026 – Rolling Thunder Revue

Episode 26. The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 – Rolling Thunder Revue. August 24, 2017. Bunker. Rainier.

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Daniel begins the show by looking at just what revue is anyway (4:10). It’s a live show that combines music, dance and sketches. It was most popular in-between the wars, before the advent of moving pictures. Revues are seen in contrast to vaudeville; a more upscale version of entertainment that “featured material based on sophisticated, irreverent dissections of topical matter, public personae and fads, though the primary attraction was found in the frank display of the female body.”

And what about The Rolling Thunder Revue (5:30)? Just how did Dylan come up with the name of the tour? Was it the Native American shaman Rolling Thunder? Operation Rolling Thunder that campaigned in Vietnam? Nope.

I was just sitting outside my house one day thinking about a name for this tour, when all of a sudden, I looked into the sky and I heard a boom! Then, boom, boom, boom, boom, rolling from west to east. So I figured that should be the name.

Daniel outlines the major performers – from Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Neuwirth, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, David Mansfield, Allen Ginsburg, and Joni Mitchell – and Bob’s incredible Desire band – drummer Howie Wyeth, bassist Rob Stoner, and violinist Scarlet Rivera.

The show had two legs, one at the end of 1975 from October 3 to December 8 on the east coast (which is represented on this compilation) and the second from April 18 to May 25, 1976 (captured on the live record, Hard Rain). Conceptually, the gang of musicians would roll from town to town, announce shows as they arrive and put on their gypsy carnival.

What did the show feel like (25:00)? To paraphrase Michael Gray in his Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, the general pattern of the show began with individual members of the backing band Guam opening the festivities before Dylan came out. He’d open with “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (inexplicably not featured here) followed by a few more songs, “Romance in Durango” and “Isis” usually ending the suite. After “Isis” the curtains fell to surprise the audience with Joan Baez, who hadn’t appeared at Dylan’s side in a decade. After they sang a few, Dylan would play “Mr. Tambourine Man” alone. Baez would then get a set before Dylan returned for more acoustic jams. The band would reassemble and close the night with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “This Land Is Your Land” (inexplicably not featured here) that featured every performer.

Least we forget, this tour also produced Renaldo and Clara, directed by Howard Alk, who had worked with D.A. Pennebaker on Don’t Look Back. Dylan also recruited Sam Shepard, an aspiring actor and playwright, to “help write” the improvised movie.

Clinton Heylin sums it all up perfectly:

The Rolling Thunder Revue shows remain some of the finest music Dylan ever made with a live band… Gone was the traditionalism of The Band. Instead he found a whole set of textures rarely found in rock. The idea of blending the pedal-steel syncopation of Mansfield, Ronson’s glam-rock lead breaks, and Rivera’s electric violin made for something as musically layered as Dylan’s lyrics…

Bob Dylan at The Sea Crest Motel in North Falmouth, Massachusetts and the first appearanceSo what about these songs (13:00)?  The compilation, compiled and released in 2002, is cut from five shows: Montreal on December 4, Harvard Square Theatre on November 20, Boston Music Hall (2 shows) on November 21, and Worcester on November 19. There is no arguing with the quality of this bootleg, although there may be an argument as to why they didn’t just release one show? If you’re interested, the bootlegs are widely available. The Boston show is definitive on Cowboy Angel BluesPlymouth Rock is also great.

For Daniel, this is Dylan at his finest. He’ll never sound as composed, as confident, as strident as he does in autumn of 1975. But what’s the fun in him just going on for an hour?

Kelly takes the lead as she hasn’t heard most of these songs (or at least don’t know if she’s heard them before).

As Daniel and Kelly will be diving into all of these songs, and has for “Tangled Up in Blue,” we’ll leave descriptions and observations to a minimum. As we cover these songs in real-time, this page will be updated as well as the album’s cover page. See each time stamp for their approximate location.

“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” (13:00), “It Ain’t Me Babe” (15:30), and “Hard Rain” (17:00) open the album to lackluster reviews from Kelly. She points out how they all sound the same (which, in a concert, you would inherently expect) while Daniel notes that a lot of these songs charms do rely upon their radical reinventions. Context and knowledge of the songs matter here.

“Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (19:00)” slowed proceedings down and evoked a previous conversation on the role of musician’s and historical accuracy (see our Supplemental Series, Vol. 3 – Folksinger’s Choice for more).

As welcome a change of pace as “Lonesome Death” was, it wasn’t as seismically radical as “Romance in Durango” and “Isis” (20:45). “Intentional planned mania” as Kelly called them, in-between celebrating Scarlet Rivera in all her glory. 

Kelly recognized “Mr. Tambourine Man” (25:15). Daniel delves into the lyrical differences of Blood on the Tracks‘ “Simple Twist of Fate” and this one a year on (31:00). Kelly notes the latter’s darker chord progression while they muse on how awkward the Rolling Thunder Revue had to be with Dylan, Joan Baez, and Sara constantly around one another (if not filming together) but also Dylan not only singing about, but changing lyrics to explicitly reference, his old flame, Suze Rotolo.

The pair talk the rest of the Bob/Joan cuts: “Blowin’ in the Wind” (36:15), “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind” (37:33), “I Shall Be Released” (38″30) and “The Water is Wide” (40:30), where Daniel mentions other covers played during the show’s run, like the traditional “Dark as a Dungeon” and Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go.”

The confidence of Bob and his guitar is on display at the beginning of Disc 2, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” and “Tangled Up in the Blue” (40:30). Kelly is a sucker of Bob and his harmonica. Daniel is reminded of Heylin again, Dylan has

a vocal precision rare even for him, snapping and stretching words to cajole nuances of meaning from each and every line.

The three roughest cuts were “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (45:15), “Sara” (49:35), and “Just Like a Woman” (50:10). Daniel notes the similarities of “Hard Rain” with “Lots to Laugh” that cannot be unheard. For a song that is thoroughly worked over (and can be listened to on The Bootleg Series, Volume 12: The Cutting Edge) and, honestly, perfected on Highway 61 Revisited, this wasn’t going to do much. As for “Sara,” Kelly wasn’t impressed, summed up as: “fuck rhyming amiright? Also, DON’T LEAVE ME!!!! Harmonica.” As for “Just Like a Woman,” it wasn’t more compelling than it’s Blonde on Blonde version though is a song that needs much dissecting, away from a larger album.

We also learn that Desire is going to be one of Kelly’s favorite albums. “Oh Sister” (45:40), “Hurricane” (47:00) and “One More Cup of Coffee” (49:00) are all highlights.

The collection ends with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (50:50). Daniel admits to instant fatigue when looking at a tracklist such as Rolling Thunder and seeing so many classics (over)represented. It doesn’t excuse omitting “This Land Is Your Land,” but this version – “twinkling” in his estimation – is perhaps the grandest statement for a song that, in 1975, was two years old and wasn’t beaten to the pulp as we know it today.

Overall from Kelly: these songs are, from what she can tell, great; Dylan’s vocals are incredible and so transcendent compared to some of the cuts previously heard, and Scarlet Rivera instantly elevates what are already great songs. “Can we just listen to Desire?”

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Recommendations (54:00): As there is no Mixed Up Confusion this week (besides our review of Game of Thrones‘ Season 7 finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf,” seen below) because of this episode’s length, quick recommendations. First, if you’re suffering, go listen to the newly released Supplemental Series episode on Folksinger’s Choice.

Kelly also recommends Cameron Esposito‘s newest podcast, QueeryDaniel recommends, highly, Brand New’s Science Fiction. Once Mixed Up returns, the two will dig into this further!

Some endings (56:00): As housekeeping, Daniel split The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 into three separate albums and removed individual songs from the bootleg Gaslight Tapes from the spreadsheet (as we’ll do a supplemental of the live show in time).

So… we are at 508 songs left. Kelly guessed #437, “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” If you haven’t checked out weekly playlist, See That My Playlist is Kept Clean, now you should! Next week is #284, our second album in a row, our fifth total1967’s John Wesley Harding!

 

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