Bob Dylan - vocal, guitar; Joan Baez - vocals, guitar; Bob Neuwirth - guitar, vocals; T-Bone J. Henry 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; Ramblin Jack Elliott - vocals, guitar
Not since Bob Dylan's 1965/66 era, when he first embraced an electric guitar on stage, had a tour sparked more perpetual interest than his Rolling Thunder Review tour a decade later. It's 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. This fourth night of the tour, when the Rolling Thunder Review descended upon the Technical University in Lowell, Massachusetts, is one of the great mysteries surrounding this tour. It's well known that the entire entourage, along with Allen Ginsberg, visited the grave of Jack Kerouac the next morning and were filmed chanting at his graveside. What, up until now, has not been known is just what a fantastic performance the Lowell show actually was.
It goes without saying that hometown hero Jack Kerouac was certainly on the mind of all concerned this night, so it's no surprise that the performance leaned heavily toward an On the Road theme. In terms of Bob Dylan, the Lowell performance stands out as being one of his most exuberant performances ever, and thanks to this particularly crisp and dynamic recording, every nuance can now clearly be heard.
The first set of the evening kicks off with a double dose of Bobby Neuwirth, backed by Guam (as the core RTR musicians were known) on "Good Love Is Hard to Find" followed by "Cindy (When I Get Home), two songs that address loneliness on the road.
Following these openers, Neuwirth acts as emcee and, one by one, introduces the core band members, who each do a song of their own. First up is guitar player Steven Soles with "Don't Blame Me," followed by bass player Rob Stoner, who's hilarious self pity song "Too Good to be Wasted (Too Wasted to be Good)" is an absolute classic that also addresses life on the road in its inimitable way.
Guitarist T-Bone Burnett, who recorded and produced many excellent albums since this tour, gets his spotlight with "Torture" before Neuwirth introduces Mick Ronson, guitarist and arranger from David Bowie's legendary Ziggy Stardust band. Ronson takes his turn with "Life on Mars." For obvious reasons, often confused with David Bowie's Hunky Dory LP track, this is a Ronson original that shares nothing in common with the Bowie song other than the title. (Ronson recorded this song on his 1975 Play Don't Worry LP.)
Neuwirth then introduces the remaining members of Guam, before calling Nashville songstress and actress Ronee Blakley to the stage to add some sweet backing vocals to the band's homage to Hank Williams, "Alabama Dark" before taking over on her own number, "Please."
Neuwirth fronts the group again on the next two numbers. First he acknowledges "a woman that can't be here tonight" and does "Mercedes Benz," the song he and Janis Joplin wrote that was immortalized in her a cappela rendition on the Pearl LP. Then he pays homage to his good friend Ramblin' Jack Elliot, with a song that takes his name, which Neuwirth then utilizes as a fitting introduction to the man himself.
Ramblin' Jack gets a mini-set of his own, and he too leans heavy on songs of traveling. From the lovely "San Francisco Bay Blues" to the raucous "Salt Pork, West Virginia," to another song immortalized by Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson's "Me & Bobby McGee." On the latter two, the band joins back in and they all close Ramblin' Jack's set with the ever appropriate "Rich and Ramblin' Boy," yet another tale of adventures on the road.
With no fanfare, not even an introduction, Dylan joins the gypsy caravan on stage. His first set of the evening begins with "When I Paint My Masterpiece," yet another song of weary travel and the elusiveness of the muse but with a clearly optimistic bend to this performance. This optimism permeates the first several songs of the set with Dylan and Neuwirth clearly cajoling each other. This is particularly evident on this opener, where Neuwirth has some difficulty following Dylan's lead vocal, but the loose raucousness of the performance makes it all the more immediate and engaging. In stark contrast to the overhyped Dylan/Band Tour from the previous year, where he often seemed distracted, Dylan's commitment to the moment is palpable at all times here. There is no doubt that Dylan is fully engaged in the material.
Dylan's choice of material, much like the album Desire, has a distinctive unity. The songs that Dylan chose to perform and the way he chose to perform them on this tour displays one of his greatest strengths--a beautiful disregard for professional songwriter polish. This elasticity in his approach to his material is what makes these performances so immediately engaging, not only for the audience, but for Dylan himself.
With the ragged and radically different approach that Dylan brings to the next two numbers, biting electric versions of "It Ain't Me Babe" and "A Hard Rains a Gonna Fall," these vintage solo acoustic songs take on new meanings. Despite both songs addressing troubling subject matter, both are ecstatic performances. Dylan displays a rare vocal control, truncating or elongating certain lines, often revealing nuances and subtleties not apparent in the studio recordings. Here these songs become celebrations of life and have a distinctly different feel than their original incarnations.
To end his first set, prior to the show intermission, 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. Awareness of this new approach, where his lyrics serve the feel of the music (as opposed to the other way around) is what make his performances on this particular tour so utterly fascinating. Clearly caught up in the moment, Neuwirth can be heard exclaiming "Durango!" upon the song's conclusion.
Which brings us to his first set closer, "Isis." Here all the elements previously mentioned come together perfectly. This song would get even more intense as the tour progressed, but even here, in its fourth performance ever, this is a dramatic rendition. Taken at a slightly slower clip than later renditions on the tour, 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 Review, makes this first set closer an unforgettable performance.
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. Dylan then asks the audience if anyone remembers Johnny Ace as several members of the band reassemble on stage. They then perform a ragged, but beautiful version of Ace's "Never Let Me Go." Dylan's love for this lyric is obvious and he sings with both forcefulness and a rare tenderness. This feel continues, although less successfully, on the traditional "Water Is Wide." Early on, Baez has a bit of difficulty staying in synch with Dylan's phrasing, but it's an enjoyable take, nonetheless. They dedicate the next song. "I Shall Be Released," to the Band's Richard Manuel, who sang the original so beautifully. In a rare display of respect to an old arrangement, Dylan stays close to original with David Mansfield contributing lovely pedal steel embellishments.
Early on, the Dylan/Baez duets have a bit of awkwardness that worked itself out as the tour progressed. Here that awkwardness is still present, but even that has its charms, which the audience gratefully acknowledges. Following this set of duets, Dylan exits the stage, and Joan Baez fronts the band for five numbers on her own.
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 encourages everyone in the house to join in on "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" with her voice soaring above the fray. Something tickles her funny bone, as following the song, she transforms herself into Edith Bunker, Maureen Stapleton's brilliant characterization from the TV sitcom All In The Family, which was then quite controversial. After gaining her composure, she sings a beautiful rendition of the folk song, "Joe Hill," followed by "Love Song to a Stranger," a song that was equally controversial at the time. The recording concludes with Baez and the ensemble wailing away on the gospel song, "Oh Happy Day," which had charted in the early 70's by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
-Written by Alan Bershaw