“It used to be like that, now it goes like this,” Dylan mutters before the electric “I Don’t Believe You,” and that sums up the mood and the impact of this incredible record. When Dylan and the Band mounted the tour of England from which this concert comes (Manchester, not London’s Royal Albert Hall as long assumed), Dylan stood atop the musical world; a standard-setting, vital performer, maybe the most important of his time. The music scene in the mid-’60s was a far different place than today – there wasn’t as much of it, for one thing. This meant that events like “Dylan goes electric” sent tidal waves, not mere ripples through the minds of musicians and fans alike. Some got it, others didn’t. He had always made music for adults, but when he cranked up the Stratocaster at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, backed by Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, among others, some of his fans booed and whined like petulant children, terrified of change. He never looked back.
This record, one of the most bootlegged sets of all time, has grown to the status of legend, and in this remixed release, you see why. The first disc, Dylan solo on guitar and harp, gives sharp evidence, if anyone needs reminding, of why he is considered a genius poet. The aching sadness of “Just Like a Woman,” or the harrowing “Desolation Row” are as good a string of words as any penned by an American writer this century. But by this point in his career, Dylan had grown weary of the standard “Folkie with a Guitar” tour format, and his disdain just adds a sharpness to tunes like “She Belongs to Me” and a brutal, scathing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” With this music, he set a standard that many have reached for, but few have touched. Cryptic, smotheringly personal, it slaps you in the face and pulls you to places in yourself that you might not want to go, at times sneeringly mocking our fears and doubts. If the first disc was the only one released, it would still be enough to blow away the over-hyped dross lingering in our musical vista today.
But it’s the second disc, Dylan with the Band, that blows you away. The Band, minus Levon Helm – who quit the tour, tired of “busting his ass and getting booed for it” and hiked back to Arkansas (Micky Jones takes his place on drums) – was simply the greatest “American” band ever. Here they stomp, duck, and weave, and become as important to Dylan as his own hands, and as in step. Robbie Robertson fills spaces with little snippets of Telecaster glory that sting and slash, while Garth Hudson, the Band’s elder shaman, swirls and teases with his brilliant organ playing, paranoic but proper. Dylan’s voice crackles and jabs — it’s a perfect instrument. Anyone who says he can’t sing doesn’t understand what the human voice is designed to do — it is a tool of communication, not a trained seal.
It’s difficult, 32 years later, to perhaps understand the sheer groundbreaking blitzkrieg that Dylan unleashed when he made this music. It’s hard to relate to the fan who yells “Judas!” after a masterful, engulfing “Ballad of a Thin Man” — at one point, music mattered. If affected peoples lives. Sadly, it rarely does anymore, and it takes something like this record to remind us of that fact. Far and away the album of the year, Live 1966 shows us, that for a brief moment, rock and roll was the axis around which the world turned, and Bob Dylan was the driven visionary that spun the globe. We’ll most likely never hear such again. Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., 26th Floor, New York, NY 10022