight shows from February 4 (Louisville, Kentucky) to May 27 (the Royal Albert Hall, London). Columbia/CBS Records recorded some of these shows. Audience members taped some, in very varying degrees of quality and completeness. Many of the shows on this set have been bootlegged before, as is the nature of Dylan concerts, chiefly on the grand mess entitled Jewels and Binoculars — but the careful work that Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, with an army of researchers, mixers and specialists in digital transfer, have done makes even the fuzzy audience tapes shine. The Stockholm concert of April 29, for example, promised only faint hope; but it’s lovely, now. “Desolation Row,” during which everyone is silent and all you can hear is Dylan’s keen voice, a shivery, shimmery guitar, and that blue harmonica, is a fragment you can shore against any ruins.
There are 36 discs, the last five (and part of disc 9, Bristol, England) from audience tapes. Many of the gigs take up two discs; Dylan and the band typically played a seven or eight-song set, took a break, and — sometimes — came back for seven or eight more. Standouts are the soundboard recordings from Dublin and Belfast, of which only shards have been available, officially and un, before, and Sheffield, where Dylan is downright chatty, for him. (If you are a fan of Bob Talk, he is most loquacious in Australia, perhaps because, as he said to a reporter there, “I don’t think they know me here like they do in the States.”) The Glasgow concert, despite a “Desolation Row” that is only partial, is spectacular. And once more, with feeling, we can hear clearly the audience call of “Judas,” and Dylan’s response, and instruction to the band, just before “Like A Rolling Stone” in Manchester at the Free Trade Hall on May 17.
Clinton Heylin, for decades one of the most knowledgeable and best writers about Dylan, and the author of a new book about the 1966 tour, did the liner notes for this collection. He emphasizes the crowds’ negative reactions, and bad press the tour received, and — with pithy quotes from drummer Mickey Jones — the band’s devil-may-care-but-we-don’t feelings about it all. And rightly so. Sure, you can hear all this on the recordings. But you also have here a bunch of guys owning their stage and flying in the face of anything else, making of that stage a spectacle and soundscape all their own, a colosseum and a cathedral. They are having flat-out, full-tilt fun.
The set lists, after Australia, don’t vary much, which should surprise no one who has enjoyed going to Dylan concerts for half a century. He doesn’t often throw a change-up in the set list. This is all right, though, when the songs are those in question; the heart of his phenomenal trilogy of albums of 1965 and 1966, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde. When I get tired of hearing Dylan, Robertson, Hudson, Manuel, Danko, and Jones play the same songs together on different evenings, I’ll let you know.
Though the order shifts, the hits keep coming, sonic blows that leave you à bout de souffle. “Desolation Row.” “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” “One Too Many Mornings.” “Mr. Tambourine Man.” “Visions of Johanna.” “She Belongs To Me.” “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” “Like A Rolling Stone.” It’s a happy flashback to hear “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” Eric Von Schmidt’s sly carpe diem folksong that was on Bob Dylan (1962), and that Dylan would last perform with The Band on that epic Thanksgiving Day in 1976.
The band that would become The Band is no one’s backing band, not even Dylan’s, not even in this brave new world of music he was making in 1965 and 1966. That isn’t how they perform, how they play. Listen. They all play together, with brightness and violence, grace and joy, attitude to burn and the skill and craft to back it up. On Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings individual instruments sing out. The Band’s music has often been called organic, and this is fair; there’s a feeling that, like Topsy, it just growed, out of Canadian-Acadian rhythms and Levon Helm’s Arkansas soul. Yet it took each individual and his instrument to make The Band the living organism it sounds like. Richard Manuel was a genius at the piano. Rick Danko may, some day, get the individual acclaim he so richly deserves for not only his heartbreaking angel’s voice, but his jazzy and blues-laden creativity on the bass. Garth Hudson, the historian, the spiritual soul of the band, supplies a rippling, vital organ line that can be a trickling creek or a mighty rushing river. Robbie Robertson’s electric guitar is the band’s entire central nervous system. Over and over, in the recordings of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” Robertson burns you down. In the studio version of this song that went onto Blonde On Blonde, Charlie McCoy marveled, at the end, “Robbie, the whole world’ll marry you on that one.” McCoy spoke true. Helm, the beating heart of the band, was on hiatus back home, but Mickey Jones mans the drums on the majority of these concerts with truth and power.
As Dylan told Nat Hentoff in 1966, “my songs are pictures and the band makes the sound of the pictures.” Buoyed and buoyant because of their art combined with his own, Dylan soars. He’s the man who told reporters about his mercury eyes, slim and in constant motion in his checked suits and spotted shirts, Cuban bootheels rapping and toes tapping, light and bright and fierce, blink and he’s not there. This Dylan is Loki and Hermes, fire and quicksilver, messenger of the gods. The electricity of his new songs, the skipping reels of rhyme and almighty sonic lines, sounds in every word he sings and every note that’s played. Songs you know by heart sound different from show to show, night to night. It’s Dylan, and the band, living up to what he threatened the apocryphal “Maura Davis” with in Woodstock, back in 1965: that he “just might write a song — write a song RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!”
For the price of a front orchestra seat at one of his concerts today, listen to a month’s worth of evenings with Bob Dylan and a band to dream on. Then go hear Dylan, live and in person, in these United States right now: in Columbia, South Carolina and Asheville, North Carolina, in Birmingham and Mobile, and all over Florida. Hear him perform “Desolation Row” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” live. You can, this time around, just as you could in Sheffield or Sydney or Stockholm in 1966. These songs aren’t hanging in museums under high security, as is comparable art made in other media. They’re vital and ongoing, shapeshifting in the hands of their maker, even now. Know this, and be grateful.
His fans surely, increasingly, are. At the end of Dylan’s Roanoke concert, people tried to say thank you with presents, in a way I’ve not seen before at his shows since the “never-ending tour” began in the summer of 1988. An older couple had a lovely image of the sampler the wife had embroidered for their son’s room when he was a baby: a verse from “Forever Young.” A young man had a cd of tribute music he’d recorded for Bob. A woman tried to place a big bouquet of roses on the edge of the stage. Security was harsh; then, as soon as the lights went up, the guards began apologizing to the thwarted bringers of offerings. One burly man, in the soft broad vowels of the Shenandoah Valley, was saying, “I’m sorry, y’all, it’s the strictest show I’ve ever worked. And the one thing they were real specific about was no gifts. Mr. Dylan wouldn’t accept any gifts.” No gifts for Mr. Dylan; yet he remains the giver.
All images via Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings and copyright Sony Music Entertainment