Tag Archives: BobDylan

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.

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.

Bob Dylan: New Morning


Recorded: June-August 1970

Released: October 21, 1970

This isn’t one of Dylan’s masterpieces — in fact, it might not even sneak into his top 20 best albums. So it says a lot about his abilities (or maybe my having drunk aaaaaaaaaaaaaall the Dylan kool-aid) that I find this a completely delightful listen. There’s the early 70s pop-rock of “If Not For You” and “New Morning” (imagine if Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had joined Fleetwood Mac a few years earlier, when they and the McVies still were happy couples… these songs would have been naturals for them), the academia paranoia of “Day of the Locusts” (maybe I’m a sucker for this because I’m an academic… and he takes off for the “Black Hills of Dakota” at the end), the Elvis fantasy of “Went To See the Gypsy” (ending with him watching the sun rise “from that little Minnesota town”), the goof of “Winterlude” (if this had been on “The Basement Tapes”, people would love it), the simple joy of “The Man in Me” (which took on new life and meaning after “The Big Lebowski”).

And then there’s “Sign On The WIndow”, which I think is a near masterpiece. Beautiful vocal performance, beautiful music, Dylan’s idiosyncratic piano playing.  Lyrics that begin with a bleak first verse (“Sign on the window says ‘lonely’…), go through a mysterious second verse (“Brighton girls are like the moon”), jump over a rainy bridge, and end with that perfect final verse:

Build me a cabin in Utah / Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me “pa” / That must be what it’s all about, / That must be what it’s all about.
I also recommend checking out alternative versions of the New Morning  songs on Another Self Portrait. They’re all also delightful. I might prefer the version of “New Morning” with horns, one of the other versions of “Went To See The Gypsy”, and think the slow piano and violin version of “If Not For You” is something really special.

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait and Another Self Portrait

Self Portrait (Bob Dylan album) – Wikipedia

Recorded: August 1969-March 1970

Released: June 8, 1970

The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969–1971) – Wikipedia

Recorded: February 1969-March 1971 (plus one track from 1967)

Released: August 27, 2013

“What is this shit?” That’s the famous opening to Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of “Self Portrait”. I think the what is easy to answer: it’s a grab bag of old-ish traditional folk songs, contemporary folk-ish songs, country songs, some very minor original songs, and some re-dos of older Dylan originals.

I think what was really baffling Marcus was another question: “Why this shit?” Why cover cheesy country songs, contemporary folk/country songs by lesser songwriters? And what’s up with the few odd originals.

I think the reaction to this album would have been much different if people had known what Dylan and The Band actually were up to in the basement of Big Pink. They ran through a bunch of old-ish traditional folk songs, some contemporary folk songs, a bunch of country songs, including some really cheesy ones, some older Dylan songs, as well as a bunch of odd Dylan originals… that’s just what Self Portrait consists of!

But don’t get my wrong: Self Portrait isn’t a good album, so why’d Dylan release it. The Wikipedia article gives a couple of the well-known theories, both of which are based on what Dylan himself said. One is that he essentially was trolling the world: he released some stuff he thought was bad in order to get everyone to stop thinking of him as a kind of prophet and just leave him alone. The other theory is basically that he knew whatever he recorded was going to get bootlegged, so he decided to just cut out the middleman and bootleg himself.

Hmmm…. The second theory makes more sense to me, but there’s still something I don’t understand, which leads me to my question: “why this specific shit?” To see why I ask this, I’ll turn to the Bootleg Series: Another Self Portrait. The track listing includes 13 songs recorded during the Self Portrait sessions. It also includes the entire Isle of Wight concert, a few songs of which were included on Self Portrait.

Here’s the thing. If those 13 recordings and some of the Isle of Wight tracks had comprised the original Self Portrait, the reaction would (or at least should) have been totally different. The selection of songs is much better, and even for songs that were included on Self Portrait, they come across totally different without the horrific overdubbed strings and background vocals. (Seriously, it sounds like they were going for Elvis-type arrangements… just awful.)

So, my advice is never listen to Self Portrait, but definitely check out Another Self Portrait. “Pretty Saro”, “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”, “Thirsty Boots”, “This Evening So Soon”, and “Copper Kettle” all showcase what a great song interpreter Dylan is. Another Self Portrait also is worthwhile because of the New Morning alternative versions, which I’ll mention when I get to that album.