This article by Christopher John Stephens was first published in PopMatters and is republished with the author’s permission.
The risk for any completist is that even the possibility that we have collected everything available from an artist is not enough to quench the urge for more. From the days of the 1969 Bob Dylan bootleg double vinyl LP, The Great White Wonder, (by most accounts the first drop in the deluge that has become the pirated audio industry) through to today, the very idea that we can collect all the product from an artist has led many consumers to take extraordinary measures.
In the pre-internet days we sifted through record stores in search of that rare disc, an audio proof of that one performance we saw that changed our lives. Most of those stores are gone, and storage space for vinyl has shifted from our crowded living quarters to infinite space in virtual clouds. We willingly sacrifice pristine audio quality in favor of collecting the most versions of our favorite artists. Is that trip worth taking?
Twenty-two years after the bootleg release of The Great White Wonder, Dylan’s longtime label Columbia Records (under the Columbia Legacy division) began officially releasing (in perfect audio) these recordings with “The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991.” This series peaked with 2018’s 14th volume, More Blood, More Tracks, full recordings from the landmark 1974 album Blood on the Tracks. Now, in connection with the Netflix release Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Columbia Legacy has released The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, a 14-disc boxed set containing five complete Bob Dylan sets from The Rolling Thunder Revue, rehearsal performances, rarities, and more.
That qualification of “Bob Dylan sets” is important to consider for the completist who wants full recordings of any given three-hour concert from this first leg (approximately six weeks between mid-October through early December 1975). There are no recordings of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn (among many others) sets. It’s Dylan as bandleader, carnival theatrical performer, and instigator. With over 100 tracks and a handful of sometimes radically different versions of each of the approximately two dozen songs, there are no stones here left unturned.
It was an upside-down world Dylan was giving us in these songs where nothing we knew could ever be the same again, and this collection of musicians he’d assembled could not have been better connected with this determination to steamroll into town on these performances and leave nobody in doubt as to where things stood. T-Bone Burnett, starting his career as a musician’s musician, stands back to let Mick Ronson explode on guitar. David Mansfield adds tasty pedal steel guitar embellishments. Rob Stoner plays bass, Howie Wyeth is on piano and drums, and Scarlet Rivera is weaving her violin lines through Dylan’s soon to be released “Desire” tracks (“Hurricane” and “Isis” among them) like a mad seamstress determined to find space of her own on the crowded tapestry of a miraculously synchronized arrangement.
Dylan’s power has always been matched equally with solo guitar/voice/harmonica as well as a full band. “Mr. Tambourine Man”, still a young song in 1975, earns a hopeful and earnest nostalgia in these sets. Still fresh and vital and less than a year old, “Tangled up in Blue” transforms into a frightening acoustic performance. Joan Baez proves a welcome addition, perhaps Dylan’s most sympathetic singing sparring partner, with “Mama, You Been on My Mind”, “The Water is Wide”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and more. In his comprehensive 2013 two-volume Dylan biography Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan, author Ian Bell put it this way:
“The degree of calculation was self-evident, though few in the audiences cared. He might have been averse to nostalgia, but he was not afraid to risk the disease for the sake of the show.” (Bell, 118.)
This is the essence that comes through in each of the shows represented in this boxed set. Dylan and company were balancing a forceful deconstruction of the old songs into strangely addictive rocking versions, but the core consistent strengths come from the acoustic numbers. In addition, the first three discs of rehearsals ( S.I.R. Studios in New York and the Seacrest Hotel in Falmouth, Massachusetts) are a compelling look at the creative process. They’re tentative, many incomplete, some folk standards and some riffs that will never amount to anything.
The logistics of this boxed set might be staggering, but they quickly make sense. After the first three discs of rehearsals, the full Dylan sets comprise two discs each. There’s Memorial Auditorium in Worcester, Massachusetts (discs four and five), followed in succession by a Harvard Square Theater show (Cambridge, Massachusetts), and four discs of an afternoon and evening show (same day, 21 November 1975) from Boston Music Hall. Disc Thirteen, a 4 December 1975 set from Montreal, Canada, is a strong set from near the end of the tour that represents the band in full alignment with their leader. Compare it with the loose arrangements in the rehearsals and the confidence is impressive.
Is this boxed set too much of a good thing? That’s possible. Disc 14’s highlight must be the strangely infectious and rocking live dance arrangement (piano and drums) of “Simple Twist of Fate”, recorded at a Falmouth Massachusetts Mahjong Parlor for an eagerly elderly Jewish women audience who seemed up for anything. Listen closely and you can hear the infectious smile in Dylan’s delivery that can be seen on his face late in Scorsese’s film. Was this the first instance of Dylan completely disassembling the purity of his ballads? It’s hard to tell, but it’s definitely fun.
As with most Dylan retrospective releases under the Bootleg Series umbrella or otherwise, this set includes a comprehensive essay from Wesley Stace that effectively puts the entire project in a clear perspective:
“The Revue was an umbrella under which many could shelter from the storm, its format allowing for lots of moving parts and last-minute additions, though the structure was always precisely the same and Dylan’s song choices were unusually consistent.”
Again, the difficulty in naming a boxed set The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings is that it comes with the assumption that we would get everything — an entire show. After all, that is the ultimate objective of the true collector. This boxed set, along with the Scorsese film, covered only the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. The officially released single disc Hard Rain (1976) covered the second leg, from earlier that year, which by most accounts, including author Ian Bell‘s was “…an unholy mess.”
Listen to these performances and watch the Scorsese film to see the magic materialize. Completists may want everything and not be satisfied until that happens, but in the meantime The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings is a remarkably healthy — and even at its mammoth length (ten-plus hours) still not exhaustive account — of a time when the magic of a traveling carnival show, under the aegis of Dylan and theatrical director and co-conspirator/writing partner Jacques Levy, could accomplish anything.
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