Bob Dylan: Hard Rain

Recorded: May 16 and 23, 1976

Released: September 13, 1976

Maybe Dylan fans have just drunk too much kool aid. Or maybe the critics just don’t understand. But this live album may show the biggest divergence in opinion between (most) critics and (most) fans.

I have a theory why. This was another of Dylan’s albums that didn’t sound like Dylan was supposed to sound. The difference isn’t as obvious as for Nashville Skyline or Self Portrait (and various later albums), but it is crucial.

Dylan is raw here, blunt, unartful, sometimes desperate (and aren’t the guitars sometimes out of tune or just playing the wrong notes?). The performances take one aspect of the songs — the most primitive emotions — and dial it up to 11. A long time ago, I heard someone say that most people are “Dylan + X” fans. Obvious examples are: Dylan + Joan Baez (folkies), Dylan + The Band (roots lovers), Dylan + Hendrix (classic rockers). But Hard Rain appeals to a less obvious group: Dylan + The Clash. That’s me. And I think that helps explain why I’ve always really liked this album. (OK, Hard Rain really doesn’t sound like The Clash; it’s the spirit that’s similar.)

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Much of the negative reaction to this album came from its difference from the earlier concerts in the Rolling Thunder Revue — I previously wrote about the Bootleg Series release that covers the Fall 1975 leg of that tour. Yes, they are very different! I described the earlier performances as loose, rocking, and rollicking. The contrast to Hard Rain is real. But that doesn’t mean raw lizard-brain performances are worse.

I think the track selection here is pretty coherent. While Dylan always brushed away biographical analysis — and who knows what he really had to do with the track selection? — most of the songs continue the story that came into sharp focus on Blood On The Tracks: the fallout from Dylan’s sabotaged marriage. The two outliers are “Maggie’s Farm” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. I really like this version of “Maggie’s Farm” (I think most live versions improve on the original studio recording, but YMMV). I’m not a big fan of any version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile…”, and this performance is fine, even enjoyable, but doesn’t speak to me in any significant way.

But the rest of the tracks are pretty great — again, think raw. The seductive crooning of the studio version of “Lay Lady Lay” is transformed into a frank demand — not threatening, but unsubtle and direct. The “Idiot Wind” here is the apotheosis of that song — unhinged paranoia and anger, including directed at the narrator.

The Live 1975 Bootleg began with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, but Hard Rain gives us “I Threw It All Away.” Seems to me that this would have been the perfect title for the album, but maybe it would have been too spot on.

Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round

Love and only love, it can’t be denied

No matter what you think about it

You just won’t be able to do without it

Take a tip from one who’s tried

The way Dylan sings “tried” (how many syllables is that?) pretty much gives the game away.

“One Too Many Mornings”, “Oh, Sister”, and “You’re A Big Girl Now” all continue he theme.

You are right from your side, and I am right from mine

We’re both one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door

Don’t turn away, you’ll create sorrow

I’m going out of my mind, oh

With a pain that stops and starts

Like a corkscrew to my heart

Ever since we’ve been apart

And finally, the highlight: this version of “Shelter From The Storm” is just sublime. Even more than the transformation of the studio version of “Isis” on The Live 1975 Bootleg Series, this gives us a whole new song. While thematically it does fit with the rest of the songs included here, I hear the performance as more in the spirit of the Fall 1975 shows. I’ll bring out the adjectives: again rocking and rollicking, but also joyful, even ecstatic. Dylan’s singing is powerful, but also subtly expressive: how many different ways are there to sing the single word “storm”?

Finally, it’s a mark of Dylan’s greatness that while I’ve been praising this album, I wouldn’t put it near the top of his available live performances. But it’s distinctive sound and spirit ensures that it remains special to me.

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