Rolling Thunder was a revue, a gypsy-like circus of performers backed by one band. It may have had something to do with the eve of the bicentennial (see both Dylan’s and Ginsburg’s liner notes to Desire) but was also part payback to various artists who had helped Dylan out in one way or another, Baez, Jack Elliott, Roger McGuinn. And more than being a tribute to American music, though it did cover many genres, it was an attempt to resurrect a certain spirit, the spirit of “music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.” It was also an attempt to counteract what Dylan has since referred to as the superficialness of his return to touring in ’74, which is another discussion entirely.
Dylan was not going through the motions on either of the Rolling Thunder Tours. It was a ragtag, crazy band, and the show had an element of craziness and fun throughout, along with a sense of anything could happen. What the Rolling Thunder Band may have lacked in technical musicianship (they certainly didn’t have the professional cohesion of The Band), they made up for in spirit.
The show had two parts, the first part emceed by Bob Neuwirth who for better or worse also sang many songs, along with contributions from each member of Guam (the band) who sang, T-Bone Burnett, Steve Soles, Rob Stoner and Mick Ronson. Various surprise guests would appear. At the show I saw, Rick Danko (with Allen Ginsberg on tambourine) did the live performance debut of the about to be released, “It Makes No Difference”, from the about-to-be released Band album, Northern Lights/Southern Cross. You KNEW you were never gonna see THAT again The performers were also in costumes, and wearing makeup. Some like T-Bone would change costumes, T-Bone was at times a wizard, at other times a cowboy. The songs themselves had an anything could happen feel– Mick Ronson, doing “Life on Mars,” for instance.
Following Jack Elliott’s set (2 songs solo, 2 songs with the band) Dylan would almost by magic appear on-stage. You didn’t see him walk on. He was just suddenly there, pancake makeup, a scarf or two draping his vest and shirt. He was magnetic, and intense, his eyes like beacons, his set an adventure. If Tour ’74 was a fairly straight-forward run through of his catalog, this was the beginning of his messing with his songs in a big way. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” saw a crazy change in the lyrics (“Throw my mattress out the window/throw my TV out there too”). “Hard Rain” became a blues, “Hattie Carroll” a marching rock waltz, almost a clipped dirge march. And there were the new songs from the then unreleased Desire. Isis found Dylan guitarless doing a crazy dance. And while the music was going on there’d be often comic interaction between the band l members. At the end of Dylan’s set a curtain would come down and there’d be a brief intermission.
The second half would start with the curtain still closed and you’d hear acoustic guitars strumming. The curtain would rise to Dylan and Baez singing “Times They Are A-Changin'” or “Blowin’ In The Wind.” They would do a few songs together usually including an old folk or country song like “Dark Is The Dungeon,” as well as Johnny Ace’s, “Never Let Me Go.” Dylan would leave and Baez would begin her set also taking over as emcee. Again various performers and guest artists would come out. At the show I saw (Hartford) the guest artist was Sandy Bull, a guitarist who also played other instruments. At this show he played some crazy thing on the oud taking you down some middle east rambling raga like road that found various revue members dancing. Roger McGuinn then took the stage and together with Mick Ronson would do a fairly amazing version of “Eight Miles High,” followed by “Chestnut Mare.” At the end of the song, T-Bone, a cowboy this time right down to chaps and spurs would lasso him.
Dylan would then appear alone with his harp holder on and sit down on a stool and do two songs. The video clip of “Tangled” from “Renaldo & Clara” captures this part of the show perfectly. The band would return and Dylan would do more songs from Desire, including “Hurricane,” as well as “Just Like A Woman” and “Heaven’s Door,” and the show would end with everyone on stage in a close to western swing version of “This Land Is Your Land.”
In some ways, it approximated the early Revue tours, but if you saw the show it was a lot more than that. Much more. While Horde, Lollapalooza
etc., do have a lot of acts, they are not a revue. They are traveling festivals. In a revue, one band backs up everybody, and there can be varying amounts of interplay on the parts of the performers, appearing in different combinations etc. That is what happened on Rolling Thunder. It also tied in various aspects of Dylan’s influences as well as his past (Jack Elliott, Baez, Ginsberg, McGuinn) with what he was creating at the time Blood On The Tracks, Desire, with the promise of the future (the then, many new, younger musicians who comprised the band) tying in as well, poetry, art, theatre, dance and a sense of drama in a fairly crazy, circus like atmosphere, where you felt anything could happen. This feeling was heightened by various guest artists. You never knew who was gonna show up and what would happen if they did.
Dylan was never more masterful, mystical and magical, playing all his roles at once, while adding new ones–each with a sense of timelessness, backed by a knowing intensity, taking you back and forth, seeming to burst on the stage out of nowhere–unlike all the other members unintroduced, playing the joker, the trickster, the poet, the clown, the actor and the minstrel, coming out alone (how long has it been since that happened), delivering dynamite yet intimate renditions of “Love Minus Zero” and “I Don’t Believe You” with that dead-on, laser beam, magnetism that makes the song and performance all you know about while it’s happening, grabbing total hold on your heart, soul and spine. There was far more happening in that Revue to go into here. And yes, the idea may have come from the ’50s, rockers along with vaudeville, carnivals and the circus, but Dylan with the help of a lot of friends turned it into something far more.
There were actually two Rolling Thunder tours. The first was in the late fall of ’75 and was in the Northeast (mainly New England, upstate NY and Canada). The second was in the late winter and spring of ’76 and hit the South and Southwest. ’75 is easily superior. The spirit had gone on ’76 and Dylan sounds not only strained but forced. Of course there are some exceptions. The influence of a certain white powder is quite obvious and while I understand some people liking the edginess, the band is not as together and quite often not in tune. ’76 had its moments, but the sound of the band had changed, and more importantly the vibe had also changed.
Isis was something that had to be seen and I have yet to hear a version from ‘76 that comes close to ’75 musically or otherwise. The acoustic stuff is
universally good both years. But while the stop/start arrangements of ’76 may be more “interesting” whatever that’s supposed to mean, it doesn’t mean they were necessarily improved. Often instruments are simply not in tune, crashing into one another and Bob’s singing is often exaggerated, or more to the point, over-emoting. The dawn of Dylan self-parody.
There are rare moments such as the San Antonio “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” which stands a chance of blowing away all live performances from 76, 75 and 74. But the acoustic songs and the duets with Joan Baez, whether acoustic or electric, but particularly the acoustic ones such as “Railroad Boy” and “Deportees” are amazing.
On “Shelter From The Storm” Dylan’s electric guitar is outrageously out of tune and he had apparently forgotten how to play slide guitar which he once knew how to do. It’s fun to watch the same way Maggie’s Farm is fun to watch, but any semblance of subtlety is severely lacking. Whereas the studio track which has never been bettered in any live performance gives you a sense of mystery, a sense of those other lifetimes, the main emotion on the Hard Rain version is anger. The shouting of the last word of each line is (such as always safe and WARM) is substantially no different than the shouting from Tour ’74. And of course the cocained calamity of Guam while charming in a rough way comes nowhere near approaching the soulful proficiency or the intensity of The Band.
I’ve never considered Hard Rain a reinvention of the thin, wild Mercury sound. I always thought of it as Dylan going after the more demented Neil Young sound around at that time. The guitars that crash like cars. The Southern tour included Kinky Friedman and had a much different vibe to it and was musically a bit more psychotic. But the show I was lucky enough to see in Hartford still ranks years later as one of the most amazing things I ever saw.