Bob Dylan’s "The 1966 Live Recordings," an affordable 36-CD set, will be unleashed on Friday, 50 years after the fact. Finally, after the rumors, the legends, the misinformation, and the bootlegs, it will be available to all. This massive collection of groundbreaking live concerts, mostly professionally recorded, is a mix of previously uncirculated recordings with a handful that have been traded for years. It’s not for everybody, but it should be.

Controversy

When Dylan famously “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in July, 1965, the battle lines were drawn. A year later, after a mysterious motorcycle mishap, it was all over. In the process, not only did Dylan predict punk, Americana, psychedelia, heavy metal, and the “rock concert” as we know it, he changed the face of popular #Music. But of course, if you’re reading this, you already knew that.

The main reason Dylan and Columbia have been forced into releasing this material is a legal one. In parts of Europe, there are archaic laws which dictate that after 50 years, the copyright expires and enters the public domain. In other words, if Sony did not release them, anyone who was able to get their hands on them, could.

The Beatles

It’s interesting to compare this tour -- Dylan’s last until 1974 -- to the #Beatles final tour ever, which also took place in 1966. A Beatles’ show included 11 songs, and lasted about half an hour. Dylan’s basic 1966 setlist featured 15 songs -- seven solo acoustic, eight backed by The Hawks (later The Band) -- and they generally played three times as long. The Beatles didn’t even try to replicate anything from their new album, "Revolver," although they did perform their recent single, “Paperback Writer.” One third of the songs in Dylan’s set would have been unfamiliar to his audience. The Beatles were battling to be heard in gigantic baseball stadiums, using only tiny amplifiers against a backdrop of screaming teenaged girls. Dylan and The Hawks played mostly theaters, with loud equipment trying to drown out an audience split being enthusiastic fans and jilted folkies. Capitol Records recorded only a few Beatles concerts. Columbia (CBS) periodically tried with Dylan, including a handful here. In concert, the Fabs were waning while Bob was thriving. The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Dylan was “Judas.”   

Battleground

Dylan was so far ahead of the curve in 1966, there was no one even remotely near his aura. These recordings capture the counterculture’s zeitgeist. Musically, it’s like Louis Armstrong leaving New Orleans to influence the Chicago scene, or, later, the Ramones’ bicentennial London show, or the Sex Pistols’ Manchester debut. Culturally, however, it was more like Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” a bloody battle through enemy territory, blazing a trail and scorching the earth, leaving its mark for others to see.

The recordings here are a marvel. Some are CBS stereo recordings, while most are mono soundboards which, in some ways, sound even better. Even the last five CDs, all audience recordings, are essential, since you can hear the audience’s reactions, which is half the fun. By listening to (mostly) the same 15 songs over and over again, certain truths emerge. Dylan remembered 99% of his complex lyrics. His honeyslide vocals in the acoustic set predicted his upcoming “Country” phase. His harmonica solos are so well timed. The Hawks play with such precision that even the slightest change jolts you.

However, it’s the electric sets that remain, with Dylan’s voice capturing the outrage of post-Atom bomb youth, Vietnam protesters, Civil Rights marchers, drug takers, sexual revolutionaries, and a new subculture about to find love, only to resort to violence and be exploited by “The Man.” 

"The 1966 Live Recordings" are not for everyone. It’s only the greatest collection of recordings ever assembled into one box set. Not only for its music, but for it’s place in history. The future started here. #BobDylan