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Bob Dylan’s incendiary 1966 world tour makes an epic box set

Bob Dylan during his 1966 tour.
Bob Dylan during his 1966 tour.(D.A. Pennebaker)

The question comes from somewhere out in the audience, amid booing and turmoil. “What happened to Woody Guthrie, Bob?”

When Bob Dylan answers, his voice is all exhaustion, sarcasm, and barely concealed disgust. “These are all protest songs, now c’mon.” A few moments later his band crashes into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a tale of Mexican misadventure that is anything but a “protest song.”

It is May 26, 1966, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the penultimate night of a tour that has taken Dylan and his band, the Hawks, through North America, Australia, Europe, and the United Kingdom. But it could be almost any night. Dylan has heard all this before – the boos, the catcalls, the demands to unplug, the slow clapping that prevents him from introducing or starting songs.

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What he hears, above all, is the audience’s insistence that he be what he once was – a folk singer – and the angry sense of betrayal at his refusal. This time around, there was no Hattie Carroll, no chimes of freedom, no blowin’ in the wind. True, Dylan opened each show with a solo set of acoustic songs, surreal fantasies and love songs drawn largely from his most recent albums, and they were attentively received. But one line from “Visions of Johanna,” which he sang virtually every night, presaged the trouble ahead: “The ghost of electricity/Howls in the bones of her face.”

That is what audiences heard in the second half, when Dylan and the Hawks, riding a wave of adrenaline and God knows what combination of substances, walked on stage and proceeded to play eight hard-edged rock songs that were probably the loudest music listeners had ever experienced. “When we kicked off the second half, we did kick ass and take names,” said drummer Mickey Jones in Martin Scorsese’s documentary “No Direction Home.” On an average night, this part of the show was met with audible disapproval. On bad nights, all hell would break loose.

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The 1966 tour long ago stopped being just a phase in Dylan’s career and became the symbol of an artist’s struggle for independence against his fans’ wishes. What’s strange is that it assumed this iconic place in Dylanology despite the fact that for years almost no evidence of it was formally sanctioned for release. It took until 1998 for the most legendary of these shows – recorded in Manchester on May 17 – to appear in Sony’s official Bootleg Series, after decades of existence as an actual bootleg. Much of the tour was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker, and some of the footage would make its way into Scorsese’s 2005 film, itself just out in a 10th-anniversary edition.

Now, finally, this incendiary string of performances can be heard in as complete a form as history will allow. “Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings,” released on Nov. 11, collects every known live recording from that year. The band’s sound man, Richard Alderson, taped many shows directly from the soundboard on a portable recorder. CBS Records, as Dylan’s label was then known, professionally recorded four British concerts for a live album that never materialized. One show was taped by an Australian TV station, and there are five poor-quality audience recordings. The result: A jaw-dropping, bricklike 36-CD box.

On the one hand, preserving all this for posterity seems self-explanatory, the correction of a decades-old omission. But the main stimulus for this release was more prosaic: a European copyright law mandating that any performance not officially released after a half-century passes into public domain. Evidently Dylan and his management decided that if they were going to lay claim to this material, they might as well be comprehensive about it.

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That’s why some of what’s here will likely appeal only to core Dylanites. Some of the soundboard recordings have strange balances, so that some instruments are in your face and others are inaudible. Dylan’s voice and harmonica are always high in the mix, and his singing is at times almost unlistenable. And the set list for most of these shows was identical, so you get as many as 20 versions of certain songs.

For all that, listening through the whole of this box set is an exhilarating experience. You hear the songs evolve on a micro level – a solo extended, a vocal delivery altered – as the musicians’ confidence with them grows. In the early shows, the Hawks sound like a ragged bar band; by the end, they are a lethally proficient collective. And the strange sound mixes serve to highlight their individual contributions: Robbie Robertson’s stinging guitar leads, Garth Hudson’s circus-like organ swirls, Richard Manuel’s honky-tonk piano, and the hard-hitting rhythm section of Jones and bassist Rick Danko.

Above all, it is the chance to eavesdrop on Dylan’s verbal warfare with his British audiences that makes “The 1966 Live Recordings” so thrilling. “Shut up!” and “Go home!” are common refrains. There is an authentically frightening atmosphere in Liverpool, and an agitated audience member yells, “Where’s the poet in you? Where’s your conscience?” Dylan drolly replies, “There’s a fellow up there looking for the savior. The savior’s backstage, we have a picture of him.” “We want Dylan,” they shout in Glasgow. “Dylan got sick backstage,” Dylan shoots back. “I’m here to take his place.” Over and over he mumbles nonsense into the microphone to quiet the rancor.

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The most famous exchange, of course, came in Manchester, where a concertgoer named Keith Butler yelled out “Judas!” “I don’t believe you,” Dylan retorted. “You’re a liar.” Then he tells the Hawks to “play [expletive] loud.”

That outburst has always been one of the most extraordinary moments in pop music history. Heard here, in the context of all the other mayhem, it is more like one step in the unfolding of a process that began with a fractious electric performance at Newport the year before and ended in a surge of hatred at the tour’s shambling final concert, on May 27 in London. Sounding strung out and defeated, Dylan invites the audience to take a minute and deliver whatever invective they please at him. “How does it feeeeel?” he wails during “Like a Rolling Stone,” the song barely hanging together. From one point of view, he had conquered the world; from another, he was a leper. He was 25 years old.

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When we talk about Dylan now, we hit mundane topics like whether he can still sing (he can) or whether he deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature (he does). These recordings, though, bring back a time when his music mattered so much it almost exploded into violence. Night after bewildering night as Dylan and his bandmates took the stage, it seemed like the world could come apart because of a bunch of songs. How cool is that?


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassical
notes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.