He says it in a stern, martial tone, just within earshot of the microphone, turning to his musicians and barking each word in a mathematical cadence: “Play … fuckin’… loud!” The rage and disdain in Bob Dylan‘s voice are unmistakable, even against the poisonous buzz of the crowd. And then, when Dylan leads his white R&B gunfighters, the Hawks, on a blood-lust march through their final song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” it is clearly the sound of a man at the frayed edge of patience. This isn’t rock & roll; it’s war.
The heckling; Dylan’s stoned, snarled retorts; the filibuster like clapping between songs; that immortal catcall, “Judas!” — these have long been the distinguishing marks of Dylan’s hard day’s night at the Free Trade Hall, in Manchester, England, on May 17th, 1966. But his screw-you goodbye is the killer moment, a vicious, exhilarating reminder that rock & roll — something that is now fun for the whole family — once had the power not only to bind but to divide, to be a weapon of argument and vengeance. On Live 1966, finally available as an official Dylan album after thirty-two years, you can hear the bullets fly.
Live 1966 is probably the most bootlegged rock concert of all time. It is also one of the most misunderstood. For years, illicit vinyl copies mistakenly claimed that the tapes were from Dylan’s London shows a week later — hence the awkward title of this edition. Also, audiences at Dylan’s ’66 British gigs had reason to be puzzled, if not pissed off. A year earlier, Dylan had toured the country as a solo poet-troubadour. What the fans got at the Free Trade Hall was an amphetamine-stressed hybrid of bard and bully: a Dylan packing the complex interior lyricism of Blonde on Blonde and fronting a juke-joint combo armed with brains and grace. In short, Dylan was gunning for mischief. As he sings in “Visions of Johanna,” “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks/When you’re trying to be so quiet.”
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The crowd is, if anything, too quiet, too adoring, in the acoustic set. Dylan sounds like he’s performing in an empty, frosty room. But he fills that space with dramatic force. He sings “Fourth Time Around” and “Just Like a Woman” with focused warmth, and, in “Visions of Johanna,” he draws out his vowels with cliffhanging emphasis. He revisits “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” with a lively, swinging tempo, but you can tell he’s bored with protest-folk stereotypes and Victorian decorum when he gets to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He puts a mocking, Shakespearean lilt into his voice and exaggerates words like you and to as though he’s firing them into a spittoon.
It’s hard to believe that a country then up to its eyeballs in electric R&B (the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Pretty Things, the Who) was so absurdly parochial about an amplified Dylan. That, however, just made Dylan and the Hawks play harder and meaner. Between the metallic room echo and the alternating currents of cheers and jeers, it often feels like Dylan and the Hawks are playing into a fierce wind, fighting the tide of attitude with venomous glee. They turn “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” from Dylan’s first album, into meaty punk rock — Robbie Robertson peels off silvery guitar licks like gunfire — and add a drunken elegance to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Dylan’s braying brilliantly framed by the curdled sarcasm of Garth Hudson’s circus-tent organ. And has Dylan ever sung “Ballad of a Thin Man” with such ferocious concentration as he did that night? Probably not. I can’t imagine he’s ever been that mad onstage since.
The self-righteous goon who yelled “Judas!” put this show in the history books. The music is the reason that Live 1966 is still epic theater. Play it fuckin’ loud.