An Afterthought by Ian Low

It has been called the greatest live concert ever put up by a rock artist. Some have even labeled it elegant music, fit for royalty. It stands as one of rock's most cherished recordings, live or otherwise. Yet, for almost thirty years now, it still remains officially unreleased. Most Bob Dylan fans have referred to it as The Royal Albert Hall Concert, but ironically, it was actually held at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on May 17, 1966. Numerous bootlegs have covered this cherished set throughout the years, most which have inferior sound quality. But now, a recent boot released in late '95 has surfaced as an important document of this landmark performance.

Guitars Kissing And The Contemporary Fix is, at this time of writing, the best unofficial release of the fabled concert. As such, it is rather difficult to find a copy of this at your regular music store, but it is unquestionably worth the hunt. Even the packaging of the discs is exquisite and better than your average boot. But what matters most is the music that is contained on these two discs. Immaculate is the only word to describe it.

This bootleg actually consists of the entire concert, including the acoustic solo set that is rarely found on other bootlegs of this concert. Although the solo performance does not quite live up to the intensity found on the electric set, Dylan is still in exceptional form. His renditions of "Desolation Row" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" are miraculously wonderful. His confidence here is unfaltering, able to keep the audience and listener entranced with his voice and guitar for a considerable stretch of time.

The rest of this acoustic set does not wander far from this quality of performance, and Dylan himself does not take too many risks with the arrangements of his solo set. Essentially, most of these songs were largely acoustic in their original guise. Here, he just strips the instrumentation bare. Maybe because of this lack of electric influence, the audience during this first half is largely muted and less hostile than in the second half.

But it is the more famous electric half of the concert that has drawn the most response over the years. It features a historic confrontation between Dylan and his audience, documenting the most famous and important of all such exchanges in rock history. At the time of the concert, Dylan was still known in England as folk singer than a leader of a rock band. That attributed to some of the confusion among Dylan fans that night, expecting their hero to come to their town and sing "The Times They A-Changin'". What they got instead was something else completely.

Even during the acoustic set, Dylan refused to perform any of his songs prior to Bringing It All Back Home. But on the electric set, Dylan would dig into some of the songs from his debut album and The Times They Are A-Changin'. The only thing was Dylan had these songs rearranged with an electric band in mind, and what resulted was versions of these songs that sound and feel entirely different from the originals. "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down", for example, sounded more like a Rolling Stones recording than a traditional folk ballad. Yet, for three decades after this, Dylan would still be constantly rearranging his material for his audience, often confusing them with unrecognisable versions of songs from his enormous songbook.

Dylan chose to open his electric performance with a new song and as yet, still unreleased. "Tell Me Mama" is an upbeat rock tune that kicks off the band into high gear immediately. Rick Danko's bass dances around Mickey Jone's drumming and Robbie Robertson's playful licks like they are long lost friends just meeting up again. Full of raw energy and Dylan's passionate singing, he could not have chosen a better song nor performance to begin with.

He introduces the next song almost cryptically, " used to be like that, now it goes like this." The band then collectively breaks into the song's groove with relative ease. By the time Dylan sings the first lines from this song, the audience is already mystified to whether this is a new Dylan composition or an existing classic. It is not until Dylan finishes the first chorus that they comprehend what Dylan had done, rewriting his own song for a live audience not with words, but with a new musical arrangement.

One of his first album's covers is transformed into a highly charged dance number that would surely have pleased the teen crowd of that period. "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" builds up in intensity from an initial subtle introduction of just harmonica and guitar, before the drums crash in and kicks the entire track into a relentless groove of electric beat. Its message is lost as Dylan shouts himself above all the electric noise to deliver his scorched vocals.

"Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" slows down the tempo for just a while. Robertson's guitar provides a more elegant introduction than the original stately piano entrance on the studio version. Dylan occasionally changes some of the words from its original as he slips into a trance of drugged vocals, invoking a surrealistic atmosphere in the Free Trade Hall.

Following an inspirational performance of "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat", the crowd becomes restless and starts to chat among themselves. This invariable creates a mood of uneasiness among the entire audience as one part of the section starts to clap rebelliously. The previous then unknown song probably did not go well with the crowd, as they start to show visible signs of restlessness and hostility. Dylan starts a low chant, mumbling a story that is only audible to himself.

As the rest of the audience notice what he is doing, they begin to lower their clapping to allow themselves to be able to hear what he is saying. It is only then that Dylan triumphs by saying clearly into the microphone "... if only you wouldn't clap so hard" at the end of his chant. Immediately following this, he launches into a ferocious reading of "One Too Many Mornings" that leaves the entire audience stunned at the completely foreign arrangement of this song.

"Ballad Of A Thin Man" in its original incarnation was already such a vicious song on the listener on Highway 61 Revisited. Here, Dylan takes it to new levels of cynicism and aggression. Richard Manuel's opening piano chord attacks the song with an even stronger menace than its studio counterpart. Garth Hudson successfully duplicates the eerie Hammond organ while Robertson's piercing guitar and Jone's uncompromising drumming rounds up the entire electric performance. Even if Dylan turns in a mediocre vocal, which he does not, it would be outstanding. As it is, this performance ranks as one of the best live performances from Dylan, second only to the closing song on this night.

The legendary exchange between Dylan and a disenchanted member of the audience before the start of "Like A Rolling Stone" is already well documented. The cry of "Judas!" must have triggered off something inside Dylan. His famous reply quotes from one of his earlier songs in the evening, "I don't believe you!". "You're a liar!", he adds with much aggression as he turns towards his band to say "Play fucking loud!" or something similar to that.

The entire band then launches into perhaps the most fierce and unrelenting "Like A Rolling Stone" of Dylan's career. The tone here is even more bitter than on the studio version. Here, Dylan is singing directly at a live audience and his anger aimed at them with utter contempt at their hostility towards his new electric approach. With each chorus, Jone's drumming becomes like thunder claps, ready to strike down the entire audience if necessary.

Dylan's voice is not so much singing, but shouting at his audience. His vocal is more akin to spitting then reciting his lyrical poetry. The whole performance grows and intensifies throughout, reaching a near apocalyptic nature towards the volcanic climax. His only objective is not to let his audience get to him, as he retaliates in the only way he knows how. In the end, both Dylan and his band achieves a remarkable victory over the disgruntled audience that has never been witnessed nor surpassed since.

The previous boots of this concert have been unsatisfying, what with poor sound quality or incompleteness tarnishing the enjoyment of the material. Thankfully, Guitars Kissing overcomes all these flaws to provide an accurate audio document of this monumental event. The sound is crisp and in stereo and especially on the electric set, the mix is excellent and clear throughout. The bass is not as overbearing as on some other boots, and the overall effect is so astounding that it will leave you breathless. It is almost impossible to see how an official release from Sony could better this.

However, Guitars Kissing is also missing some audience dialogue here and there as compared to other bootlegs like Swingin' Pig's Royal Albert Hall. But this is a minor gripe with a bootleg that should be on every Dylan fan's player. This is an essential statement in Dylan's career. Perhaps the most important one of all. Any live act from any major artist in rock would have to be measured against this particular night's performance. Chances are, Dylan would emerge triumphant. With this concert, Bob Dylan has proven himself to be not just a brilliant recording artist in the studio, but one of the most vital live performers in the history of rock and roll.

Ian Low
2nd June 1997

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