I’ve been listening to a selection of recordings from Bob Dylan’s ‘Rolling Thunder’ tour of 1975/1976 – specifically the Providence, Rhode Island gig from 4/11/75 and the May 1976 gigs from New Orleans (3/5) & Fort Worth (16/5).
The Rolling Thunder Revue was actually an extraordinarily productive vehicle for Dylan in particular, generating a live album (‘Hard Rain’), a TV special and a feature film (‘Renaldo & Clara’) but also for others as well – Joan Baez’ career got a much-needed shot in the arm, Sam Shephard produced ‘The Rolling Thunder Logbook’ and backing musicians Steven Soles, T-Bone Burnett and David Mansfield decided to carry on working together as The Alpha Band.
Ragged but rowdy; the 1975 RTR in full flow with Dylan slapping on the white pancake…
The RTR arose out of the recordings for Dylan’s ‘Desire’ album, which was released in January 1976 inbetween the two legs of the tour. Musicians like Scarlet Rivera, Howie Wyeth and Rob Stoner had worked on this album and were joined by Soles, Burnett & Mansfield for informal jam sessions in New York City after the recordings were pretty much done & dusted. Other guests like Baez and Roger McGuinn showed up and Ronee Blakely was drafted in to re-record ‘Hurricane‘ for the ‘Desire’ album and then for the tour.
Dylan had not been out on the road since touring with The Band in 1974 and was apparently looking for a less formal structure, where performers would show up almost at random and collaborate with one another. The ‘Fall of 1975’ tour was essentially a northeastern event, with a haphazard ‘caravan’ of performers travelling like a carnival between large and small venues from Canada down the northeastern seaboard to a culminating prestige gig at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 8/12/75.
Musically, the tour featured a few surprises with guitarist Mick Ronson drafted in to play raucous electric lead on some of Dylan’s rockier songs and offering a notable counterpoint to Scarlet Rivera’s gypsy violin and the country-tinged playing of the remaining musicians. Joni Mitchell dropped in to play one date and stayed on for several, Dylan & Baez renewed their duetting of Newport days with great versions of songs like ‘Deportee’, Railroad Boy’ and ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’.
Famous friends : McGuinn, Mitchell and Baez on stage with the RTR, 1975
The Madison Square Garden gig in December was attended by many of the great and the good. Roberta Flack and Muhammad Ali were there to lend support to the whole Hurricane Carter bandwagon and John Prine and Bruce Springsteen were backstage to pick the great man’s brains. 14,000 New Yorkers showed up as well.
In the New Year, the whole package moved south, partly to raise awareness about Hurricane Carter and partly (let’s face it) to promote ‘Desire’. New supporters were found – notably that well-known Texan raconteur and wit, Kinky Friedman with his faux-country Texas Jewboys band. Having played a Carter Benefit in Houston during January, Dylan then rehearsed in Florida before heading out on the road in April with a revised set of headgear (pirate bandanas rather than hats this time, and not so much of the white pancake make-up) and a revised show.
The RTR on stage in 1976
Conventional wisdom about the 1976 Southern tour was that it lacked the sparkle and spontaneity of the previous leg. However, the recordings I’ve been listening to would tend to explode that theory. Baez and Dylan are in fine form during their duet segment and other highlights include T Bone Burnett singing a new song called ‘Silver Mantis’. Overall, the band sound coherent where they’d sounded a trifle ragged at times before. Despite this, there’s no doubt that ticket sales for this leg were slow and the tour meandered westwards into May before grinding to a halt after a gig in front of a half-full auditorium in Salt Lake City.
Dylan wouldn’t appear on stage again until The Band’s Farewell Concerts in San Francisco the following November.