BOB DYLAN: THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 5: THE ROLLING THUNDER REVIEW (1975; 2002)
1) Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You; 2) It Ain't Me Babe; 3) A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; 4) The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll; 5) Romance In Durango; 6) Isis; 7) Mr. Tambourine Man; 8) Simple Twist Of Fate; 9) Blowin' In The Wind; 10) Mama You Been On My Mind; 11) I Shall Be Released; 12) It's All Over Now Baby Blue; 13) Love Minus Zero/No Limit; 14) Tangled Up In Blue; 15) The Water Is Wide; 16) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; 17) Oh Sister; 18) Hurricane; 19) One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below); 20) Sara; 21) Just Like A Woman; 22) Knockin' On Heaven's Door.
With the predictably warm reception organised for Live 1966, it was only natural that the subsequent evolution of The Bootleg Series would focus on live Dylan some more. But what would be the right period? On stage, the man evolved and recreated himself in different images even more radically than in the studio, so it must have been a tough choice to make — yet the compilers of the series managed to make exactly the right one. An uplifted, hyper-energetic, crowd-defying Dylan in the 1960s could only be matched by an uplifted, hyper-energetic, crowd-defying Dylan in the 1970s, and no moment in time could be more right than the first leg of The Rolling Thunder Revue, played out in the last two months of 1975.
We already had us Hard Rain from the second leg of the tour — recorded and released in 1976, after Desire had already come out — and it was a live album that was nowhere near as bad as its original reputation goes, but for quite a long time, there was nothing to compare it to (unless you were there in the first place or collected bootlegs). Live 1975 set out to remedy that omission, putting together a coherent, but mixed set of 22 numbers from five different shows, played at various locations in New England and in Montreal.
Some people complained about the album being a mix rather than a single complete show, and it is true that multiple fadeouts are a turn-off for those who want to feel themselves as part of the audience — yet it is also true that the tour, due to its spontaneous and chaotic nature, was uneven, and the compilers obviously did not want us to sit through particularly sloppy stuff, choosing instead the best of the best. So yeah, there is a touch of «fakeness» to the album in its historical function, but then let us not forget that many «regular» live albums are sewn together just like that in the first place, and that most of the «regular» Dylan lovers have no need to hear inferior versions of Dylan classics when they can easily have superior versions.
Anyway, what's so special about Live 1975 and why have so many people hastened to declare it the greatest live Dylan album on Earth? (And I count myself among these people every now and then — although, since no two live Dylan albums sound the same way, making a choice here is only a good way to kill some time). In a way, The Rolling Thunder Revue was an attempt to fight time and fate itself. In an era that was beginning to be more and more dominated by corporate ventures, pre-planned, well-calculated commercial tours, meticulously worked out market strategies, etc., Bob suddenly felt tremendous nostalgia for the era of Woodstock and Festival Express — nostalgia all the more fueled by the fact that he himself had pretty much missed out on in its heyday — and decided to single-handedly «bring it all back home». Of course, in order to turn back time you had to be a Bob Dylan, and even then, you could reopen that door for only a few minutes, but, luckily, somebody had time to thrust a few mikes in the opening, and preserve that little time trip for posterity. At least in audio form. (Video footage was shot for Dylan's 4-hour experimental movie Renaldo And Clara, panned by the critics for its clumsy avantgarde pretense and shelved for posterity, although a few bits have been mercifully released for viewers on a bonus DVD that came together with the first pressings of Live 1975).
The original atmosphere of the Revue is mostly felt in this music when you realize how many people there are onstage — approximately a dozen musicians playing together with Bob, including not only understandable superstar choices like Roger McGuinn and Joan Baez (who, like in the old times, duets with Bob on four of the songs), but also completely out-of-the-blue characters like Mick Ronson: if you thought the former «Spider from Mars» would be the least likely choice for a Bob Dylan sideman, think again — there are no musicians who couldn't step into the shoes of a Bob Dylan sideman, period, because Bob Dylan is... well, adaptable. With a crowd like that, chaos is inevitable, and there is some, but not too much: Dylan's songs are so flexible, and so easily stretch in any direction, that messing them up is dang near impossible as long as Dylan himself is inspired and interested.
And he is clearly inspired. The choice of ʽTonight I'll Be Staying Here With Youʼ, formerly a pleasant, but minor country ditty on Nashville Skyline, as the album opener is perfect — not only do its lyrics perform a welcoming function in a most original manner, but the song itself is reinvented as a loud, bombastic roots-rock anthem that promises a brand new start in life. The opening line — "throw my ticket in the wind!" — just cuts through the air like a samurai sword, prompting a cheerful response from the audience. Of course, Bob has completely rewritten the lyrics (more for fun than anything else — why the heck should "throw my suitcase out there too" become "throw my mattress out there too"?), restructured the melody, and turned the song from a settle-down decision into a ceremonial pledge of honor, but isn't that just what we mean by saying «the song lives on»? Let's hear it one more time for musical evolution.
Bob shouts a lot throughout the album, much like he did on his Before The Flood tour, but he does not do it all the time, so that the music is not reduced to a monotonous arena-rock buzz. The most questionable decision was probably to reinvent ʽHard Rainʼ as a martial rock stomper which is now more melodically similar to ʽHighway 61 Revisitedʼ than to its troubadourish origins — but it is still fun to hear it trod along that way. On the other hand, ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ works great in its sped up version, making Bob sound cooler than ever in his anti-heroic poise; and the resurrected ʽLonesome Death Of Hattie Carrollʼ now laments the lonesome death in near-symphonic format without losing the mournful spirit of the song.
Most importantly, Live 1975 is probably the one live Dylan album on which his «human» side opens up to us better than anywhere else. Not only was he totally inspired by what he was doing, but he also happened to be going through some turbulent rough shit at the time (specifically with his marriage on the brink of collapsing), and while he is on that stage, it never feels like he is «playing a character», as he usually does. It may have been the one tour on which he was wearing a real physical mask (white clownish paint, probably to match the spirit of Children Of Paradise, a movie to which Renaldo And Clara paid heavy tribute), but, paradoxically, the singing seems to come straight from the heart this time around — and you can most clearly notice it on the acoustic sub-set. Listen to this ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ: he sounds nervous, agitated, eager to let it all out without any stage mannerisms or specially conjured poetic trances. Listen to this ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ: it does not hold a candle to the studio original, but that is because in the studio original Bob played the part of a sympathetic wise onlooker, an experienced Buddhist master contemplating the young folks, whereas here he jumps right in the fray as if he were part of the story — losing subtlety, but gaining in urgence.
This intense combination — Dylan in his most disturbed and exuberant state, caught in a rare moment of opening up; and this huge band, fueled by the man's energy and buzzing around like a swarm of roots-rock-hungry bees with their slide guitars, dobros, mandolins, and violins — ensures that the album never gets boring, not for a second. Echoes of the past pursue the performer in the guise of an occasional listener shouting «play a protest song!» («here's one for you», Bob replies as the band goes into ʽOh Sisterʼ), but then what else would you expect from an old fan who has just witnessed his idol crooning out ʽMama You Been On My Mindʼ with Joan Baez like it were 1964 all over again? And, actually, Bob does protest songs, old as well as new: ʽHurricaneʼ, performed very close to the studio recording because the tune was brand new at the time, is presented together with a plea to the audience for help — "if you got any political pull at all, maybe you can help us get this man out of jail". So, in a way, we do go ten years back in the past here: never ever again would Bob sound so rejuvenated.
It does get darker towards the end, where there is a streak of four numbers in a row from Desire that culminate in a particularly sinister, bass-heavy rendition of ʽOne More Cup Of Coffeeʼ and a creepily personal rendition of ʽSaraʼ, a song that, as it turns out, Bob was not afraid to perform in front of a live audience. But the darkness is still chased away at the end, as all the band gathers round the campfire to sing a spirit-lifting rendition of ʽKnockin' On Heaven's Doorʼ (one verse is gracefully given over to McGuinn, whose angelic vocal tone suits the song so well) — and then ends the show with a little happy country jig as Bob announces, traveling-circus-style, that "we'll be in the area for a few days, maybe we'll see you tomorrow night!" Yes, tension and trouble aside, it was quite a merry-go-round.
It was also the last time that Bob would get so friendly: for the tour, he got together with many old friends, only to part ways with them completely once depression and disillusionment got the better of him by early 1976, and never again would a live Bob Dylan show have this sort of camaraderie attitude (certainly this was the last tour on which the Dylan/Baez connection was still seen to work — on the 1984 tour, Joan was only used as an opening act, and quit midway through in protest). In short, this was a unique event from just so many sides — technical, emotional, historical, cultural — and Live 1975 captures and bottles its essence to perfection. «Legendary» baggage aside, it deserves to be soaked in every bit as much as Live 1966, and as I am giving it out the obligatory thumbs up, I seem to understand that I have actually listened to it quite a few times more than to Live 1966. It might be, of course, that I am at heart just a bigger fan of Mick Ronson than of Robbie Robertson, but who knows?
Check "Live 1975" (CD) on Amazon