When Dylan rolled with thunder

Cover to new Dylan live album

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 20, 2002) – In the fall of 1975, Bob Dylan set out on the road with a traveling caravan of musicians and hangers-on in a new kind of touring rock ‘n’ roll show. A mixture of old-time medicine show, politico-religious crusade, improvisational theater and endless party, the Rolling Thunder Revue, as he dubbed it, reunited Dylan with a host of friends and fellow musicians from the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early-‘60s, crossing them with an ad hoc cohort of rockabilly, glam-rock and faux Gypsy musicians to create the distinctive sound of one of Dylan’s most distinctive and fruitful periods.

Rolling Thunder was the culmination of what was in retrospect an artistic renaissance for Dylan that began with his 1974 reunion with The Band for the “Planet Waves” album and subsequent “Before the Flood” tour. This was followed by “Blood on the Tracks,” one of Dylan’s greatest albums and arguably the zenith of the folk singer-songwriter genre, a searing, emotion-spattered confession of love regained and lost, widely read as a diary of Dylan’s separation from his then-wife, Sara.

“Blood on the Tracks” was released to great acclaim in early 1975, but Dylan did not perform in public until later that fall, when fueled by the excitement surrounding his renewed musical and social ties to his Greenwich Village coterie and the new batch of songs he recorded for the album that would become “Desire” – particularly the song “Hurricane,” which marked Dylan’s long-awaited return to topical, political songwriting – Dylan began a tour which in no small way was intended to revolutionize the art of rock ‘n’ roll performance.

The revolution may not have happened – in its most idealized form, it was to involve a series of long-distance train rides and a revolving cast of rock superstars who would call a phone number at any time to find out where to drop in for the next gig -- but instead, for a few short months, the world witnessed some of Dylan’s most fiery performances ever. For those who missed it, the tour also produced several filmed documents and live albums, including the network TV special, “Hard Rain,” the live album of the same name, and Dylan’s own four-hour epic film, “Renaldo and Clara,” a misunderstood masterpiece that featured terrific concert footage interspersed with hours of guerrilla theater and improvised scenes performed by Dylan and members of his entourage, including Joan Baez, Sara Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Harry Dean Stanton. The film opened and closed in a week, and since then has only been seen in unofficial, bootleg versions.

When it came out in 1976, the 9-song, single LP “Hard Rain” was somewhat of a disappointment to fans who had been looking forward to a much-rumored, three-LP live set documenting the sprawling feel of a Rolling Thunder show. Up until now, the best performances from that tour have only been available on unofficial or “bootleg” recordings. But next Tuesday -- almost exactly 27 years to the day when the Revue swung through our region, performing in Worcester and Springfield before staying overnight at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge after spending a day at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket filming scenes for “Renaldo and Clara” – Columbia Records will release “Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue,” the fifth volume of the record label’s “Bootleg Series” that makes officially available previously unreleased
material for the first time.

The two-CD set includes 22 songs recorded at four locations – including Worcester’s Memorial Auditorium, Cambridge’s Harvard Square Theater and the Boston Music Hall – mostly over the course of three nights. The collection includes Dylan singing with the Rolling Thunder band, performing solo with just his acoustic guitar, and duetting with Joan Baez on several numbers and Roger McGuinn on the finale, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The repertoire ranges from a couple of Dylan’s earliest topical songs – “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (1962) and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1963) – through ‘60s anthems including “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” to a generous helping of songs from “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire” that were still fresh and new at the time.

The slipcased package contains a 56-page booklet including a wealth of previously unpublished color and black-and-white images by tour photographer Ken Regan, and a new essay written by tour chronicler Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of “On the Road with Bob Dylan,” his first-hand account of the tour. Initial pressings of “Live 1975” will also include a DVD containing concert footage of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Isis” excerpted from “Renaldo and Clara” and remixed in 5.1 surround sound. The inclusion of the “Renaldo and Clara” footage is a particularly tantalizing development, as it holds out the promise of an eventual release of the entire film – which has never been made commercially available to consumers – on home DVD (although there has been no official announcement of any such plans).

If it was ever in doubt, “Live 1975” is proof that the early Rolling Thunder performances rank among Dylan’s best. While the ensemble arrangements lack the taut velocity of Dylan’s collaboration with the Hawks, as heard on “Live 1966,” and later with the Band in 1974 (essentially the same group as the Hawks) as heard on “Before the Flood,” they boast a rootsy, electric chemistry all their own that perfectly suits Dylan’s high-octane vocals. Listen to the way Dylan’s voice does battle with the various guitars of Steven Soles, Mick Ronson, T-Bone Burnett and David Mansfield on the kickoff track, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” or the way Rob Stoner’s bass and Howie Wyeth’s drums power the rollicking, midwestern bar-boogie version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” underneath Dylan in his prophetic testimony mode.

Rarely has rock music combined such high-intensity voltage with such a fierce narrative drive. What’s even more impressive, however, is how 27 years later, Dylan continues to make music with purpose and intensity equalling that of “Live 1975.” Last Sunday night at the Hartford Civic Center, Dylan tore through 20 songs spanning his entire career, from “My Back Pages” and “Visions of Johanna” through “Shelter from the Storm” and more recent songs from last year’s “Love and Theft” album. It was a concert of many peaks and valleys, from a high-lonesome, acoustic version of “Shelter from the Storm” rearranged to sound like The Band’s classic, “The Weight,” to a version of “High Water” given a funk-r&b treatment recalling the arrangement from “Slow Train Coming.”

That at age 61 Dylan continues to pull out tricks from his hat is all the more impressive. For half the concert, he played an electric piano instead of guitar, and in doing so, seemed utterly revitalized, throwing himself into his singing in ways he hasn’t since 1975. He opened the door beyond his own past, too, playing songs by the Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”), Neil Young (“Old Man”), Van Morrison (“Carrying a Torch”) and Warren Zevon (“Mutineer”), paying tribute to his contemporaries while staking his own claim as an interpreter. In the passion and intensity with which he delivered songs like “The Wicked Messenger,” “Honest With Me” and “All Along the Watchtower,” he made clear that he has little left to prove.

In 1975 – just 10 years after “Like a Rolling Stone” first hit big -- he had even less to prove, and wound up making some of the best music of his career. Maybe that’s his secret.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 22, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

To send a message to Seth Rogovoy
content management programming and web design