Listen to this song by an electrified, and transformed Bob Dylan from his historic 1966 appearance at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.  It’s the rocking ‘Tell Me Momma”, the opening salvo of the second half of the program when he was joined onstage by the Hawks. The performance, and indeed the whole concert, had been bootlegged for decades (known by the misnomer “Royal Albert Hall Concert”), finally getting an official release with 1998’s The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert”.

Dylan goes electric! I’m betting that the songs coming out of him from 1965-66 were from a place as mysterious to him as it is to us as listeners. It took the world a bit of time to catch up. Having said that, sales of his albums featuring ‘electric’ sounds didn’t seem to waver. He managed to create one of his most successful runs as a recording artist immediately up to and after these shows. By 1974, when Dylan and the Band (who had once been the Hawks) took to the road again, the boos of the past became the cheers of adulation those songs, and that sound, had always deserved.

Dylan ‘going electric’ is a high point in rock history, and what a rocky road it took to get to the place where it’s recognized as the artistic triumph that it was.  The crowd at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May of 1966 were fans of the solo Dylan, singing his tried and true folk songs as he’d done faithfully up until Newport in 1965.  And to be fair, Dylan gave the audience what they wanted, within the confines of his own interpretation of those songs in his new paradigm, and pushing the limits of his audiences’ expectations of the songwriter.

The first half of the program was focused on Dylan with his acoustic guitar, albeit singing in a new voice, and with a new appearance.  Checked shirts, short hair, and a down-home and earnest stage persona had been replaced by a wild mop of curls, shades, and an urbane wardrobe.  He had transformed himself  into a sort of beautifully wasted beat poet standing in the place of Woody Guthrie’s supposed heir apparent.

But, no one knew just how much things had changed until the Hawks joined Dylan for the second half of the show, and the band launched into the no-holds-barred rock n’ roll of “Tell Me Momma”.

No one had heard anything like this at the time, when the rules of rock music were only just being invented.  It wasn’t the first time that an artist outraged an audience by challenging their expectations, but it was certainly the first time in rock history when it had been done so dramatically.  The cries of ‘Judas’ , booing and jeering, and disgruntled concert-goers interviewed after this show and others are now a part of rock history as much as the performances are.

But what strikes me the most is the mystery of Dylan’s motivation.  What was it that made him stray from a path that virtually guaranteed him an audience and lifetime career, in favour of such an artistic risk?  I’m sure that his plugging-in wasn’t a completely spontaneous move.  After all, the British Invasion proved that electrified guitar music had an audience, and quite a significant one. There was money to be made in playing it.   But, nobody expected it from Dylan.

The change in artistic direction which is so much more common these days was virtually unheard of on this scale in 1965-66.  I can only guess what inspired Dylan.  And this is my guess: amazement.  I think that the songs coming out of Dylan amazed even him.  And perhaps in his head they demanded to be heard through pick-ups and amps, rather than through the PA systems of smaller theatres, coffee houses, and folk festivals.

I think Dylan did it for the songs.


8 thoughts on “Bob Dylan Plays ‘Tell Me Momma’ At Manchester Free Trade Hall

  1. I’ve always felt you could see the move to electric coming when you follow the chronology of his albums. The transformation is really complete with Highway 61, but it’s in the works on Bringing It All Back Home and you can even hear it on Another Side … It Ain’t Me Babe has always had the electric energy for me.

    But that’s all 20-20 hindsight. Who knows what brought on the massive change in Dylan that you speculate on? Dylan’s a wearer of masks, and we’ll probably never know what makes him tick, or what made him tick. I like the amazement theory, though, and his growing confidence and ambition. It’s just lovely to watch the way he soared into Highway 61 and onwards!

    Thanks for another great post, Rob!

    1. @Geoff: report back!

      @David: The stage was certainly set for Dylan, if only through the Byrds who proved that his material was highly interpretable in a rock context. Their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” in April 1965 is definitive in the minds of many. And later, “All Along the Watchtower” would become a Jimi Hendrix song in the same way.

      The thing about this appearance for me is the enormity of this particular track. Just listen to how this thing uncoils, from the sound of bootheels on the stage, to the slow trickle of Dylan’s rhythm guitar, to the faint touches of Garth Hudson’s organ warming up behind him, to the count in. And then, a giant splash of sound!

      There are stories that a good deal of the problem was the sound system, that the audience didn’t hear what we’re hearing. But, my god – it was as if this band had time traveled from some glorious future to play this electrified magic to some audience of the Dark Ages. It’s as if evolution skipped a bunch of steps, bounding up three or four stairs at a time!

      And this even before he unleashed the classic performance of “Like A Rolling Stone”, played ‘fucking loud’ at Dylan’s vehement instruction after being called ‘Judas’.

      Thanks for comments, guys!

  2. First, the answer to the electric transition can be revealed by this simple mathematic formula:

    singer(s) + acoustic guitar(ag) = thoughtful girls

    Singer + electric guitar (eg) + TV appearances(TV) + disdian for those that adore them(‘tude) = screaming crazed chicks who want to touch you.

    Second, This particular version of “Tell Me Momma” has one of the greatest guitar breaks known to rock-n-roll.

    Third, when watching Don’t Look Back, look for a couple members of the Pretty Things in the hotel scene with Donovan.

    1. Excellent! You figure he did it for the girls! A sound theory.

      Fact: I believe that this is my favourite track off of this album, which is really saying something. I just love it. It’s like hearing a caged beast burst out of its prison.

      Other fact: I’ve never seen Don’t Look Back all the way through. But, my favourite scene is the one where he plays “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” in the hotel room while Donovan looks on, realizing in that very moment that the bar had been raised.

      Cheers for comments, Morgan!

      1. What I remember in that scene is Dylan’s “glee” that this Donovan guy was nothing to worry about after all. What does Donovan sing first? “Catch the Wind” or something? Dylan knows he has him trumped and sings “Love Minus Zero” with a little smirk on his face. A little cocky, a little arrogant. And so be it. It WAS the better song.

        Yes, report back, Geoff!

  3. I haven’t watched it for a couple of years. My mother-in-law, honest, bought the deluxe DVD set for me. (She likes me! She really likes me!) Dylan is such a visually compelling figure; you cannot take your eyes off of him. No Direction Home makes him seem almost ‘normal’ or certainly less whacked & enigmatic, but only because he was relatively forthcoming to Scorsese for the talking head sequences.

What are your thoughts, Good People? Tell it to me straight.

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