Bob Dylan - vocals, guitar, harmonica; Bob Neuwirth - guitar, vocals; Ronee Blakley - vocals, piano; T-Bone Burnett - guitar; Steven Soles - guitar; Mick Ronson - guitar; David Mansfield - steel guitar, mandolin ,dobro, violin; Scarlet Rivera - violin; Rob Stoner - bass; Howie Wyeth - piano, drums; Luther Rix - drums, percussion; Joni Mitchell - vocals, guitar; Ramblin Jack Elliot - guitar, vocals
Other than Bob Dylan's 1965/66 era, when he first embraced an electric guitar on stage, has a tour sparked more perpetual interest than his Rolling Thunder Review tour a decade later. Its no wonder the tour has become so legendary, as in addition to the long list of musical luminaries along for the ride; Dylan was at yet another creative peak. Having released one of his greatest (and most personal) albums, Blood On The Tracks the previous year and hot off the sessions for the follow-up. Desire, Dylan had an abundance of excellent new material. By nearly all accounts, the first leg of the tour, at the tail end of 1975, had the greatest intensity and contained many of Dylan's most memorable performances. Although debate continues as to which Rolling Thunder performances were greatest, most agree that the December 4th Montreal show was a peak moment, if not one of the best nights of the tour. When Dylan released his first seriously thought out career retrospective box set in 1985, "Biograph," the "Romance In Durango" and cataclysmic version of "Isis" from this night's first set were chosen to represent the era. Here we present Bill Graham's pristine soundboard recordings of that very same first set in Montreal, which contains the remainder of the performances, including all the great artists leading up to Dylan.
As was the general format during the 1975 leg of the tour, the show begins with a double dose of Dylan's close friend and MC for the shows, Bobby Nuewirth. Backed by Guam (as the core RTR musicians were known) he kicks things off with "Good Love Is Hard To Find," followed by "Sleazy." Following these openers, Nuewirth becomes master of ceremonies and one by one introduces some of the core band members, who each do a song or two of their own. First up on this night is guitar player, T-Bone Burnett, with the esoteric original, "Hula Hoop" and Warren Zevon's classic "Werewolves Of London." The other Guam guitarist, Steven Soles, goes next with covers of Jimmy McHugh's "Don't Blame Me" and David Ackles' "Laissez-Faire." Bassist Rob Stoner next takes a turn with Dylan's tribute to baseball player "Catfish" Hunter, followed by his hilarious self-pity song, "Too Good To Be Wasted (Too Wasted To Be Good)."
Mick Ronson, guitarist and arranger from David Bowie's legendary Ziggy Stardust band also takes a turn with "Life On Mars." For obvious reasons, often confused with David Bowie's Hunky Dory LP track, this song was written by Bob Barnes and shares nothing in common with the Bowie song, other than the title. Following Ronson, Neuwith does a few introductions and then invites Nashville singer and actress Ronee Blakely to the stage, to duet with him on the homage to Hank Williams "Alabama Dark." Blakely then takes a seat at the piano and leads the band through her own "Need A New Sun Rising." Nuewirth takes over again on the next two numbers. First performing "Cindy (When I Get Home)," followed by "Mercedes Benz," the song he and Janis Joplin wrote, immortalized on her Pearl LP and one of her last recordings.
Much to the delight of the Montreal audience, the first "special guest" of the evening is up next, Joni Mitchell. After several massively successful albums in the early '70s, Mitchell had retreated into seclusion for some time and her brief stint with the Rolling Thunder Review not only signified a welcome return to the stage, but was also a showcase for new material. Mitchell was beginning to head in a new direction that would take both fans and critics years to catch on to, but the embryonic stages of that transition can clearly be heard on this four-song set. Three new songs destined for her transitional and controversial next album, 1975's Hissing Of Summer Lawns, are previewed here. Also, of particular note is an embryonic "Coyote," one of the most intriguing songs to later surface on Hijera. Written on this tour and a direct reflection of her experiences, Mitchell even acknowledges writing the fourth verse just the night before.
Following Joni's mini-set, Neuwirth pays homage to Ramblin' Jack Elliot, with a song that takes his name and serves as a fitting introduction to the man himself. Ramblin' Jack gets a mini-set of his own; performing engaging reads of "San Francisco Bay Blues" and "House Of The Rising Sun" followed by Woody Guthrie's "Grand Coulee Dam." The band joins in for two more as he closes his set with "Salt Pork West Virginia" followed by "Rich And Ramblin' Boy."
With no fanfare, not even an introduction, Dylan joins the existential gypsy caravan on stage. Dylan begins with "When I Paint My Masterpiece," a song he contributed to the Band's Cahoots LP several years before, a song of weary travel and the elusiveness of the muse.
Dylan's choice of material, despite spanning well over a decade of his career, conveys a distinctive unity and displays one of his greatest strengths—a beautiful disregard for professional songwriter polish. This elasticity in his approach to his material is what makes his performances on this tour so immediately engaging, not only for the audience, but also for Dylan himself.
The next two numbers, "It Ain't Me Babe" and "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll," have enticingly ragged new arrangements and leave no doubt that Dylan is fully engaged in the material. In stark contrast to the over hyped Dylan/Band Tour from the previous year, where he often seemed distracted; on this tour, and specifically on this first leg, his commitment to the moment is palpable at all times. Next up is a delightful performance of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" followed by a surprising high energy arrangement of "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall."
The recording concludes with Dylan bringing out violinist, Scarlet Rivera, to perform on a song from the recent Desire sessions. The spicy "Romance In Durango," although incomplete, is immediately captivating, with Dylan compressing the syllables and stabbing at the lyrics in a very dynamic manner. His skillful concentration of language makes the more spacious lines of the lyric all the more penetrating. It's this new approach, where Dylan's lyric delivery serves the feel of the music (as opposed to the other way around) that makes his performances on this tour so utterly fascinating.
-Written by Alan Bershaw