24.5.21

BOB DYLAN: ROLLING THUNDER

To mark Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, here’s my on-the-spot report of his two Rolling Thunder concerts at Springfield, Massachusetts, from November 6, 1975. At almost 4,000 words, it’s far and away the longest show review I ever wrote for Melody Maker. I even kept the ticket, below. The footnotes are all that I’ve added from the original story, as printed over three pages of MM, issue dated November 15. 

You need more than a weather man to know which way Bob Dylan blows on what is being called, somewhat nationalistically, his bicentennial gesture to the musical heritage of America.

        Like the will o’ the wisp he is, Mr Dylan has astounded observers by embarking on a fly-by-night tour of the north eastern states, playing halls of modest proportions at short notice accompanied by an entourage of up to 15 musicians in various combinations.

        It seems as if Dylan is deliberately denouncing the ballyhoo that surrounded his 1974 tour of America with The Band, a tour that visited baseball arenas throughout the country and enabled hundreds of thousands of fans to watch his first advertised public appearances since the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969.

        Many artists have expressed a desire to return to the intimate club or small hall, but few have gone ahead. Dylan has done just that.

        In the past week he has played to stunned audiences in Massachusetts, some of whom found it difficult to believe that up there on stage was Bob Dylan, often treating them to an a la carte dinner in surroundings more suited to a ham sandwich and half of bitter.

        A great deal of secrecy surrounds this tour. Not even the musicians themselves know where they are playing next, and none of the concerts are booked more than five days in advance, a precaution designed to minimise the risk of ticket touting, box-office hysteria and extensive publicity.

        Similarly, the tour is billed as the “Rolling Thunder Revue”, playing down Dylan’s star role and giving equal importance, on handbills, to other musicians on the tour like Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, or New York beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

        The tour opened last week in Plymouth, Mass, a town that likes to call itself ‘America’s Home Town’ as this was the spot where the pilgrims landed from the Mayflower in 1620. Whether this town was chosen deliberately is, like many of the myths that surround Dylan, a matter of conjecture, but it seems appropriate for this historic trek around New England. 

        At Plymouth, Dylan and his entourage played two concerts before an audience who had bought their tickets with a certain amount of scepticism. From there the tour moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where the concerts were held in the largest hall the tour will visit – a 10,000-seater auditorium that played host to two shows, both on the same evening.

        One concert began at 5pm and the second at 10pm. Future plans include visits to Stockbridge (which gained in notoriety as the setting for Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’), Burlington, Waterbury and New Haven. There is at least one day’s break between shows and changes are likely to occur at short notice.

        The inspiration for the Rolling Thunder Revue has come directly from Dylan’s recent unofficial musical activity in Greenwich Village clubs and cafés, notably the recent reopened Other End. 

        Throughout July, Dylan was living in the Village in a loft on Houston Street and by night he could be seen shuffling around the clubs that spiral outwards from Bleecker Street – the singer’s old stomping ground in pre-superstar days.

        His most regular port of call was the Other End, a club that holds just 250 people, and on July 4 – Independence Day in the USA – Dylan joined his old friend Bob Neuwirth on stage (somewhat reluctantly) for a jam session.

        Dylan only sang harmony that night, but the ensuing week brought out many of the musicians on the current tour: Rob Stoner on bass, Steve Soles on guitar, and Mick Ronson, as unlikely a musician as anyone can imagine, who happened to drop by with his (then) running mate Ian Hunter. 

        Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was another who joined in these unofficial sessions, one of which reportedly went on until 6am when the police moved in to break things up. (New York closing time is 4am.)

        It was during this week that Dylan suggested everyone tour together, although no one took him seriously at first. During August, Dylan went into the studio to work on his next album (1), as yet unreleased, and September was spent in California. 

        He returned to New York in October determined to undertake the proposed tour. Next, he called up personnel, swearing them to secrecy, to handle bookings, and turned to Stoner to organise the band. It was at this point that Dylan called up Joan Baez, who was keen to join in, while Stoner contacted various others who would he interested. 

        Rehearsal time was booked at Studio Instrument Rentals in Midtown Manhattan and various personnel who came from out of town checked into the Grammercy Park Hotel at the bottom of Lexington Avenue. 

        In late October, Dylan and some of the cast of thousands turned up to catch David Blue at the Other End and various other musicians were conscripted, among them Ronee Blakley who plays violin and who had a starring role as a country singer in the movie Nashville, and Roger McGuinn, who played guitar to Dylan’s piano and Allen Ginsberg’s singing, when the club shut. Ginsberg, too, was add to the line-up.

        The following night the entire crew showed up at Folk City, another Bleecker Street club, and jammed away.

        Three more days were then spent on intensive rehearsal before the crew climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and headed out to Plymouth where the Memorial Hall had been booked for a Joan Baez concert. According to reports the hall cost just $250 to hire per night. That’s about £125 (2), and is actually $100 (about £50) more than the regular rate, a sum negotiated by the hall management after the Dylan entourage assured them that the Rolling Thunder Revue was capable of filling the balcony as well as the floor seating.

        Tickets at the 1,800-seater hall cost just $7.50 (about £3.75). At Madison Square Garden, where Dylan played with The Band on January 31, 1974, the top ticket price was $9.50.

        The $7.50 price is standard throughout the tour which means nobody will make a great deal of money from the concerts, which are expected to last a month give or take a few days.

        Even so, $7.50 is a steep price to pay in the small towns on the itinerary where bar bands play for free and an artist with as much as a recording contract would be pushing things at five dollars. But Bob Dylan… well he’s setting a huge precedent by appearing in the first place, let alone by raising the standard of living for the fortunate fans who realised he was appearing in the first place.

* * *

The record shop in the centre of town seemed a likely place to discover just where Bob Dylan was playing in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Thursday evening. The oldish guy behind the country looked puzzled.

        “Bob Dylan? Is he playing here tonight?”

        He turned to his friend, another fellow of mature years.

        “Yeah,” said shop assistant number two. “Bob’s playing the Civic Centre tonight. Bob Dylan and Joan er… no. Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin (3). That’s right. They’re playing here tonight.”

        Springfield is one of the biggest towns in Massachusetts, second only to Boston and, like the capital, it is a college town, population 169,000 – enough people, you would assume, to sell out a couple of Bob Dylan shows at their 10,000-seater Civic Center. 

        But no. Two hours before the Rolling Thunder took the stage for their 5pm performance there were still seats available for both that and the 10pm show. In the lobby of this modern auditorium a small line of kids queued for the remaining tickets. 

        Outside the building a giant sign advertised the Rolling Thunder package, but inside the venue the advertising was more specific. “Dylan and Baez” tickets read the notice over the box-office window.

        These tickets had been on sale for almost a week and hadn’t all been sold, a situation that is barely credible when one thinks back to the hysteria that surrounded the business of acquiring tickets for Dylan’s concerts with The Band at Madison Square Garden last year. 

        There was no hysteria and no inflated prices offered by touts outside: it could have been any middleweight group appearing at the Civic Center, the kind of band where audiences leave the final decision about going to the last minute, depending on such variable factors as the weather, cost and money available. 

        I waited in line and bought two tickets (4) for the 5pm show at $7.50 each. In front of me were two girls wanting tickets for the 10pm show who changed their minds when the ticket-seller told them no good seats were available. Better seats were to be had, in fact, for the early concert. 

        Outside the hall I bought two tickets for the second show, good seats that were offered at $10 each by a guy with about a dozen to sell. He even had a floor plan so he could show his potential customers exactly where they would be sitting.

        To put all this into some kind of perspective, this guy was making $2.50 profit on his tickets – or about 33% profit. At Madison Square Garden tours would consider business bad if 200% profit wasn’t obtainable with an artist of Bob Dylan’s stature. 

        I bought my tickets in the firm belief that that a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush, especially after having driven for four hours (5) to see as much of Dylan as possible. Before each concert some tickets were actually being offered at less than their face value, or so I heard later.

        The first concert at Springfield did not sell out entirely – there were about 300 vacant seats at the very back of the floor and up in the remotest balconies. The second show did sell out, about two hours before Bobby Neuwirth and his band shambled, unannounced, on to the stage.

        It is quite possible, of course that fans stay away because of the unlikelihood that tickets will still be available on the day of the show. 

        Certainly, in the annals, of modern-day tours by artists of Dylan’s magnitude, there has never been a a situation parallel to this series of concerts.

* * *

Both shows began with songs by Neuwirth and his efficient little back-up bad that, of course, included Mick Ronson of lead guitar.

Ronson may have forgotten his past in the delirium of playing with Dylan and friends – he’s been quoted recently as saying, “Everything I did before is bullshit compared to this” – but he still looks like the archetypical British lead guitarist with well-kempt blonde hair and an arrogant stance that contracts with the happy-go-lucky attitude of the surrounding folkies. 

But he’s a great asset to this band and other combinations of musicians that appear during the three-and-a-half-hour show. He seems to be the only ‘electric’ guitarist in the bunch, and his cutting solos are a constant and necessary factor in the success of the Thunder Revue. 

The opening routine was identical at both concerts and it wasn’t until Dylan appeared, after about an hour, that the show loosened up.

Apart from Ronson, Neuwirth’s band comprises “Rockin’” Rob Stoner on bass, T-Bone Burnett on guitar, David Mansfield on steel guitar and violin, Steve Soles on guitar, and two drummers Howie Wyeth and Luther Rix. 

Each member of the band gets at least one chance to solo before the appearance of Dylan. First it was Neuwirth singing ‘Good Love Is Hard To Find’ and a trucking song of uncertain title, then T-Bone with a gimmicky piece called ‘The Werewolves Of London’ (6), and finally Stoner with a rocking little ditty about the New York Yankees baseball team called Catfish, which included a nifty bass solo. 

Ronson’s solo spot was ‘Is There Life On Mars’ – not the David Bowie song but a completely new tune written by Rosco West. Either way, it contrasted sharply with the rest of the material, featuring spacey lead guitar and rumbling vocals not unlike the pre-Young Americans Bowie. 

After Neuwirth introduced the band, Ronee Blakly waltzed on in a bright blue top and duetted with Neuwirth on a song about the death of Hank Williams. Next Ronee played an unannounced song of her own at the piano, a rather doomy piece that interrupted the momentum of the show, but Neuwirth quickly brought the concert back into focus by singing a Kris Kristofferson song about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott before brining on the man himself. 

Elliott then sang two songs, both folksy finger-picking pieces and then called the band back for a bluegrass number. The band was now enlarged to include Roger McGuinn on banjo and Scarlet Rivera, who’s been playing with Dylan in the studio, on violin.

        Ramblin’ Jack rambled off and from the left of the stage appeared a shortish guy in a wide-brimmed hat carrying a sunburst acoustic Gibson guitar. The audience erupted as the band kicked in on cue and Bob Dylan, grinning slightly but not acknowledging the ovation, began the words to ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’.

The song was sung gently, and Neuwirth duetted with Dylan on the chorus lines. Dylan, wearing faded jeans, a light shirt and dark brown waistcoat, pushed hard at his guitar, holding the instrument away from his body like a rifle and forcing the song along with a perpetual motion between his right foot and right arm. At the end Neuwirth said simply “Bob Dylan”, and everyone went bananas once again.

“He’s so small,” said someone in the row behind me, and indeed he was, crouching and delivering with all the urgency of his last tour with The Band. But on this show the voice seems deeper and fuller, with less rasp and throat.

He’s singing clearer, sharper and with the same bite, but the relentless tempo that The Band has set Dylan in the past has been exchanged for a mellower approach from the musicians on this tour. 

The result is a more relaxed Dylan, as reflected in the second concert on Thursday night when he kidded about on stage with Neuwirth and spoke to the audience between songs. What he said was vague enough but it was a welcome change from the mute approach of 1974.

“Go away from my window, leave at your chosen speed,” and Dylan was into ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ before you had a chance to recover. Here the band joined in on the choruses and Ronson came forward for a note perfect solo, playing alongside Dylan as if the pair had worked together since Newport. To end the song Dylan played some willowy blues on the mouth-harp which prompted another howling ovation.

The Mexican-sounding ‘Romance In Durango’ – which Dylan dedicated to Sam Peckinpah – came next, a fairly lightweight sing-along interlude before the first half closed with a new song, ‘Isis’. This long song tells a wandering story about Egypt, pyramids and tombs – an urgent, spooky reminder that brought back the tension lost momentarily on ‘Durango’. 


This picture was shot by Bob Gruen in Springfield on the night, 
and was used to accompany my story in Melody Maker

Dylan and Joan Baez opened the second half together singing ‘Baby, You Been On My Mind’ before the curtains were raised. It’s quite apparent they retain a marked sympathy for each other: they dress alike, almost in some brother and sister combination, and Baez frequently rests her arm on Dylan’s shoulders. 

Together they sang a new, unidentified, Dylan love song (7) and then ‘I Shall Be Released’ which was dedicated to the Band’s Richard Manuel. (8)

Baez’s solo spot came next, beginning with her song to Dylan, ‘Diamonds And Rust’ which, by the nature of the event, assumed an eerie significance. 

Unaccompanied, she sang ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ before the band returned and backed her up on ‘Long Black Veil’, the traditional song covered by The Band on their first LP. Baez’s solo spot closed with ‘Please Come Back To Boston’ before she introduced Roger McGuinn for his solo spot on ‘Chestnut Mare’.

McGuinn, playing his 12-string electric Rickenbacker, recreated the jangling effect of The Byrd’s sound and turned to Ronson for vocal help on the choruses. 

Next Baez returned for a sing-along version of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, encouraging the audience to join in, which they did.

For the next half hour Dylan re-emerged in the spotlight, firstly on his own and later accompanied by a small group comprising Neuwirth, Rivera, Stoner and Wyeth. This was the most crucial part of the evening, featuring both old songs and new, as yet unheard, material that will comprise Dylan’s next album. It also changes from night to night.

At the first show Dylan opened with ‘I Don’t Believe You’, huddled over his acoustic guitar and perched on small stool. His voice sounded mellow and rounded, but again the bite was there in his harp playing at the end of the song. The band joined him for a new song entitled ‘Little Sister’, one of several romantic ballads he has been writing recently. 

Next, he sang his new single, ‘Hurricane’, a very lengthy protest about the imprisonment of former boxing champion Rubin Carter, punctuated with insistent violin riffs between verses and delivered at a ferocious pace. (One also feels impressed at the way Dylan remembers the lyrics.)

Two more new love songs followed, the first titled ‘One More Cup Of Coffee Before I Go’ and the second, obviously written about his wife, called ‘Sara’, which he pronounced “Say-rah” throughout.

This song is perhaps the highlight of the whole evening, a huge insight into Dylan’s relationship with his wife, and it included some beautiful lyrics. There are lines about “sitting in the Chelsea hotel writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ for you”, and little couplets of tender, descriptive details about playing on the beach at Malibu with his children…

“Sara, Sara, sweet lover of my life

“Radiant jewel, mystical wife,

“Fabulous virgin with arrow and bow,

“Don’t ever leave me wherever I go.”

The tension is relaxed when the whole band return for Dylan to sing ‘Just Like A Woman’, dragging out the choruses and rasping on the word “g…i…r…l” at the end of each stanza. Ronson again takes a solo before the song segued into ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, a harsher version than on the single.

Finally, everyone arrived back on stage, including a hitherto unseen Allen Ginsberg, portly and bearded, to join in on Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’, with each soloist taking a version and Dylan, weaving and gnomelike beneath his absurdly large hat, leaving stage mid-song.

“There will be no encore as we are running very late,” shrieked Baez in her ‘organising’ voice as the house lights were turned up and the band lurched into the last chorus of Woody’s alternative American anthem. Then the curtain fell and it was all over.

* * *

Between shows I grabbed a pizza across the street in a sleazy little Italian café filled with Dylan fans. ‘George Jackson’ was playing the jukebox but this was soon overtaken by a live tape of the show recorded on some guy’s Sony portable. He upped the volume and the whole café listened to a poor-quality recording that could well turn into a bootleg of the show we’d just seen. (9)

Back in the hall, the second show varied considerably from the first, with all the musicians, and Dylan in particular, in a lighter mood throughout. The result was a more relaxed concert during the lighter passages and a more atmospheric mood during the stronger moments. Dylan’s solo efforts were especially brilliant this time, holding the audience in breathless anticipation and admiring silence during his new numbers. 

Arlo Guthrie provided the first surprise, coming on after Ramblin’ Jack’s two songs and yodelling his way through ‘Got A Feeling Called The Blues’ before Dylan sung his first song again (again ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’). 

He included ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ during the first half and, after the interval, reappeared with Joan Baez singing ‘The Times They Are A Changing’ instead of ‘Baby, You’ve Been On My Mind’. 

Baez included her ‘Joe Hill’ song during her solo spot, and Dylan began his second half routine with ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ instead of ‘I Don’t Believe You’. 

Those may be the facts but the music can’t be reduced to statistics. Perhaps it was because the second show audience seemed older and more reverent, but the musicians were inspired by the occasion and they handled the songs with more energy and respect for the star of the show. 

And the star was in virtuoso form, even talking to his audience in vague asides: after ‘Masterpiece’ he sashayed up to the mike and announced in a deep voice: “Thank you everybody out there. I hope you make it to the West Indian islands.”

And later, before ‘Durango’, he silenced the crowd with a wave and told us all that “raw lust does not hold a candle to true love.”

He also made a rare political statement. Just before breaking into ‘Hurricane’ during the second half, Dylan stated: “I hear Massachusetts is the only state that didn’t vote for Nixon. Is that true?” After the cheers died down he responded, “Well, neither did we.”

His control of the audience during the two love songs was complete, especially on the highly personal ‘Sara’, which prompted the guy next to me to clutch his girl very tightly and announce to all within earshot: “That’s the best fucking song I’ve heard in my life.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. (10)

Again, the show ended on ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with each soloist taking a verse and Ramblin’ Jack taking more than anyone else because he knew the words better than anyone else. 

And again, Joan Baez announced that there wouldn’t be an encore, which there wasn’t even though the second show crowd clapped on for a good ten minutes and had to be told to leave twice. 

At the end of the concert I saw at Madison Square Garden last year, Dylan received a similar ovation after which he reappeared on the stage without The Band, changed from his dark suit into an ice-hockey jersey. Obviously moved by the crowd scene he turned to the mike, hesitated, and finally said, “Thank you. See you next year.”

I, for one, never expected that promise to be kept. But Dylan has kept it after all.


Notes: 

(1) Desire

(2) Yes, there were two dollars to the pound in 1975.

(3) He was evidently unaware that Janis died in 1970. 

(4) The second for photographer Bob Gruen who accompanied me. 

(5) About 150 miles, but speed limits and traffic held us up. 

(6) The Warren Zevon song, as yet unreleased.

(7) Subsequently identified as 'Never Let Me Go'. 

(8) Rick Danko sang the same song at Manuel's funeral in 1986. 

(9) In the caféI met Larry Sloman who would write a book about Rolling Thunder called On The Road With Bob Dylan

(10) At that moment anyway. 





2 comments:

Dave Heasman said...

Not T-Bone Walker, T-Bone Burnette, surely?

Chris Charlesworth said...

Yes, correct. I must have had a brain lapse as I was retyping it from my original report, where I got it right. Thanks for pointing that out, now corrected.