Talk about a Bobfest! The 1966 Live Recordings, a beautifully packaged new 36-CD box, collects every known recording from Bob Dylan’s 1966 shows on three continents—and no, 36 is not a typo. Throughout, Dylan is backed by an outfit that includes Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson of the Hawks (later the Band). The drummer is Mickey Jones, who left the Hawks after this tour.
The concerts took place during a period of great creativity for Dylan. It was also a period when the times were a-changin’ as much for him and his music as for the world around him. The first show here happened only two months after he married and just weeks after the birth of his first child. His music had recently turned from acoustic folk to electric rock, resulting in apparent boos at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival and elsewhere and major hostility at the 1966 shows. At a Manchester, England gig, an audience member shouted, “Judas!” before “Like a Rolling Stone” and Dylan famously responded by telling his band to “play it fucking loud!” Later, in London, he addressed the audience about his move to electrified rock, saying, among other things, “I realize it’s loud music . . . you can take it or leave it.” Only a few months after the tour, during which Dylan turned 25, he left it himself for a while in the wake of a serious motorcycle accident.
The collection offers mostly excellent sound quality, considering that the lion’s share of the tracks are in mono and were taken from the mixing board and preserved via a portable tape recorder. (Columbia did, however, professionally capture four of the U.K. shows here with the intention of producing a live album.) The box presents the concerts in the order they occurred with the exception of the five gigs featured on discs 32 to 36, which offer decidedly inferior and often barely listenable audience recordings.
The package features 21 takes of “Desolation Row.” “Fourth Time Around,” meanwhile, comes around 18 times.
Nearly all of this material has not previously been released. One notable exception: the 15-track concert that appeared on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4, which listed its source as a Royal Albert Hall London show. In fact, these recordings turn out to be from the aforementioned Manchester gig from earlier in the same month.
Now for some good news, some bad news, and some more good news.
First some good: this collection contains superb performances of many of Dylan’s best songs from the early and mid-sixties. In addition to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” the traditional blues that he learned from folksinger Eric Von Schmidt and recorded on his first album, the package includes 17 Dylan compositions, most of which rate as classics.
From January 1964’s The Times They Are a-Changin’, he serves up “One Too Many Mornings.” From the introspective Another Side of Bob Dylan, which came out in August of that year, he includes “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” and, on the audience tapes, “To Ramona.” March 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home is represented by “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “She Belongs to Me,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and, on the audience tapes, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” August 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited provides the peerless “Like a Rolling Stone.” Also from that album come “Ballad of a Thin Man,” about the clueless Mr. Jones; “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which Dylan introduces in one Australian show as being about a painter in Mexico City who is going through his “blue period”; and the epic “Desolation Row,” which he has said he wrote in the backseat of a taxi.
Representing the monumental Blonde on Blonde—which came out in May 1966, in the midst of this tour—are “Fourth Time Around,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” and the poetic, groundbreaking “Visions of Johanna.” Also here are “Tell Me Momma,” a Blonde on Blonde–period outtake; and “Positively 4th Street,” the terrific 1965 single that memorably begins with Dylan’s rant: “You got a lotta nerve / To say you are my friend / When I was down / You just stood there grinning.”
Now the bad news. Though this box includes nearly 300 tracks, it contains only the 18 songs mentioned above, each in multiple versions. The package features 21 takes of “Desolation Row,” for example, and 19 of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” “Fourth Time Around,” meanwhile, comes around 18 times. With a few exceptions, the performances don’t vary much, so it’s difficult to imagine that anyone needs to hear every one. So why are they here? Quite simply, because a clock was ticking: European copyright law says that recordings not commercially released within 50 years enter the public domain. If Columbia hadn’t issued these concerts now, anyone could have, and without paying Dylan or the label.
But I promised more good news, and that’s that The 1966 Live Recordings is selling on Amazon for about $125—not pocket change, but much less than you’d probably expect for a set of this size and quite reasonable for all this great music. So why not tell yourself that you’re paying that sum for, say, eight discs and getting the other 28 thrown in as a bonus? From where this Dylan fan sits, that sounds like an excellent deal.