Bob Dylan is back with historic album recorded 30 years ago

by Christopher Warren | 11/9/98 6:00am

When Dylan plugged his guitar in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he made an indelible mark on rock history. Yet in today's ubiquity of electric sound, it is sometimes difficult to imagine the revolutionary change that one concert represented.

With the release of "The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966," it is strikingly clear why many Dylan fans were so shocked. The two-disc set of a May 17, 1966 Dylan concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England is a bi-polar juxtaposition of the old Dylan and the new one.

The result is a magical, if somewhat uncomfortable, journey through rock history as Dylan spurns much of his musical past and heads in a new, uncharted and largely unpopular direction.

Indeed, the two CDs take us to the very point of inflection of Dylan's career; it is a rare chance to listen firsthand as an autonomous artist navigates the tumultuous waters of his social context.

The first disc features Dylan at his folksiest best, one man, his harp and his acoustic guitar -- following soundly in the Woody Guthrie tradition in which Dylan started his career. While he has, by this point, moved away from the social-protest songs of his early career, his mode is still that of his early days.

Then comes the second set which does away with the acoustic and ushers in the electric. Dylan wields an electric guitar and is backed by a five-piece band. The contrast to the first disc makes the second sound like a musical jackhammer: pounding rhythms, sheer guitar riffs and searing vocal intonations.

Early in the second set, Dylan introduces "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)" by saying "It used to be like that, but now it goes like this."

He then proceeds to turn the formerly easy vocal melody from the 1964 album "Another Side of Bob Dylan" into the predominant guitar line, letting the instrument hold the melody while he sings the lyrics in comparative monotone.

Indeed, Dylan seems quite content to let the guitar do the communicating. He seems fully aware that his guitar is really the stage's focus.

The audience's reaction is another fascinating element to this CD set. Near the end of the second set, we hear one fan, disappointed in a perceived betrayal of the folk tradition, vitriolically yell "Judas!"

Dylan responds: "I don't believe you...You're a liar!" Then to the band: "Play f--king loud!" They then set into an overtly resentful version of "Like a Rolling Stone" that drips with the symbolism of its musical bravado.

While the electric disc two seems of the greatest import in terms of rock history, the acoustic first disc is by far the better of the two. The second somehow seems too antagonistic to allow for the vocal subtlety of which Dylan is eminently capable.

The first however features a great array of Dylan favorites: "Visions of Johanna," "She Belongs to Me" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" among others.

Dylan concludes the set with a version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" in which he uses creative emphasis and enunciation (he consistently pronounces the "to" of the chorus line "There is no place I'm going to" with a hard and acerbic "T") to give the song an odd new twist.

The show's highlight may be a passionate and fecund version of "Desolation Row" that surpasses even the recorded version on "Highway 61 Revisited."

Dylan is joined in the second set by the Hawks, the group lead by guitarist Robbie Robertson that would later become The Band. They follow Dylan through songs that include "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues."

Columbia's release of the album is likely an attempt to cash in on Dylan's '90s resurgence that includes his Grammy-winning 1997 album "Time Out of Mind." Dylan is currently on tour with fellow '60s icon Joni Mitchell, also trying to revive a dormant career, and the two have been generally well-received.

But "Live 1966" takes us back to a time when Dylan's career was so vibrant that the pop-music world hung on his choice of guitar.

It was a time when Dylan's anti-authoritarianism bled so deep into popular culture that everyone wanted to claim him as their own. Dylan, true to form, refused to be claimed.