After half a century Columbia is setting the record straight. Fans mistakenly circulated Bob Dylan's 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall show for many years as the final date on his European tour from that year. Though the bootleggers may have been wrong and a subsequent official release of that show perpetuated the myth with a tongue-in-cheek title, it's never been disputed that these shows were a pivotal moment in Rock history. This release presents a true recording from the last venue Dylan performed at in the UK in 1966. For those looking for something revelatory, it's unlikely you'll find it here though.
That's not to say that this isn't an important historical document. It's also a great performance boasting excellent sound quality, but I can't pretend it's more incendiary than the Manchester show, which was previously presented as part of Dylan's official Bootleg series. This is the latest milestone in Columbia's copyright extension project, ensuring that all of their unreleased Dylan gems will continue to turn a profit now that they have finally seen the light of day. It's a cynical view, but is certainly a consideration when in tandem with this release you note the 36 CD box of every unreleased show from 1966 that's also emerged from the vaults. This standalone double disc set is a good summation of that mammoth set, but it also certainly has its problems.
The positives to be taken from this performance are mainly to do with the mood in the room. Yes, there's a smattering of heckling when Bob plugs in and The Hawks let rip, but Dylan sounds road-weary when he acknowledges his critics. There's also no fiery 'Judas' moment where Bob's frustration with the audience had previously over into a thundering electric performance. It's clear that by this point he'd recognised he was never going to win over the minority of Folkies that felt that he'd betrayed them. So while it's a real positive to listen to a 1966 show without the booing dominating proceedings, there's also a feeling that this is a little more perfunctory as a performance.
There are moments where the band adds different flourishes to songs, but as this is an identical set list to the widely heard Manchester show, there's little to distinguish it for the casual listener beyond a better natured crowd. Dylanologists will rejoice at the sound quality and the chance to compare and contrast nuances in the songs, but the lack of effort in the packaging (including one of the worst covers for a Dylan album in his sprawling back catalogue) and no real liner notes to provide a context as to why this show should be celebrated alongside the superior Manchester performance, makes this feel like a half-hearted effort to set the record straight.
If you're judging this solely on the song choices and proficiency of the solo acoustic performance and the later electric set, then this is solid gold Dylan and a nailed on 5 star album. This isn't just any show though; this is meant to be the real deal, the one we've all been waiting for. While it's a pleasure to have heard it, my personal preference will always be to the mid-tour combative performance we're all familiar with, rather than this better mannered sibling. It's certainly not an album to avoid or ignore, just be prepared that it may fall just short of your expectations though.
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