The First Week of Bob Dylan's Historic 1966 Tour
1966-02-04, Convention Center, Louisville, KY
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On today’s date in 1966, Bob Dylan kicked off maybe the most famous year of his touring career. The first step on the path that would lead to “Judas!” began on February 4th on the Convention Center stage in Louisville, Kentucky.
You haven’t heard this show - not unless you were in the room that night. No tape exists. That’s true for most of the first leg of Dylan’s 1966 tour, where he played 24 shows across the US and Canada, almost none of them recorded. A few hardy audience members made an effort, but most didn’t bother. Soundman Rich Alderson hadn’t yet joined the crew to capture brilliant tapes like he would in Europe.
As a result, these shows you might imagine would be iconic — the beginning of Dylan’s 1966 tour with The Hawks! — are fairly mysterious. Maybe Memphis sounded even more fiery than Manchester? Maybe in Louisville he spent even longer taunting the crowd with endless guitar-tuning than in Paris? Maybe in Norfolk he said something even more quotable than “Play fucking loud”? At this point, we’ll probably never know.
But, for a little mini-series this month, I decided to write about what we do know about Bob’s first run of concerts in 1966. Between February 4th and 12th, he played six shows. Two of them have at least partial audio recordings; four of them don’t. After the sixth show, in Norfolk, Virginia, he flew on his Lodestar aircraft down to Nashville to continue recording Blonde on Blonde.
Dylan’s first 1966 show is, unfortunately, not one of those with a recording. We only know two songs he played for sure, because lyrics from them were quoted in a newspaper review: “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Visions of Johanna.” He’d debuted both live the previous year, both during his solo-acoustic set. “Love Minus Zero” would have been familiar to people, having been included on Bringing It All Back Home a year prior. “Visions of Johanna,” then still called “Freeze-Out,” would have been brand-new to all.
But we can make a reasonable stab at the rest of the setlist. This was not an era where Bob changed things often from night to night; the later European/UK tour featured the exact same songs in the exact same order every single night. So, based on a few other February 1966 setlists we do have, he probably played this at Louisville – and at every other show I’m going to write about:
She Belongs To Me
Visions Of Johanna
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Mr. Tambourine Man
Tell Me, Momma
I Don't Believe You
Baby Let Me Follow You Down
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
One Too Many Mornings
Ballad of A Thin Man
Positively 4th Street
Like A Rolling Stone
Most of those songs he’d already played on his first half-acoustic/half-electric tour in 1965. But not all. Louisville concertgoers were likely the first fans ever to hear “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and “Tell Me Momma,” both then-unreleased and both (probably) debuted during this show. They would have been (again, probably) the first to hear the barn-storming new arrangement of “One Too Many Mornings” too. It used to go like that, and now it goes like this.
All of that, though, is educated guessing. We also don’t have any information about tour rehearsals that likely preceded this concert. So what do we know for sure?
I found one contemporary review, written by Phillis Funke for the Louisville Courier-Journal. She set the scene, giving both her take and that of the crowd:
If one word could be used to describe the evening, it would be “pallid” – from the chalk-white delicate face of the performer to the lifeless manner in which he entertains.
Yet this may be the point. The audience, which for the most part appeared part left-over Beatle fans and part escapees from Greenwich Village, were rapt.
Funke spoke with a couple young attendees far more into the show than she was. One young man sporting, she notes, a beard, fur coat and bowler (that’s quite a look), called him hip. Another “with his hair trailing down his back” (those damn hippies!) said he liked Dylan “because he’s pretty. He looks like Mardi Gras beads.” Interestingly, there’s no mention of any controversy around him playing with a loud rock band.
Her review does not mention the drummer, but, that was another first at this show. Levon Helm had left the tour at the end of November. For the last month of 1965, he’d been replaced by Bobby Gregg, who’d drummed on Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. But now he, too, was gone.
In the drumseat for the first time that night in Louisville was Sandy Konikoff. Konikoff had been invited to an early Blonde on Blonde session a few weeks prior at Robbie Robertson’s suggestion. It had not gone well. Clinton Heylin writes about that January 21 session in his book Judas!: From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall:
Bearing the brunt of Bob’s rising vexation is the poor drummer, Sandy Konikoff. A suggestion of Robertson’s, Konikoff was the intended replacement for Bobby Gregg—who never wanted to be a touring drummer—and it was immediately apparent he was out of his depth. In fact, this would be his first and last session with Dylan, though he would play all the shows over the next two months, until the frontman’s original choice could be secured. Meanwhile, Bobby Gregg would be recalled when studio work resumed in four days’ time.
And that’s about all we know about Louisville! A historic show, kicking off a historic year for Dylan touring (well, a historic first half of the year, pre-accident) without a ton of hard info. At least we know about that guy wearing the fur coat and bowler hat, and the hippie who think Bob looks like Mardi Gras beads – whatever that means.
Good news: The next two dates are the shows for which we have recordings. I’ll make tomorrow’s entry free too, then the remaining four entries in this mini-series will be for paid subscribers. Join them if you like:
In lieu of any sort of recording, here are a few more fun print clips and ephemera from this show:
So excited for this series, thanks, Ray!!!