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The Thunder Rolls

 

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Volume 5: Live 1975 - The Rolling Thunder Revue

Columbia, 2002

Rating: 4.8

 

 

Posted: December 3, 2002

By Laurence Station

Bob Dylan is a deep well. Arguably the most important and influential artist in the history of popular music, Dylan has spent his career, for the most part, resisting the legend of Bob Dylan. That is to say, resisting the lure of resting on his laurels, playing exclusive Vegas gigs for maximum profit or hiding away in a guarded castle, living off of the royalties from past glories. No, unlike others in the rock pantheon, Dylan has continued to create vital and interesting music (a handful of songs from Time Out of Mind, his work on the Wonder Boys soundtrack), doggedly remained on the road playing smaller halls rather than huge arenas (the Never-ending Tour), and has never forgotten his debt to folk and blues traditions (just about any track on last year's masterful Love and Theft). But the legend of Bob Dylan is inescapable. When an artist creates such a diverse, potent and extraordinarily large body of work, and does so for over 40 years, it's bound be quite a long time before the mountain built beneath the man is washed to the sea.

The two CD Live 1975 set, the fifth in Dylan's Bootleg Series, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the artist's musical oeuvre during the chaotic, freewheeling first leg of the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue. Hard Rain, issued in 1976, does contain recordings from the second leg and less expansive incarnation of the Revue. The initial shows, however, reveal the true magic of Rolling Thunder (as anyone who's heard the widely circulated bootleg shows will attest), with writer and theater director Jacques Levy attempting to organize and manage a production that swelled to over one hundred artists, crew and various hangers-on. Poet Allen Ginsberg, Ex-Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn, frequent David Bowie collaborator Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell were but a few of the notables who reveled in the tour's spontaneous, carnival-like atmosphere.

Dylan, in the midst of a painful breakup with his then-wife Sara (documented earlier that same year on the brilliant, wrenching Blood on the Tracks), embarked on the Revue as a way to stay on the road, but also, by virtue of including so many fellow artists, to deflect further attention from the legend of Bob Dylan. The garish, white face paint Dylan wore during the shows hardly made him invisible, however, and there's little question he remained the creative ringmaster throughout. By '75 he had also amassed an enormous back catalog to draw from, not to mention songs from the soon to be released Desire album -- of which six tracks are represented here.

Limited to selections from just four shows that benefited from crystal clear 24-track professional sound recording, Live 1975 nonetheless offers a wide array of Dylan material, from early '60s protest songs (a punched-up, rollicking "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll"), his subsequent "electric" period ("Just Like A Woman," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"), and '70s output ("Tangled Up In Blue" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"). But the Revue also served to focus and refine the Desire tracks. An incendiary "Isis" and poignantly triste "Sara" shine, but the highlight belongs to "Hurricane," Dylan's stirring call-to-arms to free wrongfully imprisoned middleweight boxer and civil rights activist Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. After asking anyone in the audience with political clout to help liberate Carter, Dylan and his band proceed to rip into a ferocious eight-minute-plus scorcher detailing the boxer's alleged crime and subsequent railroading. "Hurricane" stands out on Desire, but rarely has it sounded as impassioned and politically charged as it does here. The passionate advocating for an unjustly incarcerated man's release adds gravity to the otherwise jovial atmosphere prevalent throughout the Rolling Thunder tour.

There are other highlights, including a spare, searching rendition of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and a breezy, infectiously spirited version of "Romance In Durango," featuring Scarlet Rivera's first-rate violin work, although nothing equals the potency of "Hurricane." And the only real dud is an overly sanctimonious, rather than world-weary, singalong take on "I Shall Be Released." Larry "Ratso" Sloman's liner notes essay, drawn in part from his book On The Road With Bob Dylan, laudably straddles the line between hardcore fan and critically observant rock journalist. Finally, those looking for a signature historical flashpoint akin to the "Judas" exchange on Live 1966, the previous entry in the Bootleg Series, won't find it here. Though there is an amusing moment when someone in the audience calls out for Dylan to play a protest song and he launches into the decidedly apolitical "Oh, Sister."

Perhaps the lasting legacy of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and further justification for the existence of Live 1975, is its first glimpse of what would eventually become the Never-ending Tour Dylan embarked on during the late '80s. After so much domestic tension, Dylan sought refuge on the road, moving from venue to venue night after night, guaranteeing he'd never overstay his welcome or have to deal with any messy morning-after encounters. Then again, Dylan may just be trying his hardest to remain one step ahead of the legend, simply "headin' for another joint," and leaving the slavish hyperbole to reviews such as this one.

 
When I Paint My Masterpiece, I Hope To God It Doesn't Look Like This
The nearly four-hour 1978 film Renaldo and Clara documents the Rolling Thunder Revue in a bizarre "fictional" manner, with Dylan and wife Sara playing the title characters while Ronnie Hawkins and Ronee Blakely play Dylan and Sara. The film is not commercially available, but eBay and other such outlets might be a good place to track down a copy -- for the impressive musical performances, if little else.

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