Rarities and novelties abound among the one-hundred forty-eight tracks that comprise The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, but at the heart of this latest Bob Dylan archive-title lie the five complete concerts comprising ten of the fourteen compact discs. Chronicled on film by Martin Scorsese with Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, these shows are also the source of The Bootleg Series Volume 5, released as a double CD set in 2002. And while all the tracks on that title appear in this package (taken from virtually identical setlists, with notable exceptions), the consistency of the performances by the bandleader, as well as the versatile band, over the more broad spectrum of material in this box, fully reveals the immediacy and the historical significance of this one-of-a-kind sojourn.
CD’S 4-5: Memorial Auditorium, Worcester, MA – November 19, 1975: It’s not long into the very first number of this first of five performances, professionally recorded by Don Devito during that storied autumn tour, that Bob Dylan gives the distinct impression he’s performing at a level of intensity equal to or even greater than those vaunted shows with the Hawks in 1966. And yet the level of abandon he brings to “It Takes A Lot to Laugh It Takes A Train to Cry” pales next to the focus with which he infuses “Just Like A Woman.” Meanwhile, the obvious delight Bob takes on “It Ain’t Me Babe.” finds him exercising razor-sharp self-discipline. Dylan is no more or less deeply invested in such vintage tunes than newer material like “Tangled Up in Blue”(from Blood On the Tracks, an album he never directly toured to support) or the culls from the yet-to-be-released Desire album such as “Romance In Durango;” in fact, The Rolling Thunder Revue, is also totally bereft of the self-caricature that often afflicted his 1974 performances with The Band.
CD’S 6-7: Harvard Square Theater, Cambridge, MA – November 20, 1975: As indicated by the significant rewrites of lyrics to “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (among others), there’s a spontaneity in Bob Dylan’s performances during The Rolling Thunder Revue heightened by and mirrored in the performances of his backing band (cryptically named ‘Guam’). It’s a willful and shared surrender to the moment that works well only after rigorous rehearsal, then further tempered by regular road work’ drummer Howie Wyeth, for instance, knows just when and how to punctuate the frontman’s vocals with emphatic hits around his kit and while natural aptitude certainly comes into play as well–as with the empathy of violinist Scarlet Rivera as she draws out the solemn dignity within “Oh Sister”– pure musicianly savvy figures into the work of multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield. And then are are those solos from guitarist Mick Ronson (late of David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars ensemble) short, sweet and to the point whenever he steps forward, as on “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below).”
CD’S 8-9: Boston Music Hall, Boston, MA – November 21, 1975 (afternoon): Apart from the panoramic audio from the Montreal Forum, one of the largest venues of the tour, the sonics of these near half-decade old performances possess that rare sound quality that only reaches maximum clarity and presence at high volume (or on headphones). As mastered by Mark Wilder and Steve Addabbo, the insistent pulse of Rob Stoner’s bass thus becomes ever-present, even in the density of arrangements like that of “Isis,” even as the acoustic guitar work on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for example, sparkles with a precision that correlates to Dylan’s moment-to-moment interactions with the group as a whole. Dramatic pauses that take place usually achieve maximum effect, whether greeted with stunned silence or raucous audience reaction, but these natural theatrics carry great impact precisely because the effect is so straightforward, rather than contrived. And that too goes for the cameos of Joan Baez, the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell on each night’s farewell tune, “This Land Is Your Land,” fitting homage to Bob’s hero Woody Guthrie..
CD’S 10-11: Boston Music Hall, Boston, MA – November 21, 1975 (evening): During the fall of 1975, the setlists featuring Dylan were fairly standard, but that hardly belies the element of surprise that permeated these concerts overall, not the least of which were startling reworkings of material such as “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” from 1968’s John Wesley Harding. The Rolling Thunder Revue seems to have been conceived, at least in part, to counteract the static quality that afflicted the man’s sets with the Band the previous year yet, in that regard, Dylan is hardly remiss in making a concerted effort to recall his tour of the world with the group in 1966 (then known as the Hawks); thus, “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” correlates with “Fourth Time Around,” off Blonde On Blonde, not just because both were regular inclusions nearly a decade prior, but also because the author revives the emotions at the heart of the compositions, this time in front of audiences who were not only attentive but appreciative.
CD’S 12-13: Forum de Montreal, Quebec, Canada – December 4, 1975: Contributing a trenchant essay to The 1975 Live Recordings, Wesley Stace fuses information and insight in such a way his prose becomes as vivid as the iconic photographs on the CD sleeves and inside the enclosed fifty-four-page booklet. The author is never more discerning than when he exudes fervent admiration for Dylan, especially as he also rightly extols the celebratory nature of these performances, so distinctly different from, as he describes it, the ‘grim’ Spring 1976 tour immortalized on Hard Rain. A bluesy, brisk rearrangement of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” captures the energy and invention suffusing The Rolling Thunder Revue, but the openings and closings of each concert are even more revelatory: on “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” Bob’s irrepressible tone suggests he feels he’s in the midst of that definitive statement to which the title alludes, while the reverent air he exudes during “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” sends the distinct impression he has indeed achieved a state of grace.