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The fifth installment in Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series, released in November 2002. Bob Dylan Live 1975 chronicles the Rolling Thunder Revue in 22 songs and nearly two hours of the most engaging live music of Dylan's career.
What sets it apart from Dylan's other live work? His voice is in magnificent form, and the backup band, unofficially called Guam, is easily the most unique-sounding of his career, propelled by the twin leads of Mick Ronson's guitar and Scarlet Rivera's violin. Rob Stoner's loping basslines and Howie Wyeth's hyperactive drumming hold the chaos together, and the other musicians included T-Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, who played a beautiful pedal steel. Joan Baez lent her vocals to a couple of tracks, and Roger McGuinn guested on Knockin' on Heaven's Door.
What sets it apart from the many bootleg recordings of Rolling Thunder? The sound quality, for one thing. Dylan recorded several Rolling Thunder shows with professional equipment, and then sat on them for almost thirty years. For the most part, the songs are expertly mixed, with little background noise or interference. And since the record is taken from five different shows, the admittedly inconsistent Rolling Thunder band could be shown at its best.
The record is laid out like one of the concerts would have been. It opens with a six-song set with Dylan backed by Guam. And they start off like a house on fire. A rocked-up Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You is followed by a radical rearrangement of It Ain't Me, Babe, and an incendiary A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall. "Hard Rain" is recast as a fast, aggressive blues, with Dylan's nearly full-throated scream egged on by Ronson's howling guitar lines and Howie Wyeth's drumming. You begin to wonder how his arms aren't falling off. It's a masterful performance, Dylan and the band pushing it to the edge of their endurance, gathering momentum, hell-bent.... Dylan never rocked harder than this.
How's he going to top himself? With The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, reimagined as a staggering, reggae-inflected number. Unlike Dylan's later flirtations with reggae, it works because it's understated. Ronson provides little curlicues of lead guitar, and the rhythm guitars and David Mansfield's mandolin accentuate the grim, menacing tale of William Zanzinger, who slew poor Hattie Carroll.... Then two songs off of the yet-to-be released Desire album, and then Guam leaves the stage, leaving Dylan alone with his acoustic guitar.
Some of the acoustic performances are a little rushed, but Dylan gets them across anyway. Simple Twist of Fate is slightly rewritten, and just as agonizing as the original. Other highlights of this set include a rare solo Tangled Up in Blue, and a version of Blowin' in the Wind where he's joined for the first time in ten years by Joan Baez.
Baez and Dylan also duet on a bluegrassy Mama, You Been On My Mind, an achingly beautiful I Shall Be Released, and a ramshackle The Water is Wide (the only song on the record not written by Dylan). One review I read of this record said that Dylan and Baez sound terrible together, but that guy couldn't have been listening to the same record. It's great fun to listen to Baez's pure soprano jousting with Dylan's raspy growl, and the spotaneity of the duets is another high point.... On most songs, Dylan knows the words, and Baez knows the melody, and somehow they make it through. I Shall Be Released is the highlight of their set together.
The second disc is a slight drop-off from the first, but just about anything would be. It suffers from too many similar sounding Desire songs sequenced together. Oh Sister, One More Cup of Coffee, and Sara become a little sleep-inducing, though a lively and wonderful rendition of Hurricane breaks them up. "If you've got any political pull at all, maybe you can help this man get out of jail and back on the street", Dylan says by way of an introduction. This Hurricane is slightly different from the one Dylan would release six months later, with a few re-written lyrics and different vocal inflections, and it's equally as good, if not better, driven by Scarlet Rivera's violin and Dylan's own sense of outrage.
And though they could not produce the gun
The D.A. said he was the one
Who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed....
The two closing songs are Just Like a Woman and Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Superior bootleg versions exist of both, though neither are bad. "Heaven's Door" in particular is well done, a rare mellow arrangement with a beautiful instrumental break where everything drops out but acoustic guitar arpeggios, and then Rivera's violin and Ronson's guitar creep back in over them. The second disc fades out on the opening notes of the finale, Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land.
A stunning tour de force, and in my opinion anyway, the best Bob Dylan live album to come out through official channels.
1. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
2. It Ain't Me, Babe
3. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
4. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
5. Romance in Durango
7. Mr. Tambourine Man
8. Simple Twist of Fate
9. Blowin' in the Wind
10. Mama, You Been on My Mind
11. I Shall Be Released
12. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
13. Love Minus Zero / No Limit
14. Tangled Up in Blue
15. The Water is Wide
16. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
17. Oh, Sister
19. One More Cup of Coffee
21. Just Like A Woman
22. Knockin' on Heaven's Door
Recorded at Worcester, MA 11-19-75, Cambridge, MA 11-20-75, Boston, MA 11-21-75, and Montreal, Canada, 12-4-75.