I don’t generally like live recordings, but the bootleg release of Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” concert is a major exception. It works as both a stunning work of musical art and as a snapshot of a moment in cultural history… a time when “going electric” was considered a mortal sin by an audience that had painted Dylan into a corner of which he wanted no part.
“Royal Albert Hall” is in quotes because though that’s how the concert was widely known, the show didn’t take place in that London venue after all but in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall.
Dylan played a hauntingly beautiful opening set, accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica on such classics as ‘Desolation Row,’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and today’s song, ‘Visions of Johanna.’ He then took a break and returned with a full band to blast the doors off with an equally strong set of songs (including a favorite of mine, ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’).
The audience went apeshit, culminating in the infamous shout of “Judas!” by one concert-goer. Dylan jeered right back and tore into a defiant ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ It’s the moment Scorsese chooses to end No Direction Home and it encapsulates the ‘who gives a damn what anybody else thinks?’ spirit that has defined Dylan for generations.
This lovely rendition of ‘Visions of Johanna’ came well before that moment, though, and for my money it’s the highlight of the show. This is one of his best songs, period, and rarely has it been performed better.