In 1975, with his classic Blood on the Tracks album behind him, Bob Dylan decided once again to change the rules of the game. Instead of a typical concert tour, he assembled a traveling musical caravan that he dubbed the Rolling Thunder Review, which featured Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Mick Ronson (Bowie's right-hand man circa Ziggy Stardust), and Byrd-man Roger McGuinn, who, traveling by bus, would play four-hour concerts with minimal advance promotion.
Until this latest addition, the only legit document of the Rolling Thunder Review was the murkily recorded, hit-and-miss disc Hard Rain. Though often bootlegged, Live 1975 captures Dylan at what could be the peak of his powers in the '70s with performances in Quebec and Massachusetts.
Whereas in recent years he's been accused of phoning in his live performances, Dylan's singing here is passionate and committed. One could hardly blame the man if he did do a throwaway or perfunctory version of the golden oldie "Mr. Tambourine Man," but Dylan's pensive, wise version here is analogous to the difference between a starry-eyed romantic ballad sung by the Sinatra in the '40s to those sung by the crooner in the '60s -- his growth from cocky, hip romantic to the wistfully reflective Chairman of the Board. He also belts out "Isis" and "It Takes a Lot to Laugh" with an urgent yowl, driven like a character directed by Sam Peckinpah, while the band rages behind him.
Joan Baez' pungent, gospel-shaded harmonies on "Blowin' in the Wind" are a high point, as is the rollicking dobro and pedal steel-equipped old-school treatment of "Mama You've Been on My Mind." The backing band, including T-Bone Burnett, David Mansfield, and Scarlet Rivera (whose violin wails and cuts on "Isis"), is a tad coarse and ragged, but in a good way, adding bite and vigor to the songs and accenting their humanity.
Not everything here works, though. "Love Minus Zero" and "Tangled Up in Blue" sound a bit half-hearted, and we can do without the propagandizing of "Hurricane." But that's only a few songs out of this 2-CD set. This edition of The Bootleg Series will put hardcore Dylan fans in orbit, and should enlighten younger listeners of the alt-country/Americana sound.
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