148 tracks, including 100 previously unreleased numbers, covering rehearsals, five live shows and rarities.
In 1975, Bob Dylan came up with the absurd plan of taking too many musicians on the road to too small of venues with too little advance promotion. Extending from the chaotic Desire recording sessions, the show took life in the fall of that year, as Dylan traveled with a coterie including artists like Mick Ronson, Joan Baez and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott throughout the Northeast. The Rolling Thunder Revue, as it was called, has since taken on a mythic quality. The strangeness of the tour certainly contributes to that status, but the quality of the performances solidifies it. In 2002, volume five of the Bootleg Series provided 22 songs from the tour, but now The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings gives us 148 tracks, including 100 previously unreleased numbers, covering rehearsals, five live shows and rarities. For the casual fan, the surfeit will overwhelm, but the collection develops a remarkable picture of those few crazy months.
The set creates a narrative of sorts, beginning with three discs of rehearsals. The first two come from New York’s SIR Studios with the final set from the Seacrest Motel in Falmouth, NH. The SIR tracks are largely uninspiring (though the inclusion of some rarities adds a little novelty). Dylan works out some arrangements and the band starts to figure things out, but it plays like a group getting their bearings with more diligence than enthusiasm. By the time they set up at the Seacrest a little over a week later, the energy picks up. These sound like serious sessions, complete with tinkering. The Rolling Thunder Revue played like a carnival, but it took some work to make it that loose.
The meat of the set comes once the artists get on the road. The next 10 discs contain complete, high-quality recordings of five concerts. Considering the archival material here becomes tricky. The music itself is largely unassailable. Every Dylanologist will have a favorite era, and while Dylan’s tours with the Band provide his best music, there’s not much wrong with picking the 1975 tour as his live peak either. The concerts included here are each impressive. The all-star assemblage mixes old, current and not-yet-released music into potent and affecting shows. Any given set makes for a wonderful listen.
But the sets and performances don’t differ all that much. The setlist changes a few songs each night, and careful listeners would be able to pick out favorite nights or favorite versions of given songs. It’s a few nights on the road with the group (a selection of the many more dates that actually happened in late 1975), and it’s a good tour to follow. As part of a 14-disc set, though, some of it can feel redundant. “Romance in Durango” doesn’t get any better with repetition, and it feels like the collection has more than the half-dozen versions actually contained.
The other problem is that the set only includes the Dylan-based portions of the evening. Part of the point of the revue was that, while Dylan remained the clear center, the other artists put on, well, a revue. A typical night might have a dozen songs before the Dylan material. Joan Baez might get a set in the middle of Dylan’s material. We get a slight nod to that approach when everyone joins in on “This Land Is Your Land” to close the evening, but a definitive collection of music from this tour should include at least one full night, or even a disc of the best performances by Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Elliott and the others. The Baez material alone might be worth a disc.
To have all this material is exciting, and the producers should be praised. To listen to it all in a row may be entertaining, but it doesn’t offer the sort of insight found on some of the other boxes in the series (including last year’s More Blood, More Tracks. For those who love the 1975 tour, it’s a great way to bring together some excellent concerts, but it doesn’t flesh out the era as much as it could (especially considering the previous release of a two-disc set of this material, which included half of the second Boston Music Hall show), although the last disc helps in that area.
Before we get to that disc, though, we’re rewarded with the December 4th show from Montreal. Whether the ensemble had found its perfect groove, everyone had had a good night of sleep or there was something in the Canadian water remains unknown, but the performances here carry an extra intensity apparent right from opener “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Across the disc, the songs that would appear on Desire become more and more themselves, a listening experience that’s a particular treat. None does it so profoundly as “Isis,” largely thanks to Scarlet Rivera’s violin, and the song is never better than at the Montreal show, making it the highlight of the whole box. This show more than any captures the glee and excitement of the entire endeavor, the sort of concert you hope to hit once in the midst of a tour.
The final disc offers rare performances and unusual (often audience) recordings. They make a charming epilogue to the main story. Dylan’s piano-and-drums “Simple Twist of Fate” at a mahjong parlor (!) comes out of nowhere, a fantastic off-the-cuff version of a classic that differs considerably from its other appearance. Dylan’s own fandom for Smokey Robinson shows up with a recording of “The Tracks of My Tears,” the violin turning the Miracles’ hit into a bluesy bit of Americana. The disc ends appropriately with a rowdy rendition of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” from the Night of the Hurricane benefit concert for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Robbie Robertson blasts away at lead guitar and everyone gets taken in by the moment.
That finish suits the set, completing a story that started with some half-played songs and a band sorting out its material and climaxing with an astonishing show. The story runs a little longer than most fans will need, but it aptly collects a vital moment in Dylan’s history. We could wish for the inclusion of his partners’ contributions, but even what we have here reveals how exciting each of these nights would have been, making it a valuable contribution to the expansive run of archival releases.