What does it sound like?:
Rewind to March and Tiggerlion’s review of The Complete Basement Tapes.
In the discussion I commented that it was strange that the The Rolling Thunder Revue release was so much better than the more contemporaneous Hard Rain release. The remarks met with some controversy, but having listened to Hard Rain again, while I’ll concede it’s better than I recalled, it is definitely an inferior product to this.
This could be due to material from Rolling Thunder being taken from gigs in the first leg recorded in November and December 1975 while Hard Rain was taken from tapes recorded at the end of the second leg in May 1976 – apparently this tied in with a US only TV special.
Which all led to a suggestion that I post review. A challenge I accepted and so with intermittent listening over the intervening weeks I’m ready to pass judgement.
Unsurprisingly Desire, which came out between the two legs of the tour, is the most represented album. Pleasingly neither Mozambique (a lightweight song about now nice it would be to spend a week or two there at a time when a vicious civil war raged) nor Joey (a paean to a dead Mafiosi characterised as some sort of Robin Hood) make an appearance on this set.
I should acknowledge Pete Frame’s article in ZigZag 58 from March 1976. Frame saw a RTR gig, which he hailed as the greatest gig he’d seen in his life but, more usefully for me, he also (with that eye for detail familiar to anyone who ha studied his Rock Family Trees) tabulated every song played so that it is clear who played on what. His tabulation included all the support sets. His gig on 24:11:75 included a two song contribution from Joni Mitchell (Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow & Edith and the King Pin). I do wonder how much Frame could really have enjoyed it, so copious was his note-taking. The Dylan set that night was much the same as appears on the RTR discs with a few variations. The whole thing did live up to the Revue title with Frame noting 50 songs being performed on the day he was there by various combinations of musicians (21 of them with Dylan performing against 22 on the discs). Whatever, I thank him for the information from then that he gave me help today.
The set kicks off with Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You. This is a thunderous band version, Dylan’s vocal absolutely full on, with David Mansfield’s steel guitar weaving patterns in the background and Mick Ronson prominent on guitar. This is markedly different from the Nashville Skyline version but still, unlike the Dylan “guess what this song is” performances of the past 20 years or more, completely recognisable.
Dylan touched on most parts of his career up to that point. Strange to think at the time we thought he was probably in the latter part of his career, 14 years after his debut. Did we think he’s still be active another 40 years on?
Still at full throttle the set continues with It Ain’t Me Babe. The most notable variation here is the reggae inflection on rhythm guitar. It’s not a reggae version by any means but once again it’s a complete rearrangement, but the tune is still instantly recognisable. There’s a lovely solo, probably by Ronson (though possibly T Bone Burnett bringing himself to the attention of the larger public for the first time) and then Mansfield, ending in Dylan harmonica solo. You can hear the crowd roar as he starts blowing. Why? The first time I saw Dylan I was mystified by this behaviour. He’s hardly Larry Adler. Do Stones’ audiences go apeshit when Jagger does it?
This is followed by a rousing full band version of Hard Rain. It gallops along. The choruses are deliriously ragged with presumably Bobby Neuwirth, Steve Soles, Burnett and Ronson (all guitar and vocals), Rob Stoner (bass and vocals) joining in. Considering it’s from the Freewheelin’ album it applies that label to this song, belting along at twice the speed of the original.
Straight into The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. It never struck me until now that this song is played in waltz time. Mandolin is to the fore on choruses, played by David Mansfield, switching from steel. I didn’t appreciate this song until I heard Christy Moore’s version but through Christy I really came to like it. This version may the the highlight of this set. Dylan spits out the words with venom as though it was something that had happened the day before, not some 12 years earlier. Great stuff.
So after this look at his back pages Dylan takes us into material from (at the time of these recordings) the the unreleased Desire album.
Enter Scarlet Rivera and it’s into Romance In Durango. Introduced with an enigmatic “Do you remember Durango, Larry?” it is as you’d expect played as arranged on the album as is everything from Desire. It’s immediately followed by Isis.
The band disappear and it’s solo Dylan playing Mr Tambourine Man. It’s a totally straight version with non of the over-emphasised first syllable that I’ve heard on later versions. More audience over-reaction to the harmonica playing.
Bringing It All Back Home is the second best represented album, with MTM, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue and Love Minus Zero/No Limit all appearing.
Simple Twist Of Fate is played with unexpected delicacy but totally in line with the original.
Then it’s time for Joan Baez to join Dylan. They play Blowin’ In The Wind as a duo. Frame notes they played it behind a lowered curtain in darkness. For me this is the least interesting track on the album. Maybe that’s why they played behind a curtain.
The Dylan/Baez duo is joined by the band for Mama You’ve Been On My Mind. This is a speeded up countrified version with the metre, especially on the chorus, altered. It’s nothing like the version on Bootleg Series 1-3. Moreover it’s nothing like Rod Stewart’s version which is definitive and the yardstick against which all performances of this song have to be measured. This version falls short.
Things pick up with I Shall Be Released. B&J and the band produce a terrific version. It ends with Baez saying “Bobby will be back”. Frame records that this marked the start of a Joan Baez set. Presumably the tapes exist, as I would love to hear the band versions of Diamonds And Rust and Please Come To Boston but I’m happy never to hear an acapella version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. But who would release them?
Into Disc Two and it’s solo Dylan starting with It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. He play’s a very straight version, but delivered with real passion and intensity. Followed by Love Minus Zero/No Limit which is much the same as the original.
Then the second Blood On The Tracks song, Tangled Up In Blue. Dylan is still solo and performs very much as the original. I have an early version of this set with a bonus DVD. It presages by 30 odd years so much YouTube footage. The DVD version is close up, holding Dylan’s face from front left profile and does not move. His white pancake make-up is pretty messy. There is also a partial version of Isis which includes band members. Both come from the Renaldo And Clara film. The final part of the DVD is another audio version of Isis. Don’t feel bitter if you don’t have it.
Joan Baez and the band rejoin proceedings. Next up is The Water Is Wide, which also appears in Renaldo and Clara and nowhere else. It’s a trad folk song. As I started this relistening exercise I initially didn’t like it, but it grew on me. Mansfield’s steel guitar is very prominent and we get a lovely solo from him about three minutes in.
The band are back in their groove and it’s straight into It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry. Appropriately the band move into in full steam ahead mode. It seems to me a bit of a throwaway version, but it’s still pretty good.
Someone in the audience calls out for a protest song. Dylan says here’s one for young launches into Oh, Sister. Scarlet Rivera’s violin is to the fore. Frame noted Dylan was “breathtakingly charismatic” on this song. It doesn’t come across in this audio version.
Then it’s into Hurricane. Despite some of Dylan’s most clunky lyrics the intensity of the performance carries it through. Ronnee Blakely is notable for the first time on background vocals. Rivera’s violin dominates.
Still rhymes like:
… looked like middleweights/…out of state plates;
…your friend Bellow/… be a nice fellow
…took him to the jailhouse/…turned a man into a mouse
do grate a bit.
More Desire tracks follow. One More Cup Of Coffee and Sara follow. Decent enough performances following the album versions closely except in Sara Dylan pronounces her name as Sayra.
As we approach the end we get the only Blonde On Blonde song of the set. Just Like A Woman is apparently played in response to a shouted request. “OK, we’ll try it” says Dylan, but it is there in Frame’s gig list coming straight after Sara. So somewhat less spontaneous than it would appear to be. It picks things up again after the slight dip in form that the Desire material brought about.
Which takes us into the the disc finale Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. This is a shared between Dylan and Roger McGuinn (not a duet as such as they take alternate verses). What is notable are the new lyrics. The first verse begins Mama wipe the blood offa my face, while the second starts Mama I can’t hear that Thunder Roll…
This is a great version. It’s notable for some beautiful playing by Rivera and Mansfield, especially Rivera’s solo toward the end.
The disc ends with auditorium music and Dylan saying “Maybe see you tomorrow night,” though Frame’s list has a version of This Land Is Your Land with a massed chorus of everyone who had appeared on stage that night.
What does it all *mean*?
Once upon a time you could go to a Bob Dylan concert and listen to songs without wondering “What the F*** is he playing now?” though then as now audiences had a bizarre exaggerated appreciation for Bob Dylan harmonica solos.
Goes well with…
The Bootleg Series Vol 4 Live 1966 “The Royal Albert Hall” concert
Might suit people who like…
If you don’t like Bob Dylan it won’t convert you. If you have never heard Dylan, don’t start here, but if you have a least a nodding acquaintance with his music you should like it.