Among a certain category of old rock fans, there are certain live performances and tours that have passed into legend. How many of you would give front teeth to see the Allman Brothers live “At Fillmore East”? Led Zeppelin at Earl’s Court in 1975? Anyone at Woodstock? (Not the trashy, violent turn-of-the-century Woodstock I saw Counting Crows at, that is. Woodstock ’69.) Cash at Folsom Prison comes to mind as well.
Well, Bob Dylan fans have one too. The Rolling Thunder Revue tour is famous among Dylan fans as one of his most creative eras, when he rocked the hardest and sung the most sincerely. Now, while I might pay boatloads to go back in time and see Dylan argue stoned with someone who keeps shouting “hey, Bob, cocaine!” at him, at Newport Folk Festival 1964, for many fans, it’d have to be the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975-76.
An interesting historical note: As far as I know, the final concert of the Rolling Thunder tour was the last time Bob Dylan was ever in my hometown, Hattiesburg. It was the only concert on the tour that wasn’t sold out, a fact once sheepishly admitted to me by the old man who promoted the concert.
Often critically panned, the official live album from this tour has got to be one of my all-time favorite Dylan albums. “Hard Rain” is unlikely to make someone a Dylan fan, but a real Dylan fan will agree that it rocks hard.
It starts slow, with a performance of “Maggie’s Farm,” the protest anthem that marked the first time he performed electric in 1965. Honestly, that performance was more impressive, as he sounds somehow unconvinced here, and his voice is, frankly, a little off-key. Still, the slow buildup to the intro over the raucous crowd is a great way to start an album.
And then comes “One Too Many Mornings.” Originally a finger-picked acoustic number that felt vaguely out-of-place on “The Times, They are a-Changing,” here it’s played as a medium-tempo rock ballad with what I take to be electric violin from string player Scarlet Rivera, a frankly beautiful arrangement. And at this moment more than ever, you believe Dylan when he says he’s “one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind,” or at least, I do. There’s a bright-eyed, stoned fatigue in his voice, like a man who gets up in the morning in a cheap hotel room and stares uncomprehending at the light pouring in through the gap in the curtains, wondering how it can be morning but not resenting that it is. For it’s time to be moving on, like on all those other mornings.
Sometimes, when I pick up a guitar to practice, and I don’t have a set-list to prepare, I immediately want to play “Guaranteed,” by Eddie Vedder, but more often I want to Travis-pick the chords to this song, which, incidentally, are the same chords as half the songs on “The Times,” G-Em-C-G, G-Em-C-D… honestly, you can sing half the songs ever written to that.
Next is “Stuck inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again.” Most Dylan fans probably know this from the legendary “Blonde on Blonde” album, but I actually first heard it here. It’s another one of Dylan’s bizarre, psychedelic ballads about being lost in the city, a fainter echo of “Desolation Row,” but it gets rocked hard here, and whatever he’s singing about, he feels it. There’s genuine anger when he sings “me, I expected it to happen when I seen him lose control,” which is what leads me to believe that most of his bizarre songs have an actual coherent meaning in his mind, or at least a set of real events they refer to. And boy, does the band rock, led by Dylan and the famous T-Bone Burnett.
Robert Christgau, whom I suspect of simply not liking music, described the Rolling Thunder Revue on this album as sounding like “folkies whose idea of rock and roll is rock and roll clichés.” This could not be farther from the truth. If I ever have a band that sounds so good live with such simple elements, I’m taking it straight to California and getting rich. He is right, at least, in saying that the band are folkies, but folkies appreciate the elemental sounds in music. No one shreds on this album, they just play well together as a group, each playing their instrument and not wishing they could be playing another, and as a result, they sound huge.
Next is another violin-heavy ballad, written not long before the Rolling Thunder tour, during Bob Dylan’s brief phase (captured on the album “Desire”) in which he co-wrote all his songs with some unknown songwriter, Jaques Levy. Whoever did the bulk of the writing for “Oh, Sister” was, nevertheless, a skilled poet. This song is carried perhaps 40% by the band and 60% by the vocals and lyrics, an unusual thing for Dylan. But with lines like “Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore,” it’s not surprising. It reminds me of a brief and passionate romance, tinged with religious feeling, that I had in my teen years, so perhaps I’m not that objective about it, but I think it’s a great song. I can also recommend Andrew Bird’s cover.
And then, seemingly because someone in the audience has been loudly requesting it from almost the beginning of the album, they play “Lay, Lady Lay.” This is representative of an earlier, dubious era in Dylan’s songwriting, about five or six years before, when he had quit smoking and his voice had somehow gotten worse for the trouble, and when he seemingly had no idea what was un-listenable slop and what wasn’t. So here he is, singing of his undisguised lust for some girl, talking of himself in the third person and using rather sketchy lines like “his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean.” Like even Dylan’s worst song, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” this song has at least one line I like, but it’s the band that support this one.
But then he makes it up to us in a big way on Side 2, with “Shelter from the Storm,” off the previous year’s “Blood on the Tracks,” which held perhaps his most critically acclaimed songwriting. This was the era that Dylan got into Rimbaud, Verlaine and Dante Alighieri, and started trying to make his songs poetry. Made into a hard-rock song here, with a great slide-guitar lick, it’s the best version, in my opinion. He sings of a woman who picked him up off the side of the road and restored him to life, a theme that really resonates with me, but I suspect I’m not alone in that. That bright-eyed stonedness I mentioned earlier? You hear it here as well.
The next song, “You’re a Big Girl Now,” is off “Blood” as well, and it has some of Dylan’s more dubious songwriting choices from that album, like the line “time is a jet plane, it moves too fast/what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last.” Reaching a bit for the rhyme? But it has a great melody and works well as a follow-up to “Shelter,” so I’m not complaining.
And here I must make a confession: My teenage recollections of this album stop here, since my LP was too scratched-up beyond this point to listen (and in fact, that’s the vinyl copy I still own.) But while the final two tracks don’t have the same afterglow of memory hanging around their edges, I’ve listened to them on CD a number of times.
“I Threw it all Away” is not bad. It’s got some good lines, but is this not faint praise when I’ve already said that Dylan’s worst song had some good lines? Well, I must say I’m not huge on filler.
And then comes the disaster. “Idiot Wind” is a great song. It’s an angry breakup song that turns self-loathing and regretful three-quarters of the way through, ending almost re-conciliatory, but not quite. On “Blood on the Tracks,” its original album, it was fantastic, with angry organ licks and hard-strummed guitar underpinning Dylan’s resentment and regret, and lines like “I waited for you on my running boards/near the cypress trees as the spring-time turned/slowly into autumn.” Here, however, it’s apparently too complex for the (stoned) band, and Dylan in particular, to pull off. He caterwauls, whoever’s playing rhythm guitar changes time signatures and adds and loses bars, and in general, it’s a musical disaster, the kind I’d stop and apologize for.
It’s a great live album, one glaring moment of idiocy and a little filler notwithstanding. And I have to give it an extra point for teenage nostalgia. 6+1=7/10.
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