Few artists, let alone folk icons, have so continually defied expectations surrounding their career trajectory, and those in the very stylistic foundation of their music, as Bob Dylan.
He did it 50 years ago with a performance now issued as “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert,” and he did earlier this month in the quizzical way he non-acknowledged and then ultimately accepted, via proxy, the Nobel Prize in literature.
In fact, the very title of “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” is a bit of a puzzle. An aural snapshot of a tour that reintroduced the folk giant as a rock ’n’ roller, often to the considerable consternation of his audience, the album puts into historical perspective the 1998 release dubbed “Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert,” which was later revealed to have been recorded in Manchester.
Pop historians can and will argue at length about the virtues of both performances. They certainly have the ammo for it, as “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” is a two-disc ambassador of a beastly new 36-disc box set, “The 1966 Live Recordings.” The latter is an assemblage of every known bootleg, soundboard and professionally preserved artifact from Dylan’s tour that year. But with a price tag of roughly $16 (the boxed set sells for about $140), “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” makes for a simpler yet exact examination of a pop scholar in a state of extraordinary transformation.
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What remains curious, all these years later, is that for all the ballyhoo about Dylan going electric, the first half of the 1966 concerts featured him in the familiar guise of solo folkie. In fact, some of the biggest treats in “The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert” come from the acoustic performances and the astonishing audio clarity they are now presented in. There is simply no way to understate the immediacy of an early-20s Dylan upholding the lean, patient vitality of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Just Like a Woman” and especially “Visions of Johanna” when all were essentially new works.
Of course, the electric music that roars out of the second disc remains the sound of purposeful anarchy. Backed by The Hawks, the unit that would become The Band the following year, Dylan creates heavy drama out of the set-opening “Tell Me, Momma,” wailing over the clang of a young Robbie Robertson on guitar and especially Garth Hudson’s calliope-like keyboard orchestration.
Levon Helm sat out this tour, but Mickey Jones nicely propels the drive on drums during cranky versions of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” But Dylan remains ringmaster of this fascinating carnival, cluing in the London audience before a rewired “I Don’t Believe You” on what his electric intentions were in 1966.
“It used to be like that,” he says with deadpan solemnity before reintroducing the song as a plugged-in country romp. “Now it goes like this.”