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

i know what you’re thinking: “Another critic sucking Dylan’s cock.” It’s your right. Furthermore, you may be asking: is there anything left to be said about Bob Dylan that wasn’t already said, oh, thirty years ago? Don’t we know everything there is to know about Dylan from the approximately forty thousand books written about him?

And when you think about it, were the last two releases, the critically revered Time Out of Mind and Love And Theft, really comparable to Dylan’s best work? No question those records were of interest. But were they by someone else—say, Bruce Cockburn—would we be hailing their “profound insights into mortality”? My hunch is no—not a chance—but as Dylan’s legacy grows and our seemingly desperate need to describe his work in the most hyperbolic terms possible with it, it becomes increasingly hard to tell.

But Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue is an archival release – and a pretty damned classic one at that. Like Columbia/Legacy’s last entry in The Bootleg Series, Live in 1966: Royal Albert Hall Concert, you’re not nearly as saddled with having to separate the legend from the music because, believe me: this stuff is the legend.

You’ve seen the pictures from the tour: our hero, his face painted white with heavy eye makeup, his piercing blue eyes peering out from under that massive white hat with the feathers and the plumes. Those photos are as iconic as any taken of Dylan. And they should be: Rolling Thunder is the moment he rediscovered his muse and put everything he had into a hyper-ambitious, doomed-to-failure roving festival that showcased everything he loved about music and the creative process.

Can you say ambitious? Try simultaneously revitalizing the activism of the sixties and the history of American folk music, recruiting a rotating cast of celebrated musicians and artists – like Roger McGuinn, Bob Neuwirth and Joan Baez, with literary luminaries Allen Ginsberg and playwright Sam Shepherd tagging along.

Can you say historic? Try kicking the tour off in Plymouth, Massachusetts in a boat on the beach, before winding your way through New England and Canada and the Deep South, visiting Jack Kerouac’s gravesite along the way.

Can you say courageous? Try using the forum and your music to advocate for boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s release from prison. Try directing your three-hour cinematic epic, Renaldo And Clara. Try sinking serious money into the tour and the film, putting it all on the fucking line.

Many readers likely knew at least some of that already. But how many of us experienced it – saw it or heard it? Unless you’re pushing fifty, probably not too many. So here’s your chance.

Sort of. A typical Revue show would begin with songs by Neuwirth and others, before Dylan would arrive onstage to sing “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and begin the first of his two sets. But Columbia/Legacy chose not to recreate the show in its entirety with Live 1975, instead focusing exclusively on the Dylan material of various performances, which includes several large band numbers, an acoustic set and a few duets with Baez (though for some reason, not “Masterpiece”). The effect is that Live 1975 isn’t the event Rolling Thunder was – it’s just another live album.

But by any standard, it’s a fucking great live album, with the famously erratic Dylan in top form throughout. For those expecting the talking kazoo he increasingly resembles these days, nearly every track reminds us of how wonderfully expressive Dylan’s voice was three decades ago. Hearing Dylan passionately bellow opener “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” full throttle with Mick Ronson wailing on phased, burning lead guitar is simultaneously thrilling and heartbreaking. Equally exciting are his recasting of songs like “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as a strange reggae-hoedown hybrid and blistering roadhouse number respectively.

On 1976’s Hard Rain, the unjustly neglected live recording from the Revue’s second, Southern leg, Dylan was taking huge chances musically. If a bit more polished (with way better sound), Live 1975 is no less risky. This was an era when Dylan was obsessed with his failing marriage, frantically writing and rewriting lyrics of songs old and new on tour to reflect the most recent ups and downs of their relationship, in one instance even warning his wife’s new lover to watch his back(!!).

As a consequence, there’s a charge in both Dylan’s voice and the band’s performance that is undeniable. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a veritable folk relic of Dylan’s, get country-funked up. Wide canvas epics like “Romance In Durango” and “Isis” are given jittery, frenetic readings, with Scarlet Rivera’s pseudo-gypsy fiddle exploding on the latter’s chorus. And the acoustic numbers like “Tangled Up In Blue” attain a level of quiet, simmering energy to rival him at his sixties best.

By the finale, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” featuring six guitarists(!), Live 1975 has left the listener worn out – spent. If that’s not the complete show, maybe I’m a little scared to hear the whole thing.

Still, given that Renaldo and Clara consisted of several Rolling Thunder performances and Dylan filmed at least two television specials during the tour, it’s a little puzzling that none of the shows have ever been available on video – particularly when you consider how they sort of represent “Dylan’s Last Stand,” before he ventured out into the Land of Mumblefuck for the next two decades (pace, Paul Williams). Columbia/Legacy partly makes up for this by including a bonus DVD with limited editions of the set featuring two songs, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Isis.” If still frustratingly brief, the disc should give fans at least some idea of what Dylan was up to.

The verdict? Well, for obsessives, the record’s a treat. They’ll hoover up every last note of Live 1975. But who gives a shit about those people? They’d probably wait up at Tower Records until midnight for the release of Dylan Sings Streisand. Plus, you can safely bet they had this material on reel-to-reel twenty years ago.

No, even if you haven’t spent sleepless nights aching for another document of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Live 1975 should still dazzle and amaze your friends: it’s exciting, visceral and epic. Fan or not, you couldn't ask for a more thrilling Dylan record.

Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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