Other than Dylan's controversial 1966 Tour, when he first went electric, his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue Tours of 1975/1976 are the most documented and respected tours of the 1970s. This final night of the 1975 leg, when a huge entourage of musicians, celebrities and guests descended upon Madison Square Garden to raise awareness and funds for the defense of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, is the most monumental show of that tour.
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, Bob Neuwirth. Backed by Guam (as the core RTR musicians were known), Neuwirth kicks things off with "Good Love Is Hard To Find," before welcoming everyone to the concert, followed by "Sleazy." Following these openers, Neuwirth continues his role as master of ceremonies and one by one introduces the core band members, who each do a song of their own. First up is guitar player, T-Bone Burnett, with his esoteric original, "Hula Hoop," followed by bass player, Rob Stoner, with his hilarious self-pity song, "Too Good To Be Wasted (Too Wasted To Be Good)." Another Guam guitarist, Steven Soles, is up next with a cover of the David Ackles song "Laissez-Faire."
Neuwirth then introduces the remaining members of Guam, before introducing Mick Ronson, guitarist and arranger from David Bowie's legendary Ziggy Stardust band, to the stage. There's been considerable confusion in documentation about the song "Life On Mars," which Ronson would perform on a nightly basis. Most assume that he was playing David Bowie's "Life On Mars," from his Hunky Dory LP, but this is not the case. This is a Ronson original that shares nothing in common with the Bowie song, other than the title. Following Ronson, Neuwirth invites Nashville songstress and actress Ronee Blakely to the stage for a duet on "Alabama Dark," an homage to Hank Williams. Blakely then takes a seat at the piano and leads the band through her own "Need A New Sun Rising." Neuwirth takes over again on the next two numbers. First he performs "Cindy (When I Get Home)," followed by "Mercedes Benz," the song Janis Joplin immortalized with her a cappela rendition on the Pearl LP, one of her final recordings.
Much to the delight of the audience, the first special guest of the evening is up next, Joni Mitchell. Following several critically acclaimed albums in the early 70's, Mitchell had begun retreating from the spotlight. Her brief stint with The Rolling Thunder Revue not only signified a welcome return to the stage, but was also a showcase for new material. Mitchell would continue exploring new directions that would take both fans and critics years to catch on to, but the early stages of that transition can clearly be heard on this four-song set. Hints of what would be in store on her transitional album, 1975's Hissing Of Summer Lawns, are previewed here. Also of note is "Coyote," one of her most intriguing new songs, later to surface on her Hijera LP, which had just been written days before.
At this point in the show, there was a break in the musical performances and several guest speakers took the stage for a 20-minute segment to raise awareness of the plight of Rubin Carter. The highlight of this segment is unquestionably Muhammad Ali, whose spontaneous monologues are both educational and humorous. His musings regarding his fame vs. Bob Dylan's fame are particularly funny and Rubin Carter himself even pays the crowd a personal visit, via a phone hookup from prison that is patched through the PA system.
Following this segment, amidst shouts and hollers for Dylan, Neuwirth informs the audience they'll have to wait and he pays homage to his good friend 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 and he performs his signature "Muleskinner Blues," followed by the first song he ever heard Woody Guthrie play, "Pretty Boy Floyd." The band joins in for two more as he closes his set with "Salt Pork West Virginia" and "Rich And Ramblin' Boy."
With no fanfare, not even an introduction, Dylan finally joins the gypsy caravan on stage. His first set of the evening begins with "When I Paint My Masterpiece," a song he contributed to The Band's Cahoots LP several years before; a song about travel weariness and the elusiveness of the muse. Dylan's choice of material, much like the album Desire (the sessions for which had just been completed prior to this run of concerts), have a distinctive unity and display one of his greatest strengths -- a conscious disregard for professional songwriter polish. This elasticity in his approach to his material is what made his performances on this tour so engaging, not only for the audience, but for Dylan himself. There's no doubt that Dylan is fully engaged in the material. In stark contrast to the overhyped 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.
With the loose and intentionally ragged accompaniment that The Rolling Thunder Revue brings to the next two numbers, "It Ain't Me Babe" and "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll," these songs take on new meanings. The former becomes a celebration of life, and the latter, in context of this show, has a distinctly different resonance. Dylan next adds two additional songs to his standard setlist. First is a delightful performance of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" and then he introduces Robbie Robertson to the stage to add additional guitar licks to a high energy arrangement of "It Takes A Lot To Laugh...A Train To Cry." To conclude his first set, Dylan brings out violinist Scarlet Rivera, who joins in on two of the most compelling songs from the recent Desire sessions. He announces the first, "Romance In Durango," as being 'influenced by the past and a bridge to the future.' This 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 his lyrics serve the feel of the music (as opposed to the other way around) that make the performances on this tour so fascinating. For the set closer, "Isis," all the elements previously mentioned come together perfectly. This number 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 band, makes this a tour-de-force performance. Following "Isis," the concert takes an intermission to allow bandmembers to rejuvenate themselves and the audience to digest the past few hours. Despite already being longer that most concerts of the day, this first set was merely a warm-up exercise for the rest of the night.
-Written by Alan Bershaw