Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue didn’t last long. From its conception to its dissolution, it spanned just under a year, not long for a career that’s about to enter its seventh decade. Maybe that’s why Dylan professes ignorance about the inspiration for his roving carnival in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, a lengthily titled documentary that recently premiered on Netflix. In one of the new interviews for the film, the singer-songwriter claims, “I’m trying to get to the core of what this Rolling Thunder thing is all about, and I don’t have a clue because it’s about nothing! It’s just something that happened 40 years [ago]—and that’s the truth of it.”
Other people remember a lot about Rolling Thunder, though. Since the waning months of 1975—when Dylan roamed New England with a ragged band of musicians, playing small venues at the drop of a hat—the revue has been the thing of legend among Dylan conoscenti. Much of its mystique lies in the way the superior first incarnation of the tour only lasted about as long as a torrid summer squall. A second leg followed in 1976, but by all accounts Dylan was ornery and withdrawn—a contention supported by Hard Rain, a ’76 live set that was the only official document of Rolling Thunder until selections from the 1975 shows were compiled, in 2002, as the fifth volume of Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series.
Certainly, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 is easier to digest than The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, a 14-CD box released to accompany the Scorsese film. Containing Dylan’s sets from the five professionally recorded Rolling Thunder concerts, along with three discs of rehearsals and a disc of oddities taken from the tour, the box assumes a high level of interest from the listener: A set that runs for ten and a half hours is not for dabblers. This ungainly sprawl suits the Rolling Thunder Revue, which was meant not as a mere evening of entertainment but rather an immersive theatrical experience.
Much of that heightened sense of drama diminishes on record, but it can still be felt, and the big box occasionally does an excellent job of suggesting the circus taking place both on and off stage. All those rehearsals help build the atmosphere. Here, Dylan and his band of old folkies, new rockers, and unknowns get acquainted, playing folk chestnuts and songs he’d just cut for Desire, which wouldn’t be released until after the first leg of the tour wrapped up. Harmonies are ragged and tempos tentative, but the bonhomie is palpable. What’s also evident is the nature of Dylan’s singing: open-hearted, bold, and clear, qualities decidedly lacking on Before the Flood, a double-album souvenir of his 1974 return to the stage.
The concerts excerpted on Before the Flood were intended to be a spectacle. Dylan had rarely played live since his motorcycle accident in 1966, and he was supported by the Band, who had made the transition from his backing band to stars in their own right. Although the ’74 tour was a wild success, Dylan grew tired of playing arenas, and that boredom, combined with personal unrest, was the catalyst for his attempt to re-create his coffeehouse roots via the Rolling Thunder Revue. Surrounding himself with figures from his past—his old advocate and paramour Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Neuwirth, and Roger McGuinn—Dylan also roped in new blood. He wound up having a drink with Mick Ronson, late of David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars, so he invited the guitarist to become part of the unruly band that would eventually become known as Guam. He saw Scarlet Rivera wandering the streets of New York with her violin in hand, so she brought her into the fold. Most importantly, he happened to stumble upon Jacques Levy, the director of 1969’s Off-Broadway hit Oh! Calcutta!, and the pair hit it off so well, they wrote most of Desire together and decided it was time to put on a show.
Levy staged the Rolling Thunder Revue as an old-fashioned circus, encouraging Dylan to indulge his theatrical side—the singer often performed in a face caked with white makeup—and that sensibility trickled through the entire production. Thanks to its ever-expanding cast of characters and guerrilla marketing—the troupe often arrived in town without warning and without its star attraction mentioned by name—the Rolling Thunder Revue gave off the suggestion that anything might happen. Like all theater, that was an illusion. Particulars may have changed on a given night, but the skeleton of the show was immutable, something that this big box—which boils four-hour extravaganzas down to only the sets involving Bob Dylan—makes plain.
Each night, Dylan appeared at three specific times during the show: strolling onstage unannounced to sing “When I Paint My Masterpiece” with the band, playing a duet set with Baez, then closing the show on his own. For each of the three phases of the Revue, he stuck to a largely static setlist. Departures from the norm were rare, and many are featured on the final disc, which is ragged enough to live up to Rolling Thunder’s reputation. Some of these tracks were captured at odd locations—a lean, almost rollicking version of “Simple Twist of Fate” was performed at a Massachusetts mah-jongg parlor, an empathetic cover of Peter La Farge’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” given at a Native American reservation—while others provide a variation on a familiar tune, such as a slow churning “Isis” in which the band seems on the verge of collapse. In this context, a nearly whispered hotel-room take on Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” and a rampaging version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” featuring Robbie Robertson on guitar, act as revelatory grace notes, showing how heartbreaking and galvanizing the Rolling Thunder Revue could be.
Still, the heart of the box sets lies in those five full concerts, all sharing the same basic momentum, all distinguished by passion. The vigor doesn’t belong to Dylan alone. The Guam band is unwieldy and enthusiastic, taking the time to let all their disparate voices mesh. Rivera’s careening gypsy violin lends an earthy wildness to the proceedings, while Ronson’s guitar pulls the music back into focus whenever it threatens to get too folky. Dylan matches Ronson for electrifying verve, singing with a jovial bravado and untrammeled freedom that’s distinctly different from the primal howl he used during his fabled 1966 tour with the Band. Despite this kinetic kick, the Rolling Thunder Revue is at its core a hootenanny, a down-home bash that’s equally earnest and corny. Its folkie heart is evident by Joan Baez’s role as Dylan’s co-star and foil. Baez helped bring Dylan to stardom during the peak of the folk boom in the early 1960s, and here she’s determined to let the audience know that they’re on equal footing, harmonizing and sometimes dominating Dylan during their duets.
However briefly it happens, hearing Dylan happily share the spotlight underscores the charms of the Rolling Thunder Revue, specifically how he sought solace in a communal setting. If the tour was solely about reconnection, it would’ve been little more than a footnote in Dylan’s history, but the nostalgia act was strictly surface-level; the form may have been familiar, but the individual performances were thoroughly, thrillingly of the moment. Dylan plays with a wild-eyed fervor that’s partially inspired and partially shtick, and he’s surrounded not by sycophants but old friends who acknowledge his bullshit and find it amusing. Why else would they sign up to play in the Rolling Thunder Revue? By design, the tour erased the barrier separating ruse and reality, and that deliberate, wicked conflation is as quintessentially Dylanesque as the fact that it lasted for a matter of weeks and then disappeared, its vibrant spirit never again conjured by its maker.