The Emperor of Sound
In 1975, Bob Dylan had a cool idea. He’d gather a group of his friends, forming a traveling medicine show-styled troupe, and travel throughout the Northeast United States and Canada, booking venues with only several days’ notice, promoting the shows strictly through word of mouth, play the show, and take off to the next town. Beginning at a Mah Jongg convention in front of an audience of old ladies on October 30, Dylan and his ragtag group of co-headliners and backing musicians, dubbed the Rolling Thunder Revue, plowed through cities of all sizes that autumn, quickly building up so much momentum in their performances, that by late November the band was simply incendiary, with Dylan giving some of his greatest performances ever.
Incredibly, this fascinating period in Dylan’s career has been also his most poorly documented. Aside from two live tracks that can be found on the Biograph box set, only bootlegged recordings of the tour’s shows have been available to the Dylan’s fans; all but four were recorded, the quality ranging from mono audience recordings to stereo soundboard tapes. Also, the only film footage of the concerts can be found on Dylan’s 1978 four-hour opus Renaldo and Clara. The ambitious, but incredibly pretentious and poorly-acted film (Dylan described it as, “Reality and Actuality transcending itself to the final degree of being more than the Actuality” . . . that’s as maybe, Bobby; the movie still sucks) was screened only a few times, was reviled by critics, and was only shown on television one time, on the UK’s Channel Four in the mid-‘80s. Kazillionth-generation dubs of that broadcast have since become a must-have by Dylan fans, if only to see the 45 minutes of astounding concert footage, with a white-faced Dylan gesticulating, howling, sneering, screaming, and crooning with a power no one expected him to display. The late poet Allen Ginsberg, who himself was part of the ever-growing entourage, said at the time, “I’ve never seen Dylan sing so powerful before. He sounds like an emperor of sound.”
Set aside those old bootlegs, Bob fans. Thanks to Dylan’s great Bootleg Series, one of the greatest rock archival projects to ever be bestowed on us, we now have the definitive document of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Volume Five in the series, Bob Dylan Live 1975 - The Rolling Thunder Revue, is a jaw-dropping, 100-minute set of some of his greatest performances from that period. Culled from multi-track masters from five shows on the tour (Worcester, Mass., Cambridge, Mass., two Boston shows, and Montreal, Quebec, were the only multi-track recordings), this album’s impeccable sound, produced by Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, blows those old bootlegs out of the water.
The Rolling Thunder Revue was a massive band, with Dylan on vocals and guitar, Joan Baez (guitar and vocal duets with Dylan), former Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn appearing from time to time, guitarists Bobby Neuwirth, T-Bone Burnett, Steven Soles, and Mick Ronson, violinist Scarlet Rivera, bassist Rob Stoner, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, drummer Luther Rix, percussionist/pianist Howie Wyeth, and actress/singer/songwriter Ronee Blakley on backing vocals. Such a huge ensemble made it hard for Dylan to rein them all in, and sometimes the band threatens to implode, but they never do on Live 1975, chugging away like there’s no tomorrow, and the album is mixed so well, it’s like you’re right there in the front row, witnessing the spectacle in person.
The songs on Live 1975, though taken from five different shows, were assembled in roughly the same order as Dylan’s concert set (it was actually a three-hour show, with solo performances by Baez, McGuinn, Blakley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and any other musician who happened to be in town, ranging from Leonard Cohen, to Joni Mitchell, to Gordon Lightfoot), and can be categorized into three groups. First are the Dylan classics that were completely overhauled, where Bob and the Revue took several of his most famous songs, and added heaping doses of ferocious energy. Nashville Skyline‘s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” was a lazy, homey song on record, but when the Revue gets its grubby paws on it, it’s transformed into an all-out rocker, as Dylan eschews his country croon for a wicked howl: “Throw my ticket in the wih-HIIIIND!” “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is transformed from a melancholy folk song into a calypso-tinged (!), upbeat, joyous-sounding song, while the poetic and morose “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” becomes a blues-based, fist-shaking, hard rock howl of desperation. The Bob-and-Joan duet of “Mama You Been on My Mind”, on the other hand, is heavily countrified, with a real whimsical feel, thanks to the pair’s playful vocal interchange. The real surprise is “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol”, which, on this album, sounds more powerful and emotional than ever before.
Dylan’s performances weren’t centered solely around screaming into the microphone, though. In fact, the five solo acoustic songs on the album showcase some of the best singing Dylan has ever done. “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, and especially the very pretty “Love Minus Zero (No Limit)” are faithful to their original versions, but this time, the 34-year-old Dylan’s melancholy tone and phrasing display more of a road-weary sentiment. It’s the two songs from his greatest album, 1974’s Blood on the Tracks, though, that are a couple of the biggest highlights. “A Simple Twist of Fate” is beautiful beyond words, very tenderly played, and “Tangled Up in Blue” combines Dylan’s storytelling skill with his obsession with cubism at the time (see Renaldo and Clara), as he transposes the pronouns in the song so many times that you can’t tell who exactly the song is about, as identities blend into one another.
The songs that will have many longtime fans drooling, however, are the six tracks from his Desire album, which was recorded earlier that summer, but not due out until later that year. Aided by Rivera on violin, the songs, which were co-written by renowned stage director Jacques Levy, top the versions heard on the album. The surreal tales “Romance in Durango” and “Isis” are played to scorching perfection, while the superb ballads “Oh Sister” and “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” are both sung and played with astonishing gentleness and heartbreaking beauty. “Hurricane”, Dylan’s famous song written about then-jailed boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, brings the house down with its relentless energy. “Sara”, the most personal of all the love songs Dylan has written in his career, has him singing about his troubled marriage to his wife (adding to the powerful performance is the fact that Sara Dylan was at this particular performance). Dylan adds a new verse to the song, which infuses the tune with even more emotion: “Sleeping in the woods by a fire in the night / When you fought for my soul against the odds / I was too young to know that you were doing it right / And you did it with strength that belonged to the Gods”.
Out of all of Dylan’s group of minstrels, the ones that leave the biggest impression are the virtuosic Rivera, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield (his pedal steel on “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is gorgeous), and especially bassist Rob Stoner and guitarist Mick Ronson. Dylan has worked with great bass players over his career, most notably Rick Danko and current bandmember Tony Garnier, but Stoner’s phenomenal playing during this tour is the duct tape that holds the rickety jalopy together. Also, the decision to hire David Bowie’s old guitarist Ronson was an odd one, but a real stroke of genius. Ronson’s style was usually much too flashy for someone like Dylan, but amongst everyone else in the Revue, it seemed to make some kind of demented sense. So there he stood onstage, in the background next to T-Bone Walker, with his glam rock mullet and his Les Paul, shredding away some of the fiercest lead licks ever heard on a Dylan recording.
The lavish, color booklet included in the set is excellent, with many great photos by Ken Regan, and highly entertaining and informative liner notes by author Larry Sloman, who traveled with the Revue for Rolling Stone magazine and wrote a book about his experiences on the tour. The bonus DVD is good, a real treat, especially for those who haven’t seen Renaldo & Clara, and the sound on the three tracks is excellent, but the picture quality is subpar. There’s pixellation present in the digital transfer on “Tangled up in Blue”, and the clip of “Isis” is in poor condition, with film scratches visible for its entirety, which makes you wonder about the current condition of the film’s original negative. Still, for fans, it’s a step up from those old tapes of that old Channel Four telecast. An audio track of “Isis” is also provided (it’s the one from Biograph), and like the other two tracks, is mixed for Dolby 5.1 sound.
Obsessive Dylan fans (and there are a lot of them) will have lots of questions regarding Live 1975: If they’re recreating Dylan’s original set, why did they make “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” the opening song, when nearly every show began with Dylan and Neuwirth singing “When I Paint My Masterpiece”? Why wasn’t the rare “Dark As a Dungeon” included, since it was played at four of the five professionally recorded shows? Or what about the cover of “This Land Is Your Land”, which was played nightly? Those are valid complaints, but it still doesn’t diminish the power of this CD. Normally, live compilations rarely work as well as single live shows, but Live 1975 succeeds on every level.
Dylan and his pals (minus one or two original bandmates) took the show on the road again in the spring of 1976, but even the best shows during that leg paled in comparison to those first Rolling Thunder shows the previous year. In the fall of 1975, the thirtysomething Dylan felt he had to challenge himself, as well as have some fun with his friends at the same time, and that feeling is palpable on this album. After 27 long years, we can finally properly hear the Master in his finest hour, and what a thrill it is.