The Rolling Thunder Revue has come and gone on the East Coast, leaving in its wake an aura of good feeling and anticipation over what Bob Dylan and Co. will do next. At both New Haven and the Madison Square Garden benefit for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter the revue was an honest effort by some of rock’s leading people to humanize the communication between musician and audience. The show’s unique features – the revue structure, the collaboration among the members of the show, the surprise itinerary and the exclusion of most music business professionals from any role in the proceedings – were all the product of Dylan’s special intelligence and sensitivity. The revue as a whole communicated a sense of adventure and integrity.
Also interesting were some of the less obvious aspects of the proceedings – for example, the way in which Dylan used the vaudeville show form as a means of criticism. I’ve always thought of Dylan as a critic – not a common protest-songwriter variety, but a global critic. He conceives of everything he does in two ways, as a comment about himself and an implied comment about his environment. He’s always aware of context and he is always pushing up against it. He’s not just different; he’s pointedly, deliberately different.
In the mid-Sixties, when Dylan began to play electric music, it was not only important aesthetically but came across as a criticism of his folk-singer peers and a challenge for them to respond to. When he went to soft music on John Wesley Harding, it was in contrast to the then emerging psychedelic rock and big productions like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Similarly, the Rolling Thunder Revue is in part a critique of the current state of live rock. The group tried hard at making the large space in arenas work for them. They refused to become prisoners of their settings.
In the same vein, the revue conceived of itself as a whole rather than as a series of separate “acts.” The casual interaction between performers – Dylan and Joan Baez performing together, Baez singing backup for Roger McGuinn, McGuinn trading verses with Dylan on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – generated a spirit of camaraderie that gave the lengthy concert a sense of unity.
On another level, the entire concept impressed me as one more piece of evidence that Dylan is one of rock’s great survivors. During a period in which his music has not grown dramatically, he has continually found interesting ways of presenting himself to the public. By now he’s proven himself to be, of all things, the best manager in rock.
Two years ago Dylan did an enormously popular tour. It was the conventional big arena cross-country trek. He was assisted by one of rock’s greatest ensembles, the Band, and he offered the audience some of the best rock songs ever written, a Dylan retrospective, a sort of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits in Concert.
On the heels of such an enormous triumph, most rock stars wind up dealing with the problem of topping themselves. Here Dylan hasn’t so much topped himself as made everyone forget about the past.
For example, he knows the audience always wants to hear him sing the great old songs, but for him to dwell on them would be stagnating. By creating the revue, he forced the audience to expect new songs. And by taking the spotlight off himself and putting it on the show as a whole, he prepared us not to listen for individual songs but to expect a complete experience.
He also knows that the Band is a magnificent group but that he can’t always play with them. By hiring a bunch of unknowns outside of the usual musician cliques, who were obviously more noteworthy for their spirit than their craft, he pushed the audience away from comparing them to the Band. In fact, through his creative use of the revue form, he circumvented all the usual comparisons between what he’s doing now and what he did a decade ago.
He was so successful in educating everyone with his experimental and innovative idea that the audience really hesitated to make any demands at all. So when he concentrated on songs from his new album (which were more exciting because the album isn’t yet available) there were few cries for past hits. And when he left the stage without doing “Like a Rolling Stone,” no one was disappointed.
From a myth-making point of view this is all astonishingly effective stuff. Here a man does a limited tour of the Northeast, refusing to make known his itinerary, doesn’t release an album, does no interviews, is actively hostile to what little press penetrates his defenses – and winds up with extraordinary amounts of acclaim and attention. This is one rock star who still knows the importance of mystery in creating art and in calling attention to the artist.
At the level of good intentions, planning and myth making, this tour was a masterful production. But having set the scene perfectly for a great musical triumph, the Rolling Thunder Revue failed to offer the audience music of sufficient quality or distinction.
Dylan looked great, moved dramatically and was full of energy. However, his singing was unpleasantly mannered, often tuneless, shrill and chaotic. When he sang the old songs, it was without the nuances, precision and the intensity of old. When he sang the new ones, he did so in a tedious fashion.
Neither Dylan nor the show as a whole were helped by the limited backup band, Guam. The band simply didn’t have the musical flexibility to handle three hours plus of performing. The rhythm section forced one song after another into the same rigid patterns.
Still they did play with energy and when given proper direction they proved adequate, almost forceful. This happened twice, with Roger McGuinn and Joan Baez. Both provided the counterpoint to Dylan’s musical shortcomings. They remained steadfastly musical and refused to be distracted by the “event”-type overtones. They delivered performances of high professional caliber that ignited the audience spontaneously. They alone didn’t lose sight of the fact that when given such an extraordinary context in which to perform, it becomes more important than ever for the artist to make good on the details, the specifics of his or her own work.
This story is from the January 15th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.