One of the reasons, I think, that Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder period is so loved by Dylanphiles is that it’s kind of absurd. This isn’t meant as an insult — but the idea of a traveling gypsy show rumbling around the Northeast is one of the few bits of sustained public whimsy that Dylan’s put forth in his long career. Considering that they fall in between the not-so-fun failing of his marriage and the really-not-so-fun Christian period, the general good-naturedness of the shows have taken on a mythic quality. Among Dylan bootfans, these shows are some of the most prized. So after a quarter of a century, we’ve finally been obliged with an official release, Vol. 5 in the Bootleg Series.
Of course, there was already an official release of this tour — a 1976 TV show and live album called Hard Rain. However, most of those that would know have always said that those releases focused on the second — and weaker — 1976, leg of the tour, which wasn’t nearly as great as what went down during 1975. Whew! Sometimes specialists don’t have more fun. Even so, while there is some great stuff on Live 1975, this certainly doesn’t contain Dylan’s best music, so don’t be fooled by anybody telling you that.
Dylan’s always fucked with his arrangements. Songs from “I Don’t Believe You” to “Cold Irons Bound” take on whole new lives when played in concert, and many of the settings for his songs here are radically different from their original (or other live) versions. Sometimes this works great, but not always. So while I approve of the rocking up of “Hard Rain,” maybe the arrangement could have been more inventive than a straight uptempo blues shuffle. Especially when it’s the same ho-hum blues shuffle with which he saddles “It Takes a Lot to Laugh.” Same thing with the too-smooth version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” when compared to the rough-hewn original. On the other hand, this version of “Isis” is all lightning violin, rapid-fire vocals and swirling guitar, though not quite as crazy as the one on Biograph. (Or the truncated one on the free DVD sampler/tease that came with the early versions of this set.) And while “Oh Sister” and “Hurricane” are close to the then still-unreleased Desire versions, Dylan was already exploring new ways of playing and singing these songs.
About that singing: It might be his best. If you think that Bob Dylan is a great rock ‘n’ roll singer — and I do — then you know that it’s equal parts his phrasing and his ability to be living what he’s singing. I don’t think that he’s ever sounded so free — like he’s having so much fun — as he did on this tour. From the opening of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” his singing is emotive and right there. When he gets to the “Rolling Thunder” part, it almost sounds like he’s having too much fun. The only times I’ve ever heard him have this much fun is on the wasted parts of the Basement Tapes. The only times that his singing doesn’t work is when it’s dragged down into the land of the formally beautiful by the pristine presence of Joan Baez.
But then again, maybe Baez hanging around is the reason that the triptych of great love-ish songs that open the second disc are worth the price of admission. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” sounds full of regret, not venom, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” might be his greatest pure love song, and it sounds like his love is right there, gazing into his eyes, hanging on every word. And “Tangled Up in Blue” — well, has there ever been a bad version of this song? (That was a rhetorical question, you, yeah you, who were going to point me to some bad version he did on the 1991 tour or something.)
In Annie Hall, just after Woody Allen is rolling his eyes as Shelly Duval’s addled rock critic is quoting the lyrics of “Just Like a Woman” (Shelly: “Did you catch Dylan? Woody: Me? No … my raccoon had hepatitis.”), she describes an event with the Maharishi as “transplendent.” At its best — “Isis,” “Hurricane,” those already-mentioned acoustic songs (and the Hard Rain version of “Shelter From the Storm“) — that’s what the Rolling Thunder tour sounds like. Transplendent. But as a whole, the album isn’t quite transplendent enough.
Still, you folks over at Sony, howz about releasing Renaldo & Clara and Hard Rain on DVD?
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Published at Neumu on February 06, 2003