By Jeff Burger
“Wait a minute,” you might think, after hearing about The Rolling Thunder Review: The 1975 Live Recordings. “Didn’t Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series already devote a volume to that concert tour?” Yup, and the very first paragraph of the liner notes for this new package concedes that the earlier one collected “what we thought were the best performances” from those shows, “so if you’re looking for a concise representation of that period, Bootleg 5 certainly would fill the bill.”
Many Dylan fans lean more toward the exhaustive than the concise, however, and if you’re in that camp, you’ve come to the right place. While the earlier collection featured less than two hours of music on as many discs, the new one runs well over 10 hours and fills 14 CDs. Released in conjunction with a Martin Scorsese Netflix documentary about the concert series, this box features extensive notes by Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding). It incorporates three discs’ worth of fascinating rehearsal tapes from October 1975; the tour’s five professionally taped shows, all from November and December 1975, on 10 CDs; and a disc filled with rarities, including audience recordings, a radio commercial for the tour (which mentions an $8.50 admission price), and songs performed with unusual arrangements or in special settings. (Peter LaFarge’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” for example, is heard in a performance for Native Americans on a reservation.) All told, the set contains 148 tracks, among them more than 100 that have not previously been released.
All of this material comes from part one of the Rolling Thunder Review tour, which differed considerably from the less-well-received part two. Reportedly burned out after his extravagant 1974 comeback tour with the Band, which featured big audiences and lots of media attention, Dylan opted in part one of Rolling Thunder to perform in small venues on short notice. (He was back in big stadiums for part two.) Joining him onstage were an assortment of friends and associates, including Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Eric Andersen, Bobby Neuwirth, Robbie Robertson, T-Bone Burnett, and Scarlett Rivera. Dylan was probably not in particularly good shape personally during this period—his first marriage was falling apart—but musically, he was at a high point.
When the tour began, in October 1975, his brilliant Blood on the Tracks, which appears to have been heavily influenced by his marital troubles, had been out for about nine months. Sessions had just been completed for the follow-up, Desire, which would be released in January 1976. From Blood, this box includes versions of “If You See Her, Say Hello,” “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” Desire is even better represented, with readings of seven of its nine songs: “Sara,” “Hurricane,” “Isis,” “Joey,” “Oh, Sister,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” and “Romance in Durango.”
There’s much more. Dylan digs through his then already-extensive catalog for classics like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “I Shall Be Released,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” He throws in some obscure originals, such as “Patty’s Gone to Laredo,” which previously appeared only in the film Renaldo and Clara, and “Hollywood Angel.” There are also a handful of covers, including “The Tracks of My Tears” from Smokey Robinson (whom Dylan has called “America’s greatest living poet”) and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (often the show closer, with verses sung by the likes of Baez, McGuinn, Elliott, and Mitchell).
As suggested earlier, this is not a collection for the casual listener who wants a succinct tour summary. Some of the rehearsal performances end abruptly mid-song, and well over a dozen tunes each appear four or more times in rehearsal and concert versions. But typical of Dylan, every rendition is different—sometimes very different—and serious fans will savor the musicians’ improvisation and chatter during the rehearsals as well as the lyrical and musical changes throughout. A rehearsal reading of “If You See Her, Say Hello,” for example, features almost entirely different lyrics from the ones that surfaced on Blood on the Tracks; and there are all sorts of departures from the well-known studio recording of that album’s “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Bottom line: evidence of Dylan’s genius is all over the place on these 14 discs. And if his music means a lot to you, so will this box.
Chip & Tony Kinman, Sounds Like Music. This is actually an anthology of work by four bands from the 80s and 90s: Blackbird, the Dils, Rank and File, and Cowboy Nation. But it’s also a Chip and Tony Kinman collection, because they led all of those groups, and wrote nearly all of these 22 tracks, none of which have previously been released. In a press release, Chip Kinman notes that the record is “full of our revolutionary fervor, full of our resistance to trends and more importantly to what we had done before.” You won’t argue with that assessment after listening to this diverse music, which embraces everything from country to punk, and from pop to electronica. Some of the Kinmans’ experiments work better than others, but the ones that hit their mark are memorable. The synthesizer-driven “Dream On” is, well, dreamy, and a cover of Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl” is sublime.
Willard Gayheart, At Home in the Blue Ridge. Talk about late bloomers! This is Willard Gayheart’s first album, and he’s 87. Don’t mistake him for a neophyte, though: he has been making bluegrass and old-time music for decades and, in fact, was a big influence on his granddaughter, Dori Freeman, whose own terrific debut and sophomore releases showed up in 2016 and 2017. Dori sings backup on this CD, which, like her records, was produced by Teddy Thompson (son of Richard). Willard Gayheart wrote all but two of the songs on this homespun 11-track collection, which features excellent fiddle and mandolin work by Dori’s dad, Scott Freeman.
Meghan Hayes, Seen Enough Leavers. This third album from Nashville-based singer/songwriter Meghan Hayes follows the end of a 20-year marriage; and if you read the bio on her website, you’ll see that divorce is just one of many reasons why she’s not exactly looking ecstatic on the cover photo: among other things, she mentions a chronic brain injury, mental illness, and “a deep gulf of despair.” But it sounds as if music may be her salvation: the lyrics on this heartfelt, introspective self-penned album certainly exude sadness and bitterness at times but they also convey a sense of her resilience and recovery. Hayes’s pop/folk melodies (which also owe debts to country) are seductive, and so is her rich soprano.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.