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

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

Recorded: November 19-21, December 4 1975

Released: November 26, 2002

A compilation of some great performances from the first part of the famous Rolling Thunder Revue. The Dylan obsessive will know everything about this tour and will have heard many complete (real) bootlegged shows. The casual fan might ask “Rolling what?” I’m much closer to the obsessive, but will try to explain what’s great in a way the casual fan will understand.

First, the performances are fierce. Dylan put together a huge band for the tour, plus quite a few famous musicians were around for at least parts of it, including as featured here Joan Baez (four songs) and Roger McGuinn (one song). The arrangements are loose, rocking, and rollicking, and Dylan’s singing is passionate and powerful.

Second, Dylan’s voice. I tend to think of his classic 60s voice as coming in two main flavors: the astringent cutting tone of “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Subterranean Blues” (and much of their albums), and the stoned/weary drawl of parts of Blonde on Blonde and the incredible live acoustic sets of the 1966 tour, for example as immortalized at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. His voice is different here. It’s powerful, strong, warm, full, maybe husky, sometimes verging on shout-y. However, don’t get the wrong impression: his singing also is expressive and nuanced. It’s a hard combination to explain; I don’t know that I have the right vocabulary. But my guess is that most people will find Dylan’s singing on these performances quite appealing.

Third, the song selection. There’s something for everyone here: greatest hits (“Blowin’ In The Wind”, “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Just Like A Woman”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, …), a couple from the recent Blood On The Tracks (“Tangled Up In Blue”, “Simple Twist of Fate”), and a generous serving from the at the time unreleased Desire (six tracks). 

To get more specific, I’m going to start with a performance that certainly is known to the Dylan fan base, but may be obscure beyond that: “Isis”. I’m on the record with my love for the studio version, but the live version here — and the version from Montreal available on Biograph are astounding. To appreciate them, you really have to watch the videos — the Boston performance is available on Martin Scorsese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” and the Montreal performance is available here. These performances are unique in Dylan’s career — the theatricality of the face paint, the hat, the gestures, and above all else, the amazing vocals and the explosive band performance take the epic tale embedded in the “Isis” lyrics to a place of pure ecstatic myth. These two performances are two of the three greatest Dylan live performances ever — the other is the 1966 Manchester “Like A Rolling Stone”. That has more historical resonance and extra-musical drama, but I think these two performances of “Isis” are greater artistic achievements.

I’m a rock fan, not particularly a fan of the guitar-strumming-lone-folk-singer style that Dylan inhabited in his early days (don’t get me wrong: he was great at it; it’s just not my favorite style). And more specifically, I feel like once Dylan went electric, he wanted and needed a band to really express his artistic intentions. But oddly enough, I really like a lot of the pure acoustic performances here: “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Love Minus Zero / No Limit”, “Tangled Up in Blue”, and “Just Like A Woman” are particularly fine. And although I’m also not a fan of Joan Baez nor of many of her early 60s duets with Dylan, I also like their duets here: my favorite is the traditional “The Water Is Wide”. (I wish they’d have included a couple of other duets they did at times during the Revue: “Never Let Me Go” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”.) 

And also oddly, while I generally like “rocked up versions of acoustic songs”, I do not think when he did that on some of the tracks here it was totally successful. I just don’t like “It Ain’t Me Babe” all that much (maybe there’s something about the guitar that’s kind of annoying), I don’t care for the arrangement of “Hattie Carroll”, and while I like the rocking version “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in principle — and maybe as its own thing — I just don’t think it captures the meaning of the song the way the “Freewheeling” original did.

I also really like the live versions of the Desire songs. I think “Hurricane” and “Romance in Durango” — while in identical arrangements as the studio album — work better here. The intensity of “Hurricane” and (IMO) corniness of “Romance in Durango” are better suited for the excitement of the stage. And “Oh Sister” and “One More Cup of Coffee” are just good in about any setting.

And I’ll give a final nod to the compiler: “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” absolutely is a great opener, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” a great finale.

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