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Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Review

July 6th, 2008

The 1966 tour through Australia, Europe and especially the UK is more historically significant and more musically consequential. There’s no denying the power and the majesty of those performances. The acoustic performances are positively ethereal. Dylan sounds truly stoned out of his mind yet perfectly in the moment. His harmonica playing on those tracks is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. He wanders off into unbelievable solos and riffs that wind over, under and around themselves like twisted angelic musical prayers. And, of course, the electric sets are truly groundbreaking. The ferociousness of the band, the power that each and everyone of them brings to each song is truly unique in recorded music. This was a band, with Dylan at the helm, doing battle with their audience each and every night. It brought out something in them that’s never been touched since. I once had a talk with an artist I was working with as an A&R man. He is a truly rare, extraordinary and unique songwriter with not an ounce of business sense in his body. A show he and his band did at 12th & Porter, here in Nashville, in late 1999 remains one of the finest, most powerful and moving performances I’ve ever seen live. Hands down better than most of the concerts I’ve seen by the rich and famous rock stars. Most likely you’ve never heard of him. I haven’t kept in touch with him since I left the music business. Last I heard he was living on the side of a mountain outside Knoxville, Tennessee. We were talking about music, about audiences, about connecting with listeners, about following your true muse wherever that took you and most of all about the difficulty of doing that when no one else seemed to be able to come with you. He too is a big Dylan fan. Think of the irony, and in the end the true triumph of Dylan’s 1966 tour I said. Here he was being booed, not just casually, but deeply and forcefully, by every audience, every night. I don’t care how famous, how self-assured, how strong, how deeply set in your beliefs you are, that must do an incredible trip on your head. And here we are forty years later and this music is commonly, widely even universally, considered some of the most important live music ever recorded. Talk about full circle. It’s Vincent Van Gogh 100 years later with a guitar. Though, thankfully, Dylan didn’t have to die before his genius was recognized.

All that said, on a lot of days I’d rather listen to the 1975 tour than the 1966 tour. Don’t get me wrong, I listen to the 1966 tour all the time. I have a 26 CD box set (yes, 26 CDs) of every existing note from every show played on that tour. Audience tapes. Board tapes. You name it, if it is known to exist among collectors it’s there. But I come back to the 1975 tour more often. When Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Review (The Bootleg Series Volume 5) was finally released in 2002 I was beside myself. I’d been waiting a long time for an official release of this material. I was not disappointed. While I might have done some things a little differently (what collector wouldn’t?) overall I was more than happy with this two disc set of material from the tour. Bootlegs (tape, vinyl and CD) from this tour have circulated all along, right from the very beginning. There is an audience tape from almost every single performance of the tour. There are soundboard tapes from a few. Two songs, “Romance In Durango” and “Isis,” both from Montreal, were released on the Biograph box set in 1985.

My only complaint (and it’s a small one) with this set is the manner in which the tracks have been collected and presented. During the 1975 leg of the Rolling Thunder Review the show would generally go like this: individual members of the backing band, known as Guam for this tour, would each do a song or two; guest artists (such as Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others) would do a few songs; Dylan would do a five or six song set with the band; Dylan and Baez would do a five or six song set; Baez would do a seven or eight song set; Roger McGuinn would do two or three songs; Dylan would return for two or three solo numbers followed by five or six more songs with the band and then everyone would wrap things up with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It sure would have been nice to get a complete show from beginning to end, with all the artists represented, but most of knew that was never going to happen. The draw here is, of course, Dylan, so the two discs are devoted entirely to his performances. And rather than pull one complete show Columbia (and maybe Dylan) have chosen to cherry pick 22 tracks from five different performances (2 from the Boston afternoon show, 10 from the Boston evening show, 5 from Cambridge, 4 from Montreal and 1 from Worcester). The thing that bugs me the most is that many of the tracks have been “isolated.” The applause fades in at the beginning and fades out at the end. Even if the tracks were drawn from different performances I would much rather they have stitched them all together to at least give the illusion of one continuous performance. But, hey, these are really very minor quibbles. I’m more than happy, way more than happy, to just have this material at all.

The album opens with a raucous version of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” from the Nashville Skyline album. But, believe me, this version has almost nothing in common with that lilting, country ditty from Nashville Skyline. The band is loud, loose, assertive and in your face. The lyrics have been completely rewritten. Dylan is on fire. He practically screams out the second verse as a command, “Get ready! Because tonight I’ll be staying here with you.” It’s clear from the very beginning what’s to come. A rousing version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” continues and you can feel the excitement in the crowd. Dylan lays into a fierce harmonica break and the crowd goes crazy. This is the sound of a performer, a band and a audience uniting as one. There’s as much energy coming back to the stage from the audience as Dylan and Guam are sending out. In keeping with the structure of the original shows, Dylan and the band do four more songs and then he does a solo version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and an especially powerful solo version of “Simple Twist Of Fate.” Baez joins him for “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Mama, You Been On My Mind” and “I Shall Be Released.” Now the combination of Dylan’s and Baez’s voice is quite unique. Their voices mix in rather odd way that some people just can’t handle. It grates on some people. Others like it. A very few love it. I’m pretty fond of it and these duets are excellent.

Disc Two opens with Dylan back alone doing strong, authoritative versions of “I’ts All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” Years later it would become a common joke that no one could understand what Dylan sings. Not so here. His words are clear, precise and forthright. If you’ve never considered Dylan a particularly good singer, you need to listen to this disc. Baez returns for a fantastic duet of “The Water Is Wide” and then the full band returns for seven more songs, including four tracks from the as yet unreleased Desire album: “Hurricane,” “Sara,” “Oh, Sister” and “One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below).”

I’ve been collecting the tapes of all the Rolling Thunder shows that circulate among collectors for many years. At this point I have most of the shows. There’s an energy, an exuberance, a fire, a passion and something you just can’t put into words about Dylan’s performances on this tour that has never been matched since. Everything just came together here. Everything. The band is great. Baez is better than she’s ever been before or since. The song selections are perfect. It was a short tour. It only lasted a little over a month. It was like no other tour Dylan has ever done. He and his band of gypsies, friends, on lookers and hangers-on basically just barnstormed around the Northeast, showing up with sometimes only a few days notice and entertaining the locals. They played mostly small and medium sized towns, places like Lowell, MA, Burlington, VT, Waterbury, CT, Niagara Falls, NY and Augusta, ME. They blew into town, they played like they truly had no place else to be and then they left as quickly as they came. When we get around to inventing time travel this is the first place I’m going: November 1975 with Bob Dylan and company. What an experience that would be, traipsing around from city to city with these guys. I never get tired of listening to these shows. Never.

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