Review | Bob Dylan - The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings
Dylan's finest live performances are finally released in all their raging glory.
In 2014, Harvard professor Richard F. Thomas published his erudite book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters”. In it he posited that Dylan’s work, in its scope, was fit to be evaluated on the scale of the classical poets. I opened it in a skeptical frame of mind but finished it cheering Thomas on. Dylan himself would most likely dismiss any such conclusions given his stated disdain for the “Dylanology” industry that tracks him. Nevertheless, he is partly to blame. By creating such a vast ocean of work the temptation to set sail and chart it is all but impossible to resist. Such a voyage, however, is not just about understanding the antecedents in his lyrics, but to feel and measure the power of the waves.
And so it is with the latest Dylan Inc. archival trove, the 14 disc compendium, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recording, which also serves as a companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s film release, The Rolling Thunder Revue. The box set consists of three discs of rehearsals, ten containing all of Dylan's performances from the five shows that were professionally recorded and a bonus disc of rare live tracks. The latter are mainly audience recordings and moments caught by the camera crew who were filming scenes for Dylan's movie Renaldo and Clara, which would eventually be released in 1978.
For the casual listener, this collection is most likely overkill. For the absolute Dylan completist, wishing to get a definitive document of the events of 44 years ago it manages to fall short, as the opening set of these shows performed by various members of the tour band who collectively became known as Guam, is missing. For those in between, it delivers a fascinating insight into the musical gestation of the tour and what many consider are Dylan’s finest live performances. This collection may not convince anyone that Bob Dylan matters but it should serve as a wake-up call to anyone in the “he can’t sing” crowd. For those people, a revelation awaits in the laminated cardboard sleeves.
But there is something else here too. Inside these songs and performances, is the element of ritual and a transcendent energy that Dylan carried with him on this tour. It is this quality that has elevated him over the years to a place beyond just a musician, beyond just the “song and dance” man he once claimed to be. He has a charisma that draws all attention to him, a laser sharp ability to fixate on what is important to a song and draw resources from others in service of that goal. This collection offers multiple opportunities to hear the results of Dylan’s ability to exert that gravitational pull. Guam was a hastily assembled and lightly rehearsed collection of individually stellar musicians who were pulled into the orbit of Dylan’s incendiary vocal delivery night after night, the potential for musical chaos averted by that primary force.
It is little wonder that Dylan will obfuscate and evade when anyone tries to have him explain his work. To stay in contact with this muse, or energy source, to avoid the crushing of the artistic soul, requires that the inspiration never be reduced to a prosaic description. Well, at least not by the artist.
Sam Shepard, who was on the tour, had no use for such restraint. In his Rolling Thunder Logbook he described it this way, “He’s infused the room with a high feeling of life-giving energy. It’s not the kind of energy that drives people off the deep end but the kind that brings courage and hope and above all brings life pounding into the foreground”.
If you want to hear the specific moment that inspired Shepard to feel that way, it was a version of "Simple Twist of Fate", and is included here on Disc 14. Scorsese's film shows a snippet of the song and footage of Dylan and the audience (scores of ladies attending a Mahjong convention who happened to be booked into the same hotel as the tour). This box set has the full track. Experiencing both helps Shepard's words take on added resonance.
So what brought about this inspired version of Dylan?
In 1975, Dylan had rid himself of some of the burdensome trappings of being the “spokesman of his generation”, an unwelcome title that had attached itself to him in the 1960s. He had spent from 1966 to 1974 In Woodstock and Malibu being a family man, recording the "Basement Tapes" (which was finally officially released in January 1975), delivered a series of stripped down and country influenced albums but had largely withdrawn from limelight. That had begun to change the previous year when he had embarked on a stadium tour backed by The Band, playing 40 shows in January and February of '74.
That experience left him dissatisfied and in 1980 Dylan described the essence of why, “When Elvis did 'That's All Right, Mama' in 1955, it was sensitivity and power. In 1969, it was just full-out power. There was nothing other than just force behind that. I've fallen into that trap, too. Take the 1974 tour. It's a very fine line you have to walk to stay in touch with something once you've created it... Either it holds up for you, or it doesn't.”
By 1975, Dylan was back in New York and his strategy of breaking the feverish attention around him had paid enough dividends to allow him to hang out in his old Greenwich Village haunts. He started to pay multiple visits to "The Bitter End", a small club where a hootenanny vibe still radiated. He had also released, to critical acclaim, his “comeback” album, Blood on the Tracks, freeing hm further from the idea of others that he was a figure preserved in 1960’s aspic.
Dylan had long nurtured a vision of a tour that was loosely structured, musicians could and would come and go. The idea was for it to roll up in town with minimal pre-publicity play and leave for the next stop. He envisaged it having such a life of its own that it would go on even if he left. It was to be a traveling medicine show, a musical circus with multiple performers. On the visits to his old stomping grounds in Greenwich Village the idea was nurtured and brought to fruition with the help of his old 1960's sidekick, Bobby Neuwirth.
The musicians who were recruited bought into the spirit of the carnival on the tour, wearing masks and costumes and combining vaudeville with musical excellence. At the end of his performance of Chestnut Mare, T-Bone Burnett would lasso Roger McGuinn. Rob Stoner, band wrangler and curator of the rhythm section of Howie Wyeth and Luther Rix, would get to demonstrate solo the vocal dexterity that he would employ to sing harmony with Dylan later in the set. David Mansfield was dubbed “the boy with the Botticelli face” by Allen Ginsberg and had room to exercise his musical versatility. Mick Ronson enjoyed a turn in the limelight, while Ramblin' Jack Elliott would finish out the opening set every night. Nothing of this is included on this box set, but it was a crucial element in the life of these shows.
Unlike all of that, the input of Joan Baez who was prominently featured on the handbills used to publicize the tour, survives the editing process. Included here are her appearances alongside Dylan in the second half of Dylan’s set. This coming together again of the “King And Queen” of folk, when both had changed as artists and people since their professional and personal dalliances a decade earlier, results in some glorious duets.
The performances of Dylan compositions such as "I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine" and traditional tunes like "Dark as a Dungeon" showcase the artistic tension and the simpatico relationship these two had. The chemistry between them results in a teasing and playful nightly section of the set, flavored with a vocal competitiveness which elevates the songs they perform together.
Ultimately, however, this collection’s true worth is the light it shines onto Dylan’s mastery as a performer. His lyrical prowess is the default praise thrown his way but this tour demonstrated his commitment as a singer. We get the incantation that is "Isis", the syncopated version of "It Ain't Me Babe", the hypnotic, solo acoustic guitar take on "Simple Twist of Fate" that was rehearsed on piano in the scene Shepard commented upon. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is updated as a wrathful tour de force, "Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You" is transformed into a coruscating celebration of being exactly where one should be. Across the discs that capture the five concerts there is not a pause in the energy level, no backing away from a fiery commitment to deliver an experience to the public and pursue musical quicksilver.
Additional elements that contributed directly or indirectly to the atmosphere of the tour are manifested in the music presented. The animating campaign to free the imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter lent a just cause and righteous zeal to Dylan's biting renditions of "Hurricane", the song written to draw attention to the case. Scarlet Rivera's violin playing dances in time with Dylan's voice and his harmonica, adding a nuance to the music that is as synonymous with this tour as Robbie Robertson's guitar was to 1966. Dylan's wife joined the tour and he performed "Sara", a song that, even though he subsequently and somewhat bizarrely denied was written for her, Dylan has never revisited since.
The quality Dylan performances on this collection are not restricted to the live shows. The first three discs of rehearsals deliver an insight into the collaborative nature of proceedings as Dylan searches for the tempo and orchestration of the songs. "Isis" appears twice, as the song develops towards the dramatic rendition we hear on the later discs. "Easy and Slow" finds Dylan channelling an Irish folk philanderer, demonstrating his high command of performing in character while adding his own distinctive stamp to the material.
His duet with Baez on "Tears of Rage", recorded on the eve of the opening show at the Seacrest Motel , Falmouth, MA and a song not played on the tour is a moment of magic. Baez complements a powerful Dylan performance and enhances it with her distinctive timbre. His voice keeps forging ahead of hers, surging and elongating but Baez catches up whenever required and holds back where needed. Dylan says in an interview for Scorsese's film that he and Baez could sing anything together. This is evidence that he may have been on to something with that remark.
There was an earlier 2002 release of some of this material in a 2-disc package on Volume 5 of the Bootleg Series. It arguably selected the best versions of the songs that it features. That may be enough for those who want a flavor of the tour without taking this big a bite. What it lacks, however, is a conveyance of the atmosphere of these shows. This box set transports you closer to that time, and delivers, as far as the medium allows, an immersive experience of an explosive moment in American music and Bob Dylan's career.
Eventually one must face the question with all these sprawling releases; Is it worth it? I would argue yes, but I'll leave you with the words of Dylan himself as spoken to writer "Ratso" Sloman and captured in Sloman's entertaining chronicle of the tour "On The Road With Bob Dylan". The two were engaged in what was, effectively, a tour debriefing interview discussing audiences expectations, "Well that's their problem, Ratso, that's their own problem. We can't account for everybody who's walking around having expectations. I mean, who gives a shit."