Saturday, January 29, 2005

Bob Dylan and the Hawks, Royal Albert Hall Tapes

A week or so ago, I picked up Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Vol 4: Live 1966. Known as the Royal Albert Hall Tapes, but actually recorded at some other place in Manchester. The liner notes, written by Tony Glover, really lay it on thick- it's an important concert not just for its quality, but for its spectacle. It's a famous concert.

Everybody knows about the backlash to Dylan going electric. That's well documented. This is the famous "Judas!" concert, the one where all the tensions of being boo'd and stalled and hated by a good half of your audience came together to create a moment, right? This came after Levon Helm, of Dylan's backing band Levon and the Hawks, left the tour when it went to Europe because he couldn't stand playing for an audience that was there just to not dig the scene. This is it.

And I read some other pieces on the concert. Most of them called it bad. Boring. Colombia Records not only propping up the Dylan myth, but sucking money straight out of fans who will shell over twenty bucks for a shitty concert because it is famous, it is a moment in rock.

They're kinda right.

The first disc is Bob, solo and acoustic. And excepting "Visions Of Johanna", the same cut used on Biograph, there's not much to the disc. It's boring, and sprawling, and half of his harmonica work sounds like he's just dicking around. It's obvious he didn't want to do that. The audience politely applauds (not claps, there's a difference we'll get into in the next paragraph) after each song and everything seems cut and dried enough. It's Bob Dylan playing acoustic guitar and harp and singing for a paycheck.

The second disc though, the second disc is something else entirely. First off, understand that the Hawks are not The Band. The Hawks would go on, after leaving Levon Helm's replacement off of their actual roster, to become The Band after the summer of '67 when they just sat around in a basement playing songs with Dylan. There's a noticable difference in the sound from the Hawks behind Ronnie Hawkins to the Hawks behind Dylan to the Basement Tapes's Band to what was heard on Music from the Big Pink. At this point, with Dylan leading them, they sound like a backing band entirely. But what a backing band- Robbie Robertson's guitar work is nothing short of incredible at several points, and Garth Hudson's work on the keys informs the mood nearly as much as Dylan's singing. The Hawks seem halfway poised between the rockabilly bar band of their earlier days and the layered rock and roll band they would become. The second disc is Dylan leading the Hawks through an eight song set.

The music is good, morso in some places than others. "Tell Me Momma" is a fun track, nothing really amazing. And even though the audience is trying to fuck with Bob's head, they can't stop loving him- he introduces "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Had Met)" by playing the harp line, and saying "That was 'I Don't Believe You.' It used to go like that, now it goes like this." The audience laughs. In between numbers the audience starts clapping. Not applauding. It's a slow clap. It's a psych out. It's fucked up. Dylan and the Hawks trudge on. "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" is interesting- it's not too far removed from the original recorded version, aside from the backing band and rock beat and all, but it's not anywhere near the hard rock riffage of the tune as performed at The Last Waltz. If anything, that track should be downloaded if only to see how songs evolve and change. "Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat" is a kick ass track, flat out. And then the slow clap again as someone tunes a guitar. The clap is louder this time, and more persistant. Dylan steps up to the microphone and begins mumbling some kind of gibberish-story. Slowly, people stop clapping to listen. As soon as much of it has died out, he ends the story, "if you only wouldn't clap so hard." And everybody really laughs. In one moment it goes from the audience trying to piss him off and stall the concert to really enjoying it. And for the most part, Dylan seems like a good sport of it. They launch into "One Too Many Mornings", which is a good track- I don't know if it's as good as the Dylan duet with Johnny Cash, but it's different. In between the organ drenched (in a good way) and sprawling "Ballad of a Thin Man" and the next song, someone in the audience yells "Judas!"

The entire audience claps, cheers, and catcalls.

There is silence from the stage. Dylan strums his Fender Strat, and steps up to the microphone after a short pause. "I don't believe you." The kids in the audience there to see Bob Dylan, the rock musician, not Bob Dylan, the standard bearer of folk, clap and applaud and life. A bit more silence from the stage, and the audience. "You're a liar!" Bob Dylan turns around to the Hawks, and tells them one simple thing, picked up by his mic.

"Play fucking loud."

They launch into "Like A Rolling Stone". It's probably my favorite version of the song- better than Dylan and The Band on Before the Flood, more life-or-death than the original studio recording. They finish, and they leave the stage, they don't play an encore. That's it. That was their concert. So, the second disc, is it worth it? Yeah, definitely. It's a great concert album, but beyond that, there's something else entirely. After reading Dylan's Chronicles: Volume 1, you want to try and do your part to disspell the Dylan myth. Just a musician who was doing his own thing. But this concert proves that it was larger than life- it's the rock and roll rebellion all over again, it's an artist versus a world that doesn't understand him, a man ahead of his time. Dylan said that the 1974 Dylan and The Band tour was them playing parts and living up to the image of the '65 and '66 tours, but they were just playing parts in those tours, too. It's hard not to buy into the Dylan myth. He was just 25 in 1966, with a huge body of work. At 25 he was being told that he was straying too far from his earlier material, recorded when he was 20, or maybe 19 (it was sometime in 1961). That, in and of itself, is a horribly fucked up thing for an artist to deal with, much less being that young. And then after being rejected world wide, he crashes a motorcycle, breaks his neck, shuts out of the public eye for two years while cutting some of the best rock and roll songs ever with The Band (and then trying their best to keep the general public from hearing them), comes back with a wild beard and Born Again. The Dylan myth is pretty damn real, and it's all right there, on the second disc.

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