Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings
Disc 17 – Sheffield, May 16, 1966 (CBS Records recording)
Disc 18 – Sheffield, May 16, 1966 (Soundboard recording)
How do you review a thirty-six-CD box set containing every known recording of Dylan’s pivotal 1966 world tour? It’s not easy. This impressive and weighty artifact comprises previously unreleased material sourced from soundboard tapes and official CBS Records recordings (plus a few audience tapes) drawn from more than twenty concerts in the US, UK, Europe and Australia.
Although the set list changed very little from night to night (most shows ended with “Like A Rolling Stone,” with just a few going out on “Positively 4th Street”), the actual performances varied greatly as sections of the audiences became increasingly hostile towards Bob’s “Thin, Wild Mercury Sound”, culminating in the infamous “Judas” incident in Manchester.
Rather than attempt an all-inclusive thirty-six-CD overview, I decided to take a detailed look at just a single concert from Sheffield, May 16. Two disks are devoted to this show, one for each set.
This representative mid-tour concert, a perfectly recorded performance with Dylan at the peak of his powers, took place just 24 hours before the “Judas” episode.
I was at this show, so it holds powerful memories for me. It’s an eerie feeling listening to these CDs now, knowing that half a century ago my fifteen-year-old schoolboy self and a few pals were seated somewhere in the gloom of the Sheffield Gaumont Cinema watching this drama unfold. To say it was a life-changing experience doesn’t even come close.
Expectation weighed heavy in the air that Monday night in May 1966 and I was more excited than I can ever remember before, or since. It’s been claimed that the Sheffield show was one of the best of the tour, both in terms of Bob’s performance and the recording quality. These CDs bring that show and its power forward fifty years into the present.
Opening with a near-perfect “She Belongs To Me,” the first surprise is Bob’s powerful vocals and exaggerated enunciation, which at times makes him sound almost like a Dylan impersonator, albeit a very good one. Our parents tried to tell us he couldn’t sing, but that was never even close to the truth. He didn’t sound like anyone else perhaps, but in 1966 his voice was as good as anyone in rock and better than most. As we heard on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 version, during the ’66 tour Bob changed the line “She wears an Egyptian ring” to “Egyptian RED ring”. A tiny modification, perhaps, but a typically mysterious one.
Officially, Blonde On Blonde was released on the same day as the Sheffield concert, May 16, but I don’t recall seeing the album go on sale until a few weeks later. Consequently, the four Blonde On Blonde tracks Dylan performed on the tour were unfamiliar to the audiences, who were hearing them for the first time. Add the otherwise unreleased “Tell Me Momma” to the list and that’s five brand new songs Bob brought to the party.
The first unfamiliar song of the night is “Fourth Time Around,” seemingly a parody of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” delivered in waltz time. Sitting here in 2016 with a lifetime of rock gigs under our collective belt, it’s strange to think that in 1966 many people had never been to more than a handful of shows and had yet to develop the concert-goer’s protocol we take for granted today.
Consequently, now-familiar lines like “Your words aren’t clear, you’d better spit out your gum” are greeted with loud guffaws from the embryonic Bobcats hearing them for the first time. It’s the kind of thing you might hear at a Randy Newman concert today but it seems out of place at a Dylan show.
Another new song, the breathtaking “Visions Of Johanna,” follows and once again there’s nervous audience sniggering at lines like “Hear the one with the mustache say, Jeez I can’t find my knees.”
Things get back on a familiar path with a stately “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and the word-a-thon that is “Desolation Row” before the third new tune of the night makes an appearance. “Just Like A Woman” is not your typical Bob song. It has a middle eight for a start, a rare thing indeed in the Dylan canon. Less organic than much of his catalogue, it seems more a product of the songwriter’s craft than simply a vehicle on which to hang the stream of consciousness wordplay he was writing at the time.
“This never happens with my electric guitar,” grumbles Bob as he struggles to tune up before “Mr. Tambourine Man.” We’re seven songs into the acoustic half of the show and it’s the first time Dylan has spoken.
It’s also the first song of the set to receive anything resembling the self-congratulatory audience recognition we’re so familiar with today, with a smattering of applause greeting the opening line. Delivered, for the most part, as per the record, “Mr. Tambourine Man” goes off-piste toward the end when Bob abandons the script and begins to suck and blow the harmonica like a man possessed. It’s as if he’s suddenly realised he has twenty notes at his disposal and is determined to use them all as often as possible.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” ends the first half in fine style and Bob leaves the stage to the first generous ovation of the evening. We didn’t know it, but we had just witnessed the calm before the storm.
There are no stage announcements as the heavy velvet curtains creak open for the second half. The stage is still in darkness except for the red standby lights of the guitar amplifiers. In the gloom, several shadowy figures–The Hawks!–shuffle on and take up their positions. A single spotlight finds Dylan and we see that his acoustic guitar has been replaced by a Fender Telecaster. Dylan begins to strum a rhythm and the band falls in behind him. The drummer picks up the beat and then, almost without warning, a glorious cacophony fills the hall.
“Tell Me Momma,” the fourth unfamiliar number in the set arrives like a sledgehammer. This strange song deserves some explanation. Dylan has never released a studio version and it has only ever been performed in concert fifteen times, all of them on the 1966 tour. Tell Me Momma was first played on February 5 at White Plains, New York and made its exit on May 27 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, never to return.
“I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” started life two years earlier as a mid-tempo acoustic song on the album Another Side Of Bob Dylan but here it’s transformed into a disjointed heavy rock stomper. Bob’s spoken intro “It used to be like that, but now it goes like this” disclaimer was repeated most nights throughout the ’66 tour.
On the face of it, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” seems like an unusual choice to perform live, but again it has a story to tell. Firstly, it’s the only song in the entire set not written by Dylan. This trad. arr. Eric von Schmidt tune first appeared acoustically on Bob’s 1962 self-titled debut album and two years later The Animals covered it (as “Baby Let Me Take You Home”) for their first single. The Newcastle band followed this with their monster hit “The House Of The Rising Sun,” another non-original song from Dylan’s first LP. It’s thought that Bob was so enamored with the Animals’ rocked-up versions of those songs that it inspired his change to electric music, which in turn gave rise to the entire folk-rock movement. So we have a lot to thank Eric Burdon and his boys for, it seems.
The lead into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” features a long stream of consciousness preamble from Bob about “a painter who lives down in Mexico”. Bob’s not making much sense here and if I didn’t know better I might suggest he’d been overdoing the backstage refreshments during the interval.
Again, he gave a variation of this rambling narrative several times during the tour. This was for many years the first and only song from the ’66 tour to receive an official release; a version recorded in Liverpool on May 14 (two days before Sheffield) appeared as the B-side of the single “I Want You” in June 1966. Other than the B-side, until this box set appeared, the live Liverpool version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” was only ever released officially on the now out-of-print 1978 Australian compilation Masterpieces. (The Sheffield version seems tighter and less ragged than the Liverpool recording, but that could be down to the improved recording quality.)
Until now the audience has listened in quiet reverence to the electric set, possibly because they’ve been pinned to the wall by the volume. But to paraphrase a line Bob himself would sing many years later: things are about to get interesting right about now.
At the close of “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat,” the final new song of the set, the natives begin to get decidedly restless. Heckling, booing, shouting and general unrest breaks out in earnest, while a few Dylan supporters yell at the dissenters to keep quiet. “That’s crap” wails someone, while another tells Bob “Just play.”
Dylan deals with this in familiar, if bizarre fashion. He mumbles incoherently into the microphone for a very long time until the rabble eventually quietens down, mainly because they are trying to work out what he’s saying. He ends this otherwise unintelligible speech with “…when I was just a baby” then, as the band kicks into “One Too Many Mornings,” he repeats “Remember, I was a baby once”–only louder this time.
By the time the tour reached Sheffield, we’d all read in the music press about the fan unrest elsewhere. But, really, what were those fans expecting? Blonde On Blonde may have been a few weeks away, but Dylan had already released a couple of full-fat electric albums: Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. The singles “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Positively 4th Street” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” had been all over the pop charts for a year, so the blueprint of Bob’s new direction should have come as no surprise to anyone but the most out of touch, reactionary folk fans.
“One Too Many Mornings” was then a two-year-old song from The Times They Are A-Changin’ album, but Dylan was evolving at such a rate in the mid-60s that those two years might well have been a decade. That was then and this is now and the rollicking “One Too Many Mornings” is unrecognisable from the gentle acoustic ballad of 1964. More yelling and dissent follows as Dylan takes his seat at the piano for “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” Someone in the band says “Can you hear ‘em?” before Bob enquires–with heavy sarcasm–“No boos?” over the opening chords. Seemingly spurred on by events, Dylan delivers an incandescent performance as good as any of the other six (count ‘em) official live versions that have appeared over the years (not counting those on this box set, of course).
Mickey Jones’ pistol shot snare kicks off “Like A Rolling Stone” and we’re into the home stretch. Only a year after the best rock single of all time (© all rock magazines, forever) put the cat among the folk purists’ pigeons, here’s Bob already experimenting with the phrasing and scansion, stretching a line here, shortening another there and generally messing with the structure of the song. Robbie Robertson is in top form, his snaking guitar lines are inventive and ground-breaking throughout, but nowhere more so than on this closing song.
Then suddenly it’s all over and, as the stunned crowd begins to shuffle out wondering what the hell they have just witnessed, the spell is broken by a single–and in this context, quite surreal–verse of “God Save The Queen,” then-obligatory in all British theatres and cinemas, played over the tinny theatre speaker system.
[Editor’s note: Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, the 36-CD box set which contains the Sheffield disks, is available here.
A two-disk set containing the tour’s Royal Albert Hall concert is also available.]
Sheffield, May 16, 1966: Tracks
1. She Belongs to Me
2. Fourth Time Around
3. Visions of Johanna
4. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
5. Desolation Row
6. Just Like a Woman
7. Mr. Tambourine Man
1. Tell Me, Momma
2. I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)
3. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
4. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
5. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
6. One Too Many Mornings
7. Ballad of a Thin Man
8. Like a Rolling Stone