Bob Dylan - vocals, guitar, harmonica; Joan Baez - vocals, guitar; Bob Neuwirth - vocals, guitar; T-Bone Burnett - guitar; Steven Soles - guitar; Mick Ronson - guitar; David Mansfield - steel guitar, violin, mandolin, dobro; Scarlet Rivera - violin; Rob Stoner - bass; Howie Wyeth - piano, drums; Luther Rix - drums, percussion; Ronee Blakley - vocals, piano; Ramblin' Jack Elliott - vocals, guitar; Roger McGuinn - vocals, guitar; Kevin Crossley - piano
Other than Bob Dylan's controversial 1965 and 1966 tours, when he first made the transition into highly amplified electric music on stage, no Dylan tour is more highly regarded than the initial leg of his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue Tour at the tail end of 1975. Occurring directly after the recording sessions for his Desire album and with a huge cast of characters involved in the revue-style concerts, this tour has become a landmark in not only Dylan's career as a performing musician, but in the careers of all involved. This high-quality recording from Bill Graham's archive, capturing the November 11th show from Middlebury, CT, is a wonderful example of this ambitious undertaking.
As was the general format during the 1975 leg of the tour, Dylan's close friend, Bobby Neuwirth, acted as emcee and got the evening started before each member of Guam (as the core RTR musicians were known) took over for a song or two. On this night, Neuwirth kicks things off with "Good Love Is Hard to Find" and "Sleazy," before turning it over to guitarist T-Bone Burnett who sings lead on a danceable version of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London." The other Guam guitarist, Steven Soles, goes next with a cover of Jimmy McHugh's "Don't Blame Me," and then bassist Rob Stoner takes a turn with Dylan's tribute to baseball player "Catfish" Hunter.
Mick Ronson, guitarist and arranger from David Bowie's legendary Ziggy Stardust band is next with "Life On Mars." For obvious reasons, this song was often confused with David Bowie's Hunky Dory LP track, but it was actually written by Bob Barnes (a.k.a. Roscoe West) and shares nothing in common with the Bowie song (other than the title). Following Ronson, Neuwirth introduces the core members of Guam and then invites Nashville singer and actress Ronee Blakley to the stage to duet with him on the homage to Hank Williams, "Alabama Dark." Blakley then sits at the piano to lead the band through her own "Need A New Sun Rising." Neuwirth takes over again on the next three 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. Finally, Neuwirth pays homage to his good friend Ramblin' Jack Elliott with a song that takes his name, which is utilized as a fitting introduction to the man himself.
Ramblin' Jack's solo mini-set starts off with his signature "Muleskinner Blues" but, unfortunately, tape stock ran out during this song and the rest of his set is lost. When the recording comes back on-line, Bob Dylan has already joined the revue on stage, though his first two songs of the evening are also missing here.
The recording picks back up with a biting electric version of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," a vintage solo acoustic song that takes on new meaning in this ragged performance. Despite addressing troubling subject matter, this is an ecstatic performance that becomes a celebration of life. Dylan displays rare vocal control, truncating or elongating certain lines, often revealing nuances and subtleties not apparent in the original studio recording. This is a great example of his conscious disregard for professional songwriter polish, and it is this elasticity in his approach to the material that made the performances on this tour so engaging, not only for the audience, but for Dylan himself. There's no doubt that he is fully engaged in the material. In stark contrast to the over-hyped Dylan & the Band tour from the previous year, where he often seemed distracted, on this tour (and specifically on this first leg of the tour), Dylan's commitment to the moment is palpable at all times.
To end his first set, Dylan brings out violinist Scarlet Rivera, who adds another textural layer to the proceedings. He then performs two of the greatest songs from the recent Desire sessions. The first, "Romance in Durango," is immediately captivating, with Dylan compressing the syllables and jabbing 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. Which brings us to his first set closer, "Isis." Here all the elements previously mentioned come together perfectly. This song is full of Dylan's wit and subtle use of language, often saying much more by what he chooses not to say in the lyric. Dylan has always been a brilliant storyteller and this ability, combined with the powerful accompaniment of the Rolling Thunder Revue, makes this an unforgettable performance.
Following "Isis," there is an intermission; despite already being the length of most concerts of the day, this first set was merely a warm-up exercise for the rest of the night.
Following the intermission, the show continues with something few ever expected to see again, a set of duets with Dylan and Baez. This begins with the welcome starkness of just their two voices and acoustic guitars on "Blowin' in the Wind," which is greeted with rapturous applause. The band then joins back in for a version of the traditional "Water Is Wide." Baez has a bit of difficulty staying in synch with Dylan's phrasing, but it's an enjoyable take nonetheless, especially with David Mansfield's lovely pedal steel embellishments.
Baez dedicates the next song, "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" to "some rehearsal time," but despite the unrehearsed nature of their collaboration, this is a remarkable one-off performance of this rarely performed Dylan parable. A lovely take on Johnny Ace's "Never Let Me Go" immediately follows. Dylan's love for this lyric is obvious and he sings with both forcefulness and a rare tenderness. The next song, "I Shall Be Released," is dedicated to the Band's Richard Manuel, who sang the original so beautifully. In a rare display of respect to an old arrangement, this version stays close to original. After this, Dylan thanks Baez and exits the stage, leaving Joan alone in the spotlight.
Baez begins with her original, "Diamonds and Rust," an autobiographical song containing many allusions to Dylan. After years of being out of the spotlight, this song had surprisingly become a commercial radio hit and helped rejuvenate her career. It's a beautiful version and the band adds a lot to the arrangement, making it delightfully different and more potent than the studio recording. Next, Baez sings a soaring a capella version of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," before accompanying herself with guitar on the folk song, "Joe Hill," which is incomplete here.
For her last solo number of the evening, Baez performs her intriguing "Love Song to a Stranger," a compelling new original that is presented with self-effacing commentary on some of the autobiographical aspects of the song. This humorous approach would become an ongoing facet of Baez's sets during this tour, perhaps in an effort to shatter her serious image; in fact, she helps introduce the subsequent country-flavored version of "Long Black Veil" by impersonating Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann character. She concludes her showcase set with a lovely rendition of her current radio hit, a cover of David Loggins' "Please Come to Boston."
Following this, Baez introduces Roger McGuinn, who leads the band through high-energy versions of The Byrds' classics "Chestnut Mare" and "Eight Miles High." Baez returns to the stage and joins McGuinn and company for a rousing rendition of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a song she would take to the top of the charts.
At this point, everyone exits the stage and, to the delight of the audience, Dylan returns alone, with just acoustic guitar and harmonica. He proceeds to mesmerize the crowd with a deeply moving performance of "Simple Twist of Fate," featuring new lyrics quite different from the studio recording from the previous year. This is classic Dylan, feeling every word and capped off with his expressive harmonica playing.
The band then returns to the stage for the climactic final set of the evening, starting with four new songs recorded during the Desire sessions. A penetrating reading of "Oh, Sister" begins this sequence, followed by a forceful eight-minute "Hurricane," a song about the plight of imprisoned boxer, Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, often perceived as Dylan's return to political commentary and protest. Dylan continues with a heartfelt reading of "One More Cup of Coffee," before performing "Sara," one of the most openly revealing songs of his career, which is dedicated to Rolling Stone journalist Larry "Ratso" Sloman, the only reporter allowed into the entourage's inner circle. In a rare example of straightforwardness, Dylan laments the disintegration of his marriage and through a series of photographic snapshots in the lyric, reveals himself in a gut wrenchingly honest manner. In light of this song, "Just Like a Woman," which follows, takes on an autobiographical resonance that hadn't existed before.
To wrap up the night, Roger McGuinn returns to the stage and he and Dylan trade verses on "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." Finally, the entire Rolling Thunder entourage closes this memorable night with a final song of solidarity, Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
-Written by Alan Bershaw