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Wednesday 22 November 2017

The year Dylan was truly electric

World tour: Some reports suggest that fans booed during the electric half of Dylan’s Dublin gig in 1966
World tour: Some reports suggest that fans booed during the electric half of Dylan’s Dublin gig in 1966
John Meagher

John Meagher

For Bob Dylan obsessives, it will be a cause for celebration. For others, it will be a sign that the record industry truly has lost the run of itself. On Friday, November 11, Columbia Records will release one of the most ambitious box sets of all time. The 1966 Live Recordings will comprise 36 discs and feature every minute of every show of Dylan's world tour from February to May of that year.

One has to wonder how big a Dylan aficionado you'd have to be to listen to 30-plus hours of the same batch of songs being played in various venues in the US, Europe and Australia. I get that making such a project available for public consumption is tailor-made for the streaming age, but it will be a much harder sell to convince Dylanites to part with upwards of €150 for the physical version.

Whatever about the merits, or otherwise, of such a venture, there's no doubt that Dylan's tour that year is among the most important - and fabled - in rock history. He was in the midst of an extraordinary burst of creativity at that time, having released three of his most emblematic albums in the space of 14 months: Bringing it All Back Home in March 1965 and Highway 61 Revisited in August of that year. The masterful double-album Blonde on Blonde would appear in May 1966.

Dylan was on everyone's lips in the mid-1960s. He had caused consternation at the Newport Folk Festival in the US in 1965, when he chose to play electric. The argument raged about whether or not he had sold out his folk roots by plugging his guitar into an amp.

Half a century on and it's difficult to appreciate just how contentious that decision was, and it was something that would dog him when he went on the road in 1966. The first half of each show would feature an acoustic performance, the second half would be the electric set with accompaniment from the Hawks (soon to be renamed the Band).

What a time to see Dylan, then, especially if you were living in Ireland and such international giants were exceptionally infrequent visitors to these shores. So there must have been huge excitement when it was announced that he would play Dublin's Adelphi Theatre on May 5.

It was his Irish debut, although he was more than familiar with Irish exports like the Clancy Brothers and years later, in an interview Bono conducted with him for Hot Press, he suggested Liam Clancy was the greatest ballad singer he had ever heard.

As with so much to do with Dylan's 1966 tour, fact and fiction blur when it comes to the Dublin show, and it's very difficult to ascertain just how good, or otherwise, the performance actually was. Some attendees were said to have admired what Dylan was trying to do, while others grumbled about the electric half - and there were suggestions that some booed in places.

Melody Maker reviewed the show and had misgivings about Dylan's new direction: "It was unbelievable to see a hip-swinging Dylan trying to look and sound like Mick Jagger. For most, it was the night of the big let-down."

Bootleg copies of the Dublin show exist, but fans will be able to judge for themselves just what reaction Dylan got at the Adelphi when the box set is unveiled next month.

The most significant date on the tour happened on May 17 at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, when an audience member shouted "Judas!" at him. "I don't believe you - you're a liar," Dylan drawled, before turning to his band to urge them to "play it f***in' loud", as they struck up a stunning rendition of 'Like a Rolling Stone'.

For years, bootleg copies erroneously labelled this recording as one from London's Royal Albert Hall (later in the tour), so when Columbia released the album as the fourth volume of their Bootleg Series, it was titled Bob Dylan Live 1966, The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert.

As all Dylan fans know, he had a motorcycle accident in upstate New York a few months after the tour concluded, and he wouldn't go on tour for the best part of eight years. Or, at least he claimed to have crashed - like so much of Dylan's life, the incident is shrouded in mystery, and many believe no such accident ever took place. "Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race," he wrote in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles. "Having children changed my life and segregated me from just about everybody and everything that was going on. Outside of my family, nothing held any real interest for me and I was seeing everything through different glasses."

Intriguingly, Irish fans wouldn't see him play this country until 1984, when he headlined Slane Castle - a gig that's become infamous for the ill-temper of many of those who descended on Slane village the night before.

The Adelphi, which had hosted the only Dublin appearance of the Beatles and Stones, has long since vanished. Its facade forms part of the exit to Arnott's car park.

l Late night 2fm presenter Dan Hegarty has released another book throwing light on underrated or largely forgotten albums. Buried Treasure 2 (Liberties Press) boasts several worthy entries including, from an Irish point of view, Interference's self-titled debut (1995) and Joe Chester's A Murder of Crows (2005) as well as The Primitives' Pure (1989) and David Sitek's Maximum Balloon (2010).

All good selections, and on the basis of Hegarty's persuasive words, I'm looking forward to listening to truly off-beat suggestions such as The Edge's 1986 soundtrack for the Oliver Reed thriller Captive, and A Night in the Box, the third album from Dublin band Prison Love. There are interesting selections, too, from a wide cast of contributors, including Richard Hawley, who plumps for Skip James's The Greatest of the Delta Blues Singers, while Richie 'Jape' Egan chooses a little known album, The Colours of Darkness, from Irish musician Goodtime, aka John Cowhie.

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