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 Review 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 review-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. Beginning with two consecutive nights in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Dylan would deliver some of the most memorable stage performances of his career on this tour, and although the program would continue to expand in length as the tour progressed, the raw energy and spontaneity of the earliest dates on the tour cannot be denied.
This high quality recording from Bill Graham's archive, recorded on Halloween night, is a wonderful example of how this ambitious undertaking all began. Comfortable and with most of the technical bugs worked out during opening night of the tour (the previous night), Dylan and his huge entourage of musicians gear up for a second night at Plymouth's War Memorial Auditorium.
As was the general format during the 1975 leg of the tour, Dylan's close friend, Bobby Nuewirth led the charge, first with an opening number of his own and then by performing as master of ceremonies, welcoming the audience and introducing the various performers as the first set of the evening progressed towards Dylan's arrival onstage. Tape didn't begin running until approximately 20 minutes into the set, failing to capture Nuewirth's opener and a song each by core band members, guitarists T-Bone Burnett and Steven Soles and bass player Rob Stoner. However, what remains is a feast for the ears, beginning with Nuewirth introducing Mick Ronson to the stage, guitarist and arranger from David Bowie's legendary Ziggy Stardust band. There's been considerable confusion about this first song, "Life On Mars," which Ronson would perform on a nightly basis. Many assume that he was playing the David Bowie track featured on the Hunky Dory album, but this is not the case, as Ronson's number shares nothing in common with the Bowie song, other than the title. This engaging performance was included in Dylan's movie Renaldo And Clara, but other than this lone number, nothing else from this night has ever surfaced on any official releases.
Following Ronson, Neuwith introduces the core band members before inviting Nashville songstress and actress Ronee Blakely to the stage for a lively duet on "Alabama Dark," a homage to Hank Williams. Blakely then leads the band through her own "Please," a pure country number propelled by the pedal steel work of David Mansfield.
Nuewirth promises that everyone will be back, before taking over again for the next two numbers. First he performs "Cindy (When I Get Home)," followed by "Ramblin' Jack," a song that serves as a fitting introduction to the world's most legendary troubadour and one of the last surviving links to the great folk traditions of America, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Elliott is in fine form and proceeds to engage the audience in a four-song set of his own. He begins with a solo acoustic rendition of Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues," a song he is largely responsible for bringing to wider popularity. The band then joins back in, supporting Jack on the rollicking "Salt Pork West Virginia," and two classic traveling songs, his own continuous-work-in-progress, "Cup Of Coffee," followed by the traditional, "I'm a Rake 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), have a distinctive unity and display one of his greatest strengths—a conscious disregard for professional songwriter polish. This elasticity in his approach to the material is what made the 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 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.
With the loose and intentionally ragged accompaniment that the Rolling Thunder Review brings to "It Ain't Me Babe," the song takes on a distinctly different resonance. What once was essentially an arrogant break-up song now becomes a celebration of life itself, proving that meaning can indeed change, depending on how Dylan chooses to deliver a lyric.
To conclude the first set, Dylan brings out violinist Scarlet Rivera who joins in on two of the most compelling songs from the recent Desire sessions, not yet released at the time. The first ("Romance in Durango") 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 makes the performances on this tour so fascinating. For the set closer, "Isis," which Dylan dedicates to Keith Richards, 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, despite being only the second time it's ever been performed before a live audience. Following "Isis," the concert takes an intermission to allow band members to rejuvenate themselves and the audience to stretch their legs. 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 series of duets by Dylan and Joan Baez. Although unrecorded, on this night it began with the welcome starkness of just their two voices and acoustic guitars on "The Times They Are A Changin'." The recording picks up with Dylan dedicating the next number, Johnny Ace's "Never Let Me Go," to David Crosby. The duo performs a lovely version that would only continue to improve as the tour rolled on. Dylan's love for this lyric is obvious, and he sings with both forcefulness and a rare tenderness. The duets with Baez continue with various band members joining them on Dylan's seductive "Mama, You Been On My Mind" before winding up with "I Shall Be Released." In a rare display of respect for an old arrangement, Dylan stays close to the original Basement Tapes era arrangement, with David Mansfield adding lovely pedal steel embellishments.
Following the Dylan/Baez duets, Dylan exits the stage and Baez fronts the band for a half dozen songs. She begins with her original, "Diamonds And Rust," a song containing many allusions to Dylan. After years of being out of the spotlight, this song brought Baez 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 from the more sterile 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 briefly transforms herself into the telephone operator Ernestine, the character made famous by comedienne Lily Tomlin during her stint on the hit television show Laugh In. This would become an ongoing facet of Baez's sets during this tour, perhaps in an effort to shatter her serious image, and she would take on other characterizations as the tour rolled on, including Edith Bunker, Maureen Stapleton's brilliant characterization from the TV series All in the Family, which was then new and controversial. After gaining her composure back, she sings a beautiful rendition of the classic folk song, "Silver Dagger," followed by her intriguing "Love Song to a Stranger," a compelling new original that also flew in the face of her image. Next Baez and the ensemble wail into the hit gospel song, "Oh Happy Day," which had charted in the early 1970s by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, before concluding 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, and he and the Review launch into his last notable hit with the Byrds, "Chestnut Mare." 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 then proceeds to mesmerize the audience with a rare and moving performance of "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)." Stripped of the high-powered intensity that made the 1966 performances of this song so electrifying, this is nonetheless classic Dylan, feeling every word and capped off with his expressive harmonica playing. This serves as a precursor to the band returning to the stage for the climactic final set of the evening.
They begin with a forceful eight-minute reading of "Hurricane," a song about the plight of imprisoned boxer, Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, often perceived as Dylan's return to political commentary and protest and the first of four consecutive new songs from the Desire sessions. A ragged, yet penetrating performance of "Oh, Sister" follows. 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. 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 this memorable night, the entire entourage returns to the stage and close with a final song of solidarity, Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land."
-Written by Alan Bershaw