I've had a life-long love affair with Bob Dylan's music. I own all of it on LP and CD, I've seen him maybe six or seven times. His live shows can be very hit or miss, but easily the best one for me was at Madison Square Garden in 1975 when Dylan toured with the Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour had a circus-like, even chaotic vibe -- anything could happen.
So when I heard that Columbia was going to release The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, a 14-disc box set, my ears perked up. For Dylan fans who missed the event the first time around the box will be a feast for their ears. The collection features 148 tracks, 100 of which were previously unreleased.
If that's too much Dylan, watch the "Rolling Thunder Revue – A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese" documentary due on Netflix on June 12 (it's a companion piece to the box set).
Either way, you can tell Dylan was having a great time on this tour, even more than I remembered from other shows I've seen or his other live recordings. He's really connecting with the crowds; the recordings really do capture the energy of the performances. The Rolling Thunder band included T Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bobby Neuwirth, Scarlett Rivera, Ronee Blakely, Steven Soles, David Mansfield, Rob Stoner, Howie Wyeth and Luther Rix. Poet Allen Ginsberg and Joni Mitchell were also on board for portions of the tour. Sound quality is very decent, very live, with a "you are there" atmosphere.
Dylan's vocals are strong, assured, and the band is right there for him. His music feels more potent than ever before, and that's saying a lot. The first three CDs are rehearsals recorded at New York's S.I.R. studios and the Seacrest Motel in Falmouth, Massachusetts, plus there's a bonus disc of one-of-a-kind performances from the tour. Sadly, at least half of music that was rehearsed was never performed at the concerts, so I'm thrilled to have the tunes here.
My biggest complaint about the box is the concert set lists don't vary all that much, so there are multiple versions of tunes from his then-latest release, Desire -- which was very decent ,though not top-tier Dylan -- and Blood on the Tracks, which was his best album of the 1970s. However, there is a good mix of acoustic and electric songs in each concert. Every show opens with When I Paint My Masterpiece and closes with This Land Is Your Land.
Duets with folk singer Joan Baez on some of Dylan's best '60s tunes – Blowin' in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin' and I Shall Be Released -- burn bright. Sound quality has an immediate, very live feel, but it's uneven from disc to disc. Still, all are very listenable.
I can't say this box set's packaging is lavish, but on the upside it's a rather compact box as far as 14-disc boxes go. The 52-page booklet's essays and photos are terrific. If the 14-disc set doesn't tempt you, there are 2-CD and 3 LP versions called Bootleg Series Volume 5, with a good sampling of the Rolling Thunder concert recordings.