From the rough, spontaneous energy of the rehearsals that open this box to the set’s barely-tamed-tornado climax, on stage in Montreal, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue barely lasted a season: seven weeks in the frenzied autumn of 1975. And no song captures the distance and velocity of Dylan’s legendary touring phenomenon across these 14 CDs, between concept — a loose-limbed rock & roll medicine show — and its swinging vengeance on the road, better than “Isis.”
Written by Dylan in July, 1975 with his collaborator at the time, theater director Jacques Levy, and recorded that month for the singer’s next album, Desire, “Isis” was a parable of separation and reunion greased with autobiography: the tensions and flux of Dylan’s failing marriage. Strangely, in a Rolling Thunder rehearsal on October 19th, on the first disc here, Dylan plays the song like he is still composing it — on a saloon piano in jumpy-waltz time, ringed with guitar pickers. By the first show in the box, in Worcester, Massachusetts on November 19th, “Isis” is closer to the marching stride on Desire but short of focus, Dylan shouting the words around the melody.
It is in Montreal on December 4th that fire truly rages. In the footage shot that night for Dylan’s surrealist tour drama, Renaldo and Clara, and reprised in Martin Scorcese’s new documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan sings “Isis” in a feral, biting cadence, in daring rather than reconciliation. His eyes blaze from inside that signature ghost-white makeup as the guitars rise in ire and Scarlet Rivera’s violin dances next to him in sensual, mocking arcs. Dylan, for once, recorded a song in too much haste. This is the best “Isis” out there and his Rolling Thunder notion at its peak: the rock & roll band as cleansing storm and a monument to chance, big and hard enough to drive a lyric home yet as nimble and impulsive as its leader.
Rolling Thunder was a working contradiction. Inspired by a reimmersion in the fluid, performing energies and still-active song-sharing of the Greenwich Village scene, Dylan folded peers and elders into a troupe charged with fresh blood. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Neuwirth and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott had spotlight roles while the band was an air force of guitarists – ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, David Bowie alumnus Mick Ronson, a young T-Bone Burnett – with a decisive country-folk tang in Rivera’s fiddle and David Mansfield’s steel guitar.
Yet Dylan adhered to certain conventions as his idea hit the road and small theaters, mostly in New England. As on his 1966 and 1974 tours with members of the Band, the arrangements and set lists were largely pressed in stone. The variety in these five, complete concerts – all from two weeks late in the ’75 run – comes in increments, most often at the front of the second set where a solo, acoustic Dylan swaps songs from that year’s Blood on the Tracks with surprising, vintage fare like the electric-’66 grenade “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met).”
And Dylan is the unquestioned star, the magnetic, assured center of the sprawl. At one point, in their duets, Baez wore the same makeup as Dylan, an impish blurring of identity as they revisited their mid-Sixties bond as vocal and romantic partners. Those sequences get more interesting as the couple step outside Dylan’s gospel (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) into covers of Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon” and the layered meaning in Johnny Ace’s 1954 ballad “Never Let Me Go.” Still, Dylan frames those moments with a resistance to nostalgia, opening each night here with a shotgun segue of purpose and determined liberty — “When I Paint My Masterpiece” into “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” The second set, in turn, moves to the immediate politics in Dylan’s life, churning in songs such as “Hurricane” — his broadside for the jailed boxer Ruben Carter, issued that fall as a single — and the more intimate, heartbreaking farewell of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” released on Desire in January, 1976.
A 2002 Bootleg Series treatment of the Rolling Thunder tour simulated a typical night across two CDs, drawing from the entire Dylan performances presented here (which also include Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 20th and afternoon and evening shows on the 21st in Boston). This box is still not the entire tale. It lacks the guitar-army’s own sets as Guam and the featured-singer segments where Baez notably sang her own account of the romance with Dylan, “Diamonds and Rust,” and Mitchell debuted jazz-inflected material from her next album, Hejira.
But the longer view afforded by Dylan’s full set lists, rehearsals almost to opening night (with songs that appear nowhere else in the set) and a disc of additional rarities from along the itinerary captures both the acute showman’s focus the singer brought to this enterprise and the accelerating, play-for-the-moment drive that climaxes in that “Isis” from Montreal. Inevitably, that excitement and experiment dissipated when Dylan took Rolling Thunder nationwide in 1976, losing the compressed excitement of the ’75 small-hall gigs in exchange for bigger arena crowds and paydays. This boxed set takes you as far as we may ever get into the rare alchemy of purpose and accident that Dylan conjured with the Rolling Thunder Revue.
In his Rolling Thunder Logbook, recounting his impressions as he travelled on the 1975 tour, playwright Sam Shepard wrote about a moment preserved on the rarities CD – Dylan as guerilla minstrel, disrupting a roomful of older women playing mahjong in a Masschusetts oceanside hotel as he sits at a piano and hammers out “Simple Twist of Fate.” “Here is where it’s at,” Shepard recalled in awe. “The Master Arsonist. The place is smoking in five minutes.” Here was “Dylan’s true magic,” generating an energy that “brings life pounding into the foreground.
“If he can do it here,” Shepard went on, “at an off-season seaside resort full of menopause, then it’s no wonder he can rock the nation.”