The Bootleg Series Vol. 5:
Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue

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For all his talk about being more at home on stage than in the impersonal environment of a recording studio, few of Bob Dylan's live albums lend credence to his claim.  Before the Flood with the Band from 1974 and 1978's often castigated At Budokan caught lightning in a bottle, but his other officially released concert recordings - 7 in all - were more flash than fire. Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, volume 5 in the Columbia/Legacy Bootleg Series, captures the voice of a generation at one of his most articulate moments, as the ringleader of a band of musical gypsies.

It was the fall of 1975.  Earlier in the year, the intimate Blood On the Tracks proved that Dylan was more than a ghost from the Sixties.  His voice still mattered in an era in which the glam rock of Elton John and David Bowie emphasized theatrics over music. Now, accompanied by a cast of characters that included ex-flame Joan Baez, poet Allan Ginsberg, violinist Scarlet Rivera, and even Bowie's former guitarist Mick Ronson, Dylan turned his back on the corporate behemoth that contemporary music had become and, ignoring the stadiums in which "concerts" were now staged, hit a string of small theaters in the American Northeast with little publicity other than word of mouth. 

The Rolling Thunder Revue, as it was called, culminated with a concert at the kind of venue it had avoided, New York's Madison Square Garden, where a benefit was staged to publicize the cause of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer imprisoned, as Dylan's song asserted, "for something that he never done."

The success of the striking Desire album in January 1976 led to a revival of the revue but with all the hoopla Dylan initially rejected.  There was even a network television special that put Dylan on the cover of TV Guide.  By then, much of the magic had dissipated with the performances becoming more formulaic.

Fortunately, the tapes were rolling earlier when the inspiration was still fresh.  For this release, twenty-two Dylan performances from concerts in Massachusetts and Montreal have been compiled on two discs accompanied by a 56 page booklet of photos and an essay by Larry "Ratso" Sloman who chronicled the tour in a book, On the Road With Bob Dylan.

Dylan rarely takes the stage to merely sing his songs. He reinvents them, and does so here, turning "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" into a rousing rocker, and infusing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" with more venom than sorrow.  He performs  a rewritten "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" as a duet with Roger McGuinn, and, with Baez, dusts the cobwebs off of "Blowin' In the Wind," offers his finest recorded version of "I Shall Be Released," and takes a stab at the traditional "The Water Is Wide" for what may be the album's best track.  The then unreleased Desire album gets quite a workout with six of the songs featured here, including a powerful "Sara," written for his soon to be ex-wife.

Dylan sounds great.  His voice is raspy but clear, and he sings with a commitment and focus that would become rare in the next decade.  Here you know he still believes that the words matter and that he wants them heard above the music.

Some Dylanologists will quibble, complaining that their favorite performance from a scratchy, crude bootleg didn't make the cut, and I agree it would have been nice to get the all ensemble sing-a-long of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," but Columbia's decision to limit the selections to performances captured by a professional sound truck, thereby assuring the best sound quality, is hard to argue with.

Brian W. Fairbanks
Entertainment Editor