BOB DYLAN: HARD RAIN (1976)
1) Maggie's Farm; 2) One Too Many Mornings; 3) Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again; 4) Oh Sister; 5) Lay Lady Lay; 6) Shelter From The Storm; 7) You're A Big Girl Now; 8) I Threw It All Away; 9) Idiot Wind.
Conventional legend has it that The Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan's last major outburst of extrovert energy that left him all spent and exhausted and ready for a shot of Jesus, began with a mighty bang and ended with a pitiful whimper — and that the Hard Rain album, released as a memento of the tour, inexplicably culled its material from the later, second leg rather than the far more inspired, energetic, and unpredictable first part of the tour. Back then, unless you were an active bootlegger or actually went to several shows yourself, it was hard to tell, but these days, with a careful selection of performances from the first round of shows finally released as Live 1975, even a young Justin Bieber fan can throw in an unbiased opinion.
My take on the situation would probably be as follows. Bob's whole venture — going out on a spontaneous cross-country «magical mystery tour», more like a crazyass traveling circus than a disciplined team of performers, enlisting everyone who'd agree to tag along and not giving a damn about what tomorrow might bring — was, on the whole, a fine jolt, aimed at getting himself out of his depression; and, perhaps, somehow he hoped it might miraculously help him settle his family issues, too. But, like so many other spontaneous initiatives, generated on the spur of the moment, there is only a certain time that they will preserve the initial freshness before turning into petty routine — and it is quite likely that, by the time these May 1976 shows in Texas and Colorado rolled along, Rolling Thunder was showing signs of petty routine.
Upon first sight, both Live 1975 and Hard Rain are loud, bombastic, rip-roaring affairs, with Bob making full use of the little army assembled behind his back, and throwing in his own two cents in the form of ultra-loud, ultra-aggressive bellowing, sometimes outroaring even his already far-from-timid delivery level on Before The Flood. Still, looks like two different kinds of roar to me — the first one triggered by the sheer novelty of it all, and the second one by frustration and desperation at the sight of it all squandered and falling apart. Live 1975, behind its decibel-rattling facade, had subtlety and variety of approach; Hard Rain throws subtlety out of the window and just blasts, on and on and on. Compare the only song that overlaps between the two releases — ʽOh Sisterʼ, initially performed with Bob on acoustic guitar, carefully modulating his vocal tone, and then, on Hard Rain, switching to the same bloody electric and with the vocal performance «streamlined» to fit more in line with the bark-heavy attitude of everything else.
Not that this isn't, in its own way, fascinating to behold, or impressive on an emotional level. But in the end, the problem remains the same as on Before The Flood: not all of these songs deserve to be treated this-a-way. Certainly not ʽLay Lady Layʼ, once again taken up in a loud arrangement (though at a much slower tempo this time) with a brand new set of lyrics — and a fairly clumsy one, because how is it that one first asks the lady to lay on one's big brass bed, and then to forget this dance and come upstairs? Unless they happen to be dancing on beds, this is just another indication of the man's rather confused state of mind at the time.
The three highlights of the album, I'd say, are the three songs from Blood On The Tracks — ʽYou're A Big Girl Nowʼ is the only performance here to break the mold, with acoustic guitar and piano and Scarlet Rivera's violin embellishments nicely fitting the slowed-down tempo; ʽShelter From The Stormʼ works tremendously well with an arena-rock electric arrangement — it already had plenty of anthemic potential in its original version, so the reinvention was perfectly asked for; and the best is saved for last — I am not at all sure that the band used to close any of their shows with ʽIdiot Windʼ, but it is clear that in the context of this album, it occupies the same space that is usually reserved for ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, which, in a way, it is now, updated for the 1970s. On ʽIdiot Windʼ, after fluctuating to and from for a while, it all comes together for a picture-perfect thunderstormy finale, which was well worth the wait.
Together with Desire, Hard Rain puts the cap on what could conveniently be called «Dylan's Silver Age» — a strange, unexpected era in which the man once again became the focus of collective attention and the source of unpredictable happenings. It is not all that much to my liking: for kick-ass energy, Live 1966 and even Before The Flood are preferable, for a more comprehensive overview of what the real Rolling Thunder Review was all about, Live 1975 is far better suitable, and for sheer bizarreness, I'd even take the Budokan album over this straightforward rock'n'roll show. But, like all of Dylan's live albums, it still does not sound exactly like anything else (for that matter, it is interesting to notice that, aisde from his joint deal with The Grateful Dead, Bob has not sanctified even a single live release ever since he embarked upon «The Never Ending Tour» in 1989 — possibly because he wouldn't have any more strength to drastically vary the moods and approaches of the shows), so I'm still happy to recommend it with a thumbs up — just remember, though, that it makes more sense when juxtaposed next to Live 1975.
Incidentally, Bowie fans should probably also care about picking it up — but if any of them expects Dylan to be as kind as to let Mick Ronson seriously interfere with his glam guitar chops anywhere in the show, they'd better think again. (On Real Live, Bob would be far more tolerant towards Mick Taylor's lead playing, but I guess that the basic Rolling Thunder deal was always the same: «nobody gets to show off except the boss, or we're all going down»).
Check "Hard Rain" (CD) on Amazon