A wildly unorthodox tour, Bob Dylan’s 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder Revue was less a traditional tour than a rambling, ragtag caravan. The legendary run has made it to the market twice: first on the 1976 live album Hard Rain, then on 2002’s double-disc The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975.
But neither record actually features a front-to-back show, failing to capture what it was like to be there. Four-hour shows in New England auditoriums on long fall nights. The who’s-who of folk-rock royalty: Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, scores more. The extemporaneous feel, in which the musicians often vamped in slippery timing. As always, Dylan heads want the undiluted dose.
The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Performances, out Friday (June 7), is more than a corrective to this; it’s a hurricane of music. At 14 discs, the box features a whopping 148 tracks, with 113 previously unreleased. Fans can be a fly on the wall as Dylan, violinist Scarlet Rivera, guitarist Mick Ronson and the rest bring their inspired clatter to stages in New England and Montréal.
With every official recording from the 1975 leg of the tour finally out to the public, the sheer scope of this box can be intimidating even for Dylan fan(atic)s. Here’s everything you should know about The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings.
The box contains five concerts, not the entire tour
With a wealth of music at 14 discs, the average fan could jump to the conclusion that it represents the entire tour. This isn’t so. Only five concerts from the 1975 leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue were professionally recorded; all are presented in their long, leggy glory.
It’s also worth noting that there was a 1976 leg of the Revue tour, unrepresented here and touched on in less-than-glowing terms in Wesley Stace’s liner notes: “The euphoric devil-may-care spirit of the first leg was never rekindled. Personnel changes made life less cordial.”
The first two discs consist of unheard studio rehearsals
On Disc 1 and Disc 2, the musicians holed up in S.I.R. Studios in New York, woodshedding new material and old standards. Several, including the Desire outtake “Rita May,” obscurity “Patty’s Gone to Laredo” (which would make it into Dylan’s 1978 film Renaldo and Clara) and the throwaway “Hollywood Angel,” didn’t make it to the live setlist. Still, you get a sense of the breadth of material Dylan and his cohorts had to work with.
Hear the band invade a Massachusetts motel
On Disc 3, you hear the band invade the Seacrest Motel in Falmouth, Massachusetts — where their arrangements truly grew teeth. Dylan and Baez’s haunting duet of “Tears of Rage” is a highlight, as well as a serpentine take on “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)” and Dylan’s version of the Celtic ballad “Easy and Slow.”
A rehearsal demo of “Hurricane” fudges the crime-story details
On both the S.I.R. Studios and Seacrest Motel discs, the band dives into “Hurricane,” a provocative highlight of the following year’s Desire. On both versions, several details regarding star witnesses Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley are different than on the studio version, including references to “robbing bodies” and “seeing what they could steal.”
Under pressure from Columbia’s legal team, Dylan and co-writer Jacques Levy would be forced to rewrite (and in Dylan’s case, rerecord) “Hurricane.” With that in mind, this is one revealing first draft.
The setlists hew close to Blood on the Tracks and Desire — with a few exceptions
These shows took place in the sweet spot between 1975’s Blood on the Tracks and 1976’s Desire, so the setlists mostly drew from those albums. Still, you’ll hear surprises: the obscure “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” from 1967’s John Wesley Harding, five haunting versions of Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon” and a rambunctious, all-together-now take on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn trading lead vocals.
The Revue sounds even better as it rolls on
The 1975 tour has been mostly represented on record by 2002’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, a best-of from the 1975 shows that largely draws on later gigs. While every one of these shows is worth hearing, it’s understandable why the producers highlighted these in particular: Dylan and co. were truly cooking.
Where the musicians sound slightly tentative earlier in the box, they play with brash confidence later on, especially on Dylan’s misty, exotic “Romance in Durango” (Disc 10) and his bellowing, wolfish “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” (Disc 12). If you want to cut to the quick, the later discs contain the most muscular performances from the Revue.
The quiet moments are just as important
For a VIP sense of the Rolling Thunder Revue’s backstage breaks, aborted ideas and late-night hangs, cue up Disc 14, titled Rare Performances. The disc breaks chronology and simply acts as bonus material, collecting odds and ends that don’t fit anywhere else. Highlights include Dylan singing “Simple Twist of Fate” solo for a mahjong player’s convention and a ragged, heartfelt duet of “One Too Many Mornings” with Joan Baez.
These intimate moments show what the Rolling Thunder Revue, a blur of songwriters and scribes and oddballs, was really about. A rock superstar bringing his music closer to the people — and keeping it all in the family.