You know you got a good friend when he knows you so well he does on instinct what you would do yourself under similar circumstances. I was lucky enough to have such a friend in the fall of 1975 when my former classsmate saw a crowd gathered at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gym and inquiring accordingly, was told tickets were being sold for an upcoming Bob Dylan concert. Impulse buying ruled the day and to great effect in both short term and long.
The day in question was obviously past the point of only vague rumors circulating on what would come to be known as ‘The Rolling Thunder Revue.’ But given that Dylan had only just toured for the first time in eight years since his reunion with the Band early in 1974 (and my buddy having been awestruck with that show at the Montreal Forum that January), buying a pair of tix was as much of a no-brainer for him as it would’ve been for me.
The look of envy on the faces of those who I advised about having those tickets was almost worth the price of admission (which I forget at this point but reckon were in the $12-15 ranges as designated for Dylan/Band shows). The experience of the concert itself, in a sweltering gymnasium in early November, was absolutely priceless. Not that there weren’t some down times during the course of the two hours, but those were certainly relative and hardly the fault of the other artists on the roster with Dylan.
Striking enough in white face and feathered hat, Bob became all the more so as the concert ensued, displaying a startling level of engagement in his performance whenever he was on stage. There had been a certain disconnect between Bob and his former accompanists when they got back together the previous year, so much so the most memorable segments of the show, as accurately documented on the live double album, Before the Flood, were those when the two were playing apart. But Dylan meshed with the Rolling Thunder band and they in turn aligned behind him, if a bit sloppily, winging it much of the way as their charismatic leader as always been wont to do, here though to unusually theatrical effect.
The audience and the performers seemed equally excited, all the more so because, in addition to new material like “Isis” and “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” (from album Desire yet to be released in the first month of 1976), the setlist included songs that, only a decade or so prior, Bob Dylan had deemed obsolete. The socially-relevant likes of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” rang true in the context of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s jailing (more on that later), while “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” vividly evoked the author’s days as conscience of the folk music protest movement.
Accordingly, while that particular aspect of the concert echoed in the familiar personage of Joan Baez, the presence of Byrds’ founder Roger McGuinn reminded of the breadth of Dylan’s influence on popular culture. Such figures got their due acclamation, but it was nothing compared to the electricity in the air when Dylan took the stage, commanding it with perhaps the most authority he ever had to this point in his career because there were no naysayers, as on the raucous tour that yielded The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert 1966 and no unwieldy expectations as in 1974.
Unusual for the time, the format of the show in two sets made practical sense, giving the performers as well as the audience a break, not just from the heat in the college venue, but a respite from the intensity of the show itself. Baez’s appearance for a protracted segment was as comparable a nod to her roots as Dylan’s and it also offered a fitting nod the folk tradition represented by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott(and the homage to same and its author Woody Guthrie with the ensemble encore of “This Land Is Your Land”). The fact the tour was turning into a campaign on behalf of the (seemingly) wrongly imprisoned boxer Carter, lent a weight of righteous social justice to the proceedings.
But there were even greater dynamics involved in this ‘Rolling Thunder’ presentation, such as the quick interludes with figures such as the embodiment of a non-sequitur in the form of Bowie sideman/guitarist Mick Ronson or front man’s comrade-in-arms Bob Neuwirth. The latter Greenwich Village contemporary of Dylan’s and who may have been no more recognizable than violinist Scarlet Rivera, he was hardly the wraith-like enigma of this itinerant musician. Reportedly encountered by Dylan on the streets of New York, the violinist added as much exotic mystery to the proceedings with decidedly gypsy-styled accouterments as the sound of her instrument on songs including “Oh Sister.”
Nothing seemed exactly rushed during the course of this extended performance, but there was nevertheless a sense of the troupe as a whole riding the crest of a wave of inspiration. On a more broad scale, that sensation furthered the idea of Rolling Thunder as an impromptu sequence of events, an extended immersion in the moment on behalf of all involved, including the audience; as the tour extended into the fall then early winter, the swift turnaround of show announcements, ticket sales, and appearances was expert execution of the practical aspect of this dynamic, proportionately applied.
The spontaneous tone set by Bob Dylan’s own unself-conscious approach to performing–in contrast to his often stilted approach in 1974 and notwithstanding his film-making of Renaldo & Clara during the tour–was a rare commodity indeed. The massive administration of roadworks we know today wasn’t yet common even though the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street tour three years prior inaugurated the concept and the Dylan/Band reunion in 1974 had furthered it.
And, as on so many fronts (with many such instances in his past and yet to come), here was Bob Dylan going against the grain of expectations to great effect, on what turned out to be history-making even before (and arguably to greater degree than) the appearance at Madison Square Garden on behalf Hurricane Carter later in the year. Often overlooked in the historical arc of ‘Rolling Thunde’r is the evolution of the band down to the core personnel that appeared with Dylan for the Hard Rain television concert of September 1976, much of which was released on the eponymous album and constitutes to many one of the highlights of the man’s live releases.
Yet it’s the early days of the tour by The Rolling Thunder Revue, like this unheralded stop in the Green Mountains, that, even more so that the 1966 with The Hawks near twenty years before, that, as represented on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5, posits the most indelibly memorable example of how deeply Bob Dylan enjoys performing his music live on stage.