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'Rolling Thunder Revue' examines the mystique of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5
Columbia/Legacy

Certain rock myths come tainted with the scent of incredibility. Read a few British music magazines and you'll hear that the Stone Roses obliterated the line separating rock and rave in late-'80s England, ushering in a brave new sonic tomorrow and setting the tone for the next decade's rock. So why does their allegedly epic self-titled 1989 album sound like undifferentiated blah? Must've been one of those right-place/ right-time convergence things that just don't travel. Oh well--at least the myth propagators had a good time kidding themselves about that record's transcendent properties.

Something similarly fishy has always surrounded the legend of the Rolling Thunder Revue, Bob Dylan's multi-artist 1975 road show. As a fan who has never waded into the murky, Grateful Dead-like live-tapes underground surrounding Dylan, I always read the tour as shapelessly ambitious, with the mic being passed around between Dylan and such hangers-on as Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Ronee Blakely. For someone like me who has little patience for hip-hop posse cuts, much less two-and-a-half-hour concerts based on the same principle, this has always sounded, shall we say, gratuitous.

How many concerts will it take till Bob Dylan knows that Joan Baez can't harmonize? The answer is blowing in the wind...
Ken Regan
How many concerts will it take till Bob Dylan knows that Joan Baez can't harmonize? The answer is blowing in the wind...

So it's hardly surprising that Columbia/ Legacy's brand-new The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5--Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue avoids the shows' round-robin routine to concentrate on the headliner--or that the worst part of the album comes during the three songs Dylan and Baez sing together. Actually, that's not quite right. When two people harmonize into one microphone, they're out to create the illusion of intimacy--ideally, we feel less like we're witnessing a performance than eavesdropping on one. So it's kind of a lie to refer to Dylan and Baez as "singing together," and no way would I call it "harmonizing," either--and not just because they're off-key, but because they sound opposed to each other. What you hear is a chasm you could build a mansion in. During "Blowin' in the Wind," Baez stridently yells the last three words of the line, "How many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?" as if she were at a Mumia rally. Dylan barrels through the song, sounding irritated with her. He's not the only one.

That kind of disconnect defines Live 1975. Even when the music is good, Dylan seems as though he's hiding something, maybe from himself. A year before, on the road with the Band (a tour commemorated on the double-CD live album Before the Flood), Dylan took to yelling his lyrics, probably to overcome his nerves after eight years away from the road. By the time of Rolling Thunder, Dylan had turned his shout into a weapon, and not all that cannily, either. Frequently, he sounds like a boastful, reckless gambler drinking his winnings away while still in the game.

Given that the backing vocals on several songs (particularly the choruses of "It Ain't Me, Babe" and "Romance in Durango") resemble barroom brawls, it's safe to assume that everyone else on board has imbibed as well. The unfortunate effect is that the singers come across like a bunch of people approaching middle age who are desperately attempting to hold on to their fading youth. This is thrown into even sharper relief by the way the 60-year-old Dylan of last year's Love and Theft makes getting old and grouchy sound like a keg party of the soul.

But Live 1975's chaotic feel is probably appropriate. Blood on the Tracks, released in January of the same year, had brought him back as an artist as well as a celebrity. It was also the first Dylan album that felt equally inspired and crafted. Desire, released at the beginning of 1976, left some of that inspiration behind: Half of it felt as naturalistic as his greatest work, half like he was trying too hard to match the other half. Many of the same musicians who played on Desire also appear on Live 1975, and there's a similarly romantic, broad-canvas feel, carnivalesque and richly colored. But like much of Dylan's singing, it also feels like it's traveling without a map, unsure which direction to turn next.

Yet Dylan's best work has actually always had a laser-sharp focus: Even if the audience doesn't quite know where he's going, he sounds like he does--which is why a potential meander like Blonde on Blonde's 12-minute "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" grabs and holds instead of seeming like a great big yawn. It's not fair to call Live 1975 aimless, but it certainly doesn't appear particularly focused either. At one point, Joan Baez addresses an audience member who is shouting something muffled about her accompaniment of Dylan being like old times. "Don't make myths," Baez scolds. For once, she has a point.

 
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