The recording of Bob Dylan’s 1966 Manchester concert, for so long erroneously attributed to the Royal Albert Hall and finally released in Columbia’s official bootleg series six years ago, owes its legendary status to the electrified second half of the performance and the notorious “Judas” exchange. It has to be the most famous case of audience participation in rock’n’roll, and it’s undeniably a pivotal moment. But the power of its mythology has served to eclipse the edgy brilliance of the acoustic first half of the concert. The next volume in the ongoing officially-sanctioned trawl through Dylan’s massive unreleased archive revisits another memorable acoustic performance 18 months earlier, at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on October 31, 1964. And although?or perhaps because?the Halloween date finds him less wired and drugged-out than on the ’66 tour, the performance is arguably even more potent.
The illicit concert recording has long been one of the most highly rated Dylan bootlegs among collectors, both for its content and for the exemplary sound quality?the tapes were pirated directly from Columbia, whose engineers recorded the show for a planned live album. A sleeve was even produced, and the catalogue number 2302 assigned. That it never appeared in the shops had nothing to do with any lack of quality. Rather, it was that by then Dylan was moving so fast that there was no time to schedule its release.
Within nine months of the Philharmonic Hall appearance, he’d delivered two new studio albums in Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, and controversially ‘gone electric’ for the first time at Newport. A live acoustic album would have been out of date almost faster than they could have pressed it up. Then a sequence of further tumultuous events, followed by Dylan’s subsequent retirement from touring for seven years, meant that we had to wait until 1974’s Before The Flood for his first official live album.
What we now get, 40 years later than originally planned, are 19 songs that capture Dylan as he stands trembling on the cusp between Woody Guthrie-influenced folk protest singer and Rimbaud-inspired rock’n’roll poet. This is Dylan in headlong motion, snapped in a unique, brief and vital transitional moment in his development as his comet blazes across the firmament of popular culture.
Early protest songs that never made a studio album such as “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” and “Who Killed Davey Moore?” sit alongside five songs from his then current album Another Side Of Bob Dylan. Three tracks apiece from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ jostle with the pure pop of the unreleased “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” (soon to be covered by Manfred Mann) and three as-yet-unrecorded masterpieces that would imminently appear on Bringing It All Back Home, the record that marked his full-blown metamorphosis to electric messiah.
His rapport with the audience is extraordinary. He’s kidding around, revelling in the adulation, funny, charming and irresistibly sharp and self-confident. And yet oddly innocent. When it comes to the encore, the crowd calls out for favourite songs, and one wag has them in peals of laughter by yelling for “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. But nobody upstages Dylan in this mood. “Is that a protest song?” he deadpans. Then he sucks his harmonica and starts to sing, “I ain’t looking to compete with you.” As he continues the song, the falsetto on the first “All I really want to do” of the chorus is so outrageous that he can’t suppress an involuntary but delightful giggle.
“Don’t Think Twice” is unbelievable, as he toys joyously with its familiar melody, taking it to the edge and beyond and exploring the familiar lyric with such wide-eyed wonder that it sounds as if he’s singing it for the first time. “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” is delivered not only with a burning intensity; as he rails against the injustice of the murder of “a maid of the kitchen” who “gave birth to ten children” and “never done nothing to Wiliam Zanzinger”, there’s a heart-rending humanity that is living proof that he was full of bullshit when he later cruelly told Joan Baez that he had only ever sung protest songs for the money.
Indeed, he sounds genuinely happy when Baez, the self-appointed keeper of his conscience, steps up to duet on a tender “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, an impassioned “It Ain’t Me Babe” and a committed “With God On Our Side”. On the 1965 tour of the UK, captured by DA Pennebaker in his classic documentary Don’t Look Back, Dylan was vicious to Baez, freezing her out and pointedly never once inviting her on stage with him. Yet here he’s even content to be her sideman, contributing discreet harmonica embellishments while Baez’s pure, soaring soprano flies solo on “Silver Dagger”. It is, perhaps, the apotheosis of their fleeting joint reign as folk king and queen.
A snapshot of Dylan’s state of mind at the time is provided by the prose poem “Advice For Geraldine On Her Miscellaneous Birthday”, which he wrote for the Philharmonic concert programme. In it, he warned against going “too far out in any direction”, for people will “feel something’s going on up there that they don’t know about”. Before you can explain yourself, “revenge will set in” and they will “start thinking of how t’ get rid of you”.
As a prophecy of the turn his own career was about to take, it’s uncanny, and there are fascinating signposts to the brave but dangerous new world that awaited in early sketches of “Mr Tambourine Man”, “The Gates Of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. Just seven months later, in May 1965, Dylan would play his last show as a folk troubadour before he courted the boos of the Newport crowd and headed off in pursuit of that “wild mercury sound”. Pretty soon he’d be cranking up his amp and angrily telling The Hawks (about to become The Band) to “play fuckin’ loud”. But this live recording proves his genius crackled with electricity long before he ever plugged in.