HOUSTON — It was the Rolling Thunder Revue’s second stop here this year, just five months after the less-than-successful Rubin Carter Astrodome benefit, and Bob Dylan was taking no chances. To insure that this assault on Texas would start on a high note, he’d invited the Lone Star State’s favorite son, Willie Nelson, to share the stage May 8th at the Hofheinz Pavilion. But faced with competition from a pair of John Denver shows and a sold-out Johnny Winter/Weather Report concert, the revue managed to fill only three-quarters of the 10,700-seat arena.
Despite an anticipated jam between Dylan and Nelson, the two played separately during the four-and-a-half-hour concert, their only interaction coming during the 16-person finale.
The show started off with brief sets by tour regulars Kinky Friedman (who has a big local following) and Bob Neuwirth, followed by the first of Dylan’s two sets. Dressed in a black leather jacket and his current trademark, an orange gypsy scarf, Dylan opened alone with guitar and mouth harp on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Then his loose-knit backup band, Guam – Rob Stoner, bass; Steve Soles, guitar; Mick Ronson, guitar; T-Bone Burnett, guitar; David Mansfield, pedal steel; Howie Wyeth, drums; Gary Burke, congas; and Scarlet Rivera, violin – came onstage and sounded increasingly like the Band as they intuitively followed Dylan’s leads. Although the rest of the revue was rehearsed, Dylan’s set, as usual, was improvised. “We never know what he’s going to do till he does it,” explained guitarist T-Bone Burnett. Dylan served up a humorous “Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?” with Bobby Neuwirth before ending his first set with “Isis.”
Nelson and his regular touring band, dubbed the Rolling Smoke Revue, was next, running through 45 minutes of charged country music. Willie concentrated heavily on selections and medleys from his Red Headed Stranger and The Sound in Your Mind albums, with fine backup from his sister Bobbie on honky-tonk piano and Mickey Raphael’s blues-busting harmonica. Nelson, accustomed to three-hour sets, segued into his tunes, just managing to slip in “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” before his final time-cue.
Besides Nelson, the only other new face this time around in Houston belonged to Joan Baez. She opened with two stirring a cappellas – “Do Right Woman” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” – to a hushed arena. From there she built to a crescendo and concluded her set with a metallic “Dancing in the Streets.”
Dylan brought Baez back for his second set, opening with a duet on “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He was joined by Guam for “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter from the Storm” and the entire troupe came on for the finale. Nelson shared a rear mike with Roger McGuinn during “Gotta Travel On,” then followed Baez to front and center, with Dylan standing a few steps behind, for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
The revue’s slow ticket sales in Texas prompted one of the most curious turns of the current tour – a media blitz, with ads written by local radio stations which often ended up sounding like a National Lampoon parody.
One Houston station, KLOL, ran 25 commercial spots in the three days before the concert, “not an unusual amount for an average concert,” according to Dino Hanes, an account executive for the station, but still out of the ordinary for Dylan. Four days before the May 16th concert, promoters in Fort Worth purchased $1000 more of ad time.
Willie Nelson’s manager, Neil Reshen, claimed his act was added to the bill to boost ticket sales. “CBS called and wanted Willie to record [with Dylan]. Then Dylan’s people offered only expenses. I passed. CBS called up and offered in excess of $10,000 as payment to insure Bob Dylan sold the date. We played.”
Reshen criticized the “gestapo tactics” of the overzealous security crew, which severely limited the number of Nelson’s usual family-sized backstage entourage. (Earlier in the tour, Dylan’s Garboesque aversion to photographs reportedly prompted the seizure of unauthorized cameras by the tour’s security force.)
Sluggish sales – the result, perhaps, of the high price of admission ($8.75 across the board) or an overestimate of the revue’s drawing power – brought several cancellations: a May 6th date in Lake Charles (when queried about this cancellation, Dylan’s spokesman, Lou Kemp, retorted with, “Did you enjoy the show tonight?”), a second show in Houston (May 9th) and the Dallas (May 15th) portion of two Dallas-Fort Worth concerts.
Elsewhere in the state, the San Antonio (May 11th) concert was moved from the Hemisfair Arena to the smaller Municipal Auditorium. The only legal action came in Austin, where disgruntled ticket holders complained when, two days prior to showtime, the two scheduled performances were consolidated into one and reserved seating became general admission. The state attorney general’s office intervened and reached a gentleman’s agreement with Barry Imhoff of Zebra Concerts, Inc., the Rolling Thunder promoters, concerning refunds. Over 900 were made.
Next, the troupe headed west, where it gave a free show at the Gatesville State School for Boys on May 15th. Tour members took the Texas cancellations philosophically. Said Scarlet Rivera, “You can never tell, that’s the freedom of the tour.”
This story is from the June 17th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.