Bob Dylan’s “The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings”: collection review

We were somewhere in the desert between LA and Vegas, heading from one to the other, it was day or it was night – I don’t remember. My buddy was driving, and I had bud or a bud or both in my hand. This was years ago.
He threw on a Dylan CD. I’d heard quite a bit of Dylan by then, but I had a long way to go. What came on the speakers blew me away and stopped my mind dead in its tracks: here was Dylan, but he was on fire, barreling like a freight train down the line of old and new songs, with a strange gypsy acoustic-meets-electric blend, full of precious harmonies, intense violin solos, drama and emotion, tight and drilled, yet organic and breathing. Old acoustic ballads now stomped with a bluesy momentum; protest songs had a sense of humor and a maturity without lacking any of their youthful bite. It was a mystical experience, showing me how you could take a song and re-work it, change it, recast it. Something about the structure of songwriting, the nature of composition, was laid bare to me there in that desert car-ride as Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue Bootleg Series 5 unrolled down the highway. It was an emotional time, the dying embers of my first chapter of life in the US, fleeing into the desert one last time before fleeing the continent leaving behind the blazing ruins of a life-changing relationship, heading into some dark days in the rain sodden streets of Dublin, and an eventual rebirth.

I credit that album, and my subsequent thirst for every Dylan song I could get my hands on, with my journey into real songwriting, producing a frenzy of work in the subsequent years that launched me in new directions.
That Bootleg Volume 5 holds a special place in my heart, so I had mixed feelings upon seeing an entire box set coming out. Would this dilute that distilled magic? Would this be just too much, too many outtakes?
No. No it would not be too much. Not for me.
For the average Dylan listener, perhaps this is another overkill release – 14 discs and over 10 and a half hours of music. But I absolutely loved listening to every minute of this collection.
From the first take of “Romance in Durango” you can hear the band start off out of sync, messy, disjointed, off-harmony, yet as the minutes roll by the band tightens, begins to find their connections, the harmonies coalescing and a vibe and sound emerging. It’s a joy and a fascination to hear how that eventual explosive live sound came together, Dylan and Baez choosing songs almost randomly to try. You can hear Dylan teaching the chords and structure to people, eavesdrop as the assembled musicians get a load of Scarlett Rivera for the first time, catching “Scarlett fever.” A re-work of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is ponderous compared to final result, but it’s incredible to hear the tempo suddenly pick up halfway through, landing on a faster pace much closer to that unstoppable final product. There are rhythm changes and arrangement and timing experiments, such as the evolution of “Isis” as Dylan seeks the right spacing and punctuation.
Older songs go through stages of rebirth and regeneration. There’s a version of “Just like a woman” that is breathtaking in its beauty. Songs like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” receive new verses. Songs rarely performed are here given their moment – “Wheels on Fire” and “Spanish is the loving tongue.” There’s the spellbinding reuniting of Dylan and Baez, such as the achingly mesmerizing “I Shall Be Released.” There’s a truly unbelievable solo version of “Easy and Slow.”

Along with that inside the studio view of how Dylan led his band through those rehearsals, there’s a wealth of less heard or previously unreleased material. Maybe some of this is out there on off-bootlegs, but I’d never really heard “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” before, aside from seeing it featured in Martin Scorcese’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” film. And that film, in fact, was the impetus for this entire collection. In listening through all the recordings and viewing the raw video footage, the assemblers of this collection felt that this stuff had to see the light of day and be listened to.
At the time of these rehearsals and of the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan’s “Desire” had not yet even been released, and while some of the core musicians had been in those recording sessions, the songs must have been new and unknown to plenty of others, and definitely unfamiliar to audiences. The songs are new and fresh, with Dylan still perfecting and discovering how they should really sound, despite already have recorded versions for “Desire.”

If you’ve heard the “Rolling Thunder” bootleg series volume 5 record, you’ll have a sense of how electrifying and special these moments were, these historical documents of a peak time in Dylan’s performing life, in the life of the assembled compatriots, in how that music fit the times and reflected back on the times they’d all come from, and how that time was passing and passed.
If you haven’t heard that bootleg 5, and don’t feel you need 14 discs and 10 hours, then you should still go get a copy of bootleg 5.
Either way, all 22 tracks from that bootleg 5 are on this extended collection, too.
Listening to each disc twice in a row over several days – immersed in that period of Dylan – was an absolute joy.

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