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Life Is a Carnival: What Bob Dylan Rediscovered on the Rolling Thunder Revue

Dylan’s mid-’70s tour of smaller venues has been memorialized in a new Netflix documentary from Martin Scorsese, as well as an overwhelming 14-CD box set that points back to the singer’s folk persona and peerless songcraft

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Bob Dylan always had a bit of carny in him.

Check out the unfettered joy with which he describes the outré acts he would see growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, in his 2004 memoir Chronicles:

“Livestock shows and hockey games, circuses and boxing shows, traveling preacher revivals, country-and-western jamborees… Once a year or so, Gorgeous George would bring his whole troupe of performers to town: Goliath, The Vampire, The Twister, The Strangler, The Bone Crusher, The Holy Terror, midget wrestlers, a couple of lady wrestlers and a whole lot more. … Crossing paths with Gorgeous George was really something ...”

Within these formative moments, deep in Dylan’s consciousness, perhaps the embryonic notion of the Rolling Thunder Revue first took root. It required 15 hard-fought years in the music business to make his own traveling circus possible, but in the autumn of 1975 he packed a couple of buses full of hand-picked compatriots and repaid the debt of his youth to small-town America.

Between October 30 and December 8 of that year, his motley ensemble played 31 shows in 23 cities, mainly at intimate theaters in off-the-grid towns in New England. Ticket prices were kept low and venue sizes small, to the annoyance of his business managers. Dylan’s version of The Bone Crusher, The Holy Terror, and Goliath were gigantic names in the music business: Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Mick Ronson, and others. It was a perverse and romantic gesture from one of the world’s biggest rock stars—people thought so even at the time—and it seemed to pass by in a dream. But it was real, and we have the music to prove it.

The compelling mythos and famous optics aside—the spectacle of Dylan in a flower-covered bowler hat and vaudeville pancake makeup cannot be unseen—what does the music sound like? We already know quite a bit about that from 2002’s invaluable Bootleg Series, Vol. 5, the first official audio document of the ’75 tour. That two-disc set validated the fantasies of many Dylan aficionados who had tried feverishly to conjure what those nights were like. To a remarkable extent, the sound of the Rolling Thunder Revue was very much the exquisite expression of the tour’s utopian ideals: immersive, collaborative, energetic, off-the-cuff, and yet ballasted at each turn by the solid rock of Dylan’s peerless songcraft.

On a newly released box set, a companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s new Rolling Thunder documentary, we hear more—much more. The 14-CD set (!) runs a total of 632 minutes, and raises the question of what reasonable person under any circumstances would have the time to take it all in. Look, folks: My Dylan nerddom takes a back seat to nothing. I like to have conversations about whether Under the Red Sky is criminally underrated or fantasize about what it would have been like if Elvis Costello had accepted the role of producer on Infidels. I mean, I really have problems. But 14 discs, no matter how undoubtedly magnificent they are, I simply cannot walk you through.

What I can do is relay some of the highlights of the pared-down sampler Columbia Records has made available on streaming services, and report that the charms are more than considerable. The 10-song appetizer begins with the assembled talent finding their way in rehearsals and concludes with the powerhouse unit tearing through numbers on the tour’s final dates.

During the rehearsals, a beguiling, halting take on the rarely performed Blood on the Tracks weeper “If You See Her, Say Hello” is abetted greatly by the gypsy-tinged violin of Scarlet Rivera. As he often does, Dylan changes up the original lyrics to poignant and comic effect: “She might wonder where I am by now / If she don’t know, let her guess.” Also fascinating is a tentative practice run through the Nashville Skyline chestnut “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which will ultimately take the shape of a rollicking set list highlight. There is a giddy thrill to hearing these great players lock in to their mysterious groove.

On stage, the near-glam arrangement of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”—featuring lead playing from former Bowie/Spiders From Mars guitarist Ronson—clearly tips its cap to Bryan Ferry’s souped-up cover from two years previous, and the irreverence is delightful. A similarly energized stomp through the Desire track “Isis” at the Montreal show is menacing and inviting in all the right measures, its ancient tale of lost love and grave robbing dedicated to “Leonard ... if he’s still here.” (It remains unknown whether Bob’s frenemy Leonard Cohen had bailed early.)

In musical terms, the Rolling Thunder concerts represented Dylan’s conscious corrective to his previous year’s tour with The Band—a forced march; 40 concerts in 43 days in impersonal stadiums and arenas had left a bad taste in Dylan’s mouth. The music from that tour, captured on the two-CD live set Before the Flood, was forceful to be sure, but occasionally perfunctory and unsubtle in the extreme.

On Rolling Thunder, Dylan sought to experience the texture of his audience and bandmates again. The close-quartered intimacy of the tour was part gimmick and part carefully plotted musical strategy. You hear this on a revelatory take on the John Wesley Harding prayer “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” which is transformed from a solitary meditation into an ebullient singalong with his partner-in-history Joan Baez and elevated by an out-of-nowhere flamenco flourish.

You hear it especially on a moving full-band version of his social-realist narrative “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a mournful ballad in its initial incarnation, here revived as a populist rebuke against the entrenched forces of exploitation: “You who philosophize disgrace / And criticize all fears / Take the rag away from your face / Now ain’t the time for your tears.” On the original, those grim words are sung as karmic wish fulfillment. Here they sound like a warning.

Dylan is, of course, a magnificent performer. In his early days, he embodied and then transcended the folk traditions of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, channeling their legacies to a nearly eerie extent as he became a mesmerizing solo act. Later, when he had enough of all that, he helped usher in the era of heavy rock and blues through his recruitment of the Hawks, playing shows that had no precedent in terms of pure speed and volume. The Rolling Thunder Revue is a reckoning of these impulses: Its pastoral instrumentation and emphasis on material both very new at the time and very old suggests a re-engagement with his folk persona. Shows often culminated with a joyous all-hands-on-deck rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

But the urgency and deep sense of fraternity he clearly derives from fellow musicians is crucial as well. Absent is the amphetamine-addled vituperation of his famous 1966 shows, replaced with a different but very palpable energy, driven by a profound communion with audience and players alike. In a 50-year career as unlikely any in history, Dylan has recast his music in a dozen inimitable and surprising ways. The Rolling Thunder Revue’s beautiful, unreplicable, crazy-quilt mix of folk, country, glam rock, and proto-Americana sounds like nothing he’s done before or since. Mostly, it sounds like joy.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.