As we continue to look back on the year that was, it's hard to disagree that Bob Dylan was 2019's king of the reissue. Since releasing More Blood, More Tracks in time for the holidays in 2018, Legacy Recordings and the Dylan team approved MoFi's deluxe audiophile version of Blood on the Tracks; celebrated the first leg of the famed Rolling Thunder Revue with a new film, CD box set, and LP reissue; delivered a new Bootleg Series installment focusing on his time in Nashville in the late '60s; and quietly issued a copyright extension album collecting the rest of the Nashville sessions. Not a bad year!
For fans of Dylan's live evolution, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings remains a thrill. A companion piece to Martin Scorsese's film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, the 14-CD box set is a veritable treasure trove of unreleased material; of its 148 tracks, more than 100 are previously unreleased. The set includes five professionally recorded concerts, plus three discs' worth of rare rehearsal takes, and a clutch of bonus material with rare performances from venues as far-reaching as Gerdes Folk City, a mahjong parlor in Massachusetts, and the back of the tour bus. All told, it's a more complete look at roving Dylan's intimate and loose tour that saw him joining forces with folks from his past while looking, as always, toward the future. And while fans may question why those solo sets from Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Roger McGuinn, and Joni Mitchell couldn't be included (her stunning rendition of "Coyote" at Gordon Lightfoot's place remains exclusive to the film), the guests do feature on ensemble numbers like "This Land is Your Land." The bonus disc, meanwhile, features appearances from Eric Andersen and Robbie Robertson, among others.
The producers of the box set point out in the liner notes that a concise presentation of Rolling Thunder material wasn't their goal. That had already been achieved with the fifth volume of the Bootleg Series back in 2002 (and re-released this year in conjunction with the box set). Given the precedent set by the 36-CD 1966 Live Recordings box and the usual Dylanologist inclination to want it all and then some, the producers were right to give the first leg of the Rolling Thunder tour the same treatment. Musically, 1975 was another peak for Dylan musically. Blood on the Tracks had already been available for nine months when the Rolling Thunder Revue assembled in fall of 1975, and Dylan had been working on his next collection of songs, Desire , which would arrive in January of 1976. Dylan's sets focused heavily on the new material with jaw-dropping versions of "Isis," "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)," "Romance in Durango," "Joey," "Sara," and "Oh Sister" performed with an intensity that leaves the studio versions in the dust. Indeed, the interplay between Dylan and his handpicked band Guam - including Bob Neuwirth, Scarlet Rivera, T-Bone Burnett, Steven Soles, Mick Ronson, David Mansfield, Rob Stoner, Howie Wyeth, and Luther Rix - is a wonder to behold today. The performers were locked in and delivered incendiary performances night after night. And though the setlists remained consistent, no two performances were exactly alike.
Always one to reinvent and reinterpret, Dylan also performed revamped versions of his earlier work. On the concerts here, the show opener "When I Paint My Masterpiece" leans into its grand country-gospel roots, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is remade into a rollicking "Jean Genie"-like rocker, "It Ain't Me" is given a near-reggae groove, and "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry" has rarely sounded more intense. Night to night, Dylan kept the band on their toes as he explored all the nuances and subtleties he can in his vocal delivery and rhythm. Forty years on, the result remains thrilling to hear.
Equally compelling is the intimate rehearsal material featured on the set's first three discs. Here, we get a glimpse into the band's dynamic as they work out arrangements for new material; try out classic tracks among them "I Want You," "She Belongs To Me," and an intense "This Wheel's On Fire/Hurricane/All Along The Watchtower" medley; and gel on covers like "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," " People Get Ready," and a Dylan favorite "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue." Not to mention the rare originals "Patty's Gone to Laredo," "Hollywood Angel," and a loose take on "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." If that weren't enough, further Rolling Thunder rarities from October to December 1975 abound on the fourteenth and final disc. Though these miscellaneous performances vary in sound quality, the performances are not only historically significant enough for inclusion, but also wholly wonderful. Highlights include the intimate "Fourth Time Around" from Augusta on November 26, an impromptu singalong of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," a piano-led "Simple Twist of Fate" performed in a mahjong parlor, a slower, funkier take on "Isis" from Lowell on November 2, and a loose run-through of Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks of My Tears."
But the deep dive doesn't end there. The box also includes a book featuring notes by folk singer Wesley Stace (a.k.a. John Wesley Harding), complete credits and discographical notes, and photos from the road, all housed in a sturdy box with concert photography and faux-ticket imagery.
While a truly complete look at the first leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue would include a full show from tour or the optical disc debut of Scorsese's masterful mockumentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (still exclusive to Netflix at the time of writing), this 14-disc set remains a must for aficionados who relish every change of phrase and reinterpretation. It's Dylan at his most frenzied, impassioned, and fiery, and it's one of our favorite sets of the year here at TSD HQ.