David Mansfield Breaks Down a Rolling Thunder Setlist
1975-11-24, Civic Center, Hartford, CT
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I love exploring the mythology that surrounds Rolling Thunder and learning all the behind-the-scenes stories. But the only reason I or anyone else cares about any of that is that, first and foremost, the music was so damn good. So I wanted to go deep song-by-song through a representative show, exploring the music, the arrangements, and what it was like to play each song with Bob and the band.
Who better to help me out than the man who played more instruments onstage than anyone else: David Mansfield. The baby of the tour, Mansfield was all of 19 when he signed on, yet he was, by all accounts, already one of the most talented players in the entire band. He occupied that “plays everything with strings” role Larry Campbell would many years later, playing pedal steel, violin, mandolin, and dobro (he could play guitar too, but figured, with what Rob Stoner referred to as “an army of guitar players” already, his six-string services weren’t needed).
I selected today’s show in Hartford, CT, and David gave me a guided tour of every song they played that night, as well as the other sets he played during. Here’s David in our song-by-song conversation:
Opening Guam Sets
I always had a soft spot for T-Bone's slot in the show. He would do a song he wrote called “Hula Hoop” or he did a song that Warren Zevon wrote called “Werewolves of London.” Everybody thought that T-Bone had written it, because that was way before Warren cut it. There was another he wrote called “Torture” that he used to do all the time. Whether they were the ones he wrote or that one that Warren wrote, they were just so smart and acerbic and hysterically funny. He had this cool Texas musical thing that was as much influenced by Jimmy Reed as The Beatles.
I was such a big Joni Mitchell fan. I had two vinyl copies of Blue. She was doing all songs that nobody had heard before, including one she wrote while she was on the road, “Coyote.” Her stuff wasn't really more challenging, even though it might have been sometimes harmonically a bit more complex. Dylan, Jack Elliott and Neuwirth had this way of playing the simple songs in a way that was so unpredictable that you had to be on your toes every second. It was actually quite musically challenging.
[On Rick Danko sitting in at today’s show:] I have such a strong memory of him on that tour. We used to do “It Makes No Difference” with him and an old Motown song. I think he did more than one show. He was extremely friendly and a real character. He was one of those people who just has no concept of personal space, and he’ll get right up three inches from your nose when he's talking to you.
The first time around there was never any talk of my doing a solo set. I wasn't a singer/songwriter and I didn't ask for a slot. I can't quite recall how it happened [on the second tour]. As they got to know me and saw what I did, I think someone just encouraged me that I should do something myself. It might have been Neuwirth; Neuwirth was always the great supporter and encourager and instigator.
I did [the Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass song] “Flint Hill Special” a lot in ‘76. I'd figured out this little way to do some of the banjo rolls on the pedal steel. I was just enamored with it and thought I might be able to pull it off. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't.
“When I Paint My Masterpiece”
It had this real carnival atmosphere about it, the sort of raggedy-ass circus arrangement that we played. Also the fact that Neuwirth and Dylan were singing harmony, and it was anybody's guess what note they might hit at any given point. Neither of them knows how to sing harmony, let's put it that way. Bobby is still one of my best friends and I'm saying that with all fondness.
I played mandolin on it and had a blast because I did all these chromatic lines in six. I was sort of imitating the way Garth [Hudson] played, which was a lot of fun. Compared to previous versions of that song, Bob revved the amps up on it. It had so much energy. He made this quirky, little mid-tempo song into a really exciting kinetic performance. It was lots of fun every night to be involved.
We had a director, Jacques Levy, so there were all sorts of theatrical elements, a backdrop and curtains going up and stuff. It wasn't just the usual musicians ambling on stage after all the amps have been heated up and guitars tuned. It really felt like a show. This arrangement of “Masterpiece” just made everybody feel like we were in for some special, unpredictable ride.
“It Ain’t Me Babe”
I was playing pedal steel guitar and I got to take a big solo that led up to Bob’s harmonica solo, which was really thrilling. I came up with this unorthodox, chime-y kind of solo that was a lot of fun to play. I was very young at the time. I probably chose many more notes to play than I would if I was older. One of the highlights of the evening for me personally.
[On how it got decided who would solo when:] As I recall, it just happened. There really wasn't anybody planning or directing anything, including Bob. He plays a song and the band just sort of falls in how they best can. Nobody is ever assigned to solo. Somebody steps out and it sticks. I mean, Rob would be in charge of count offs and cut offs and rehearsing the band when Bob wouldn't show up or would be late. Rob would sing the leads and we would go through the stuff, but it's still not the traditional music director position where you're handing out parts. It was all done totally by consensus and improvisation.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
This was the mid-'70s and everybody was using an effects pedal called a phase shifter. We had a lot of them. I mean, Ronson was using one and T-Bone was using one. I had an early phase shifter that just had three switches on it. If you pressed all three of them, it would go very fast and it'd sound sort of like an organ. I put that effect on my pedal steel and a lot of times would play way up high, which is sort of a tremolo-y kind of sound.
That was another song where, again, it's like Dylan was like spitting out the words. It was so filled with passion and vitriol that it was very exciting every night to play it. Just to be along for the ride.
“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”
I was playing pedal steel again. I played pedal steel a lot on the tour, because there was so many damn guitar players. It was like a shootout in the guitar store. It just was one way I could sonically fit into the palette. I certainly wasn't going to try and pick up a guitar. In fact, I think T-Bone was playing my guitar. It was a black Les Paul that I had brought to play and he ended up playing it. Also, Scarlett was around on violin, so I only played violin with other people like Jack Elliott or Bobby Neuwirth.
“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” was such a big number for us. I used to love playing on it because it was so intense. I got to do all kinds of dramatic effects on the pedal steel that were really fun.
They did that film, I'm Not There, a few years back. We did a concert at [the Beacon Theatre], and I played that song with My Morning Jacket. They obviously had learned the Rolling Thunder arrangement note for note. Jim James was totally channeling the intense, angry Bob from the '76 tour. It was really fun for one night to recreate that moment from the Rolling Thunder tour. It was a freakish time warp and also reminded me how much I love playing it.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
We did it as this jaunty, loping shuffle. It was very emblematic of the sound of that tour, the way we played that song. Brimming with energy and really kind of a big party. There were long stretches for Mick Ronson to just strangle his guitar. I always found ways to contribute fun bits to songs where I wasn't taking the solos. I remember shoehorning a lot of little fills into “Hard Rain” on the pedal steel and had lots of fun with that.
With my age, what I knew of Dylan was big radio hits or things that might have been iconic one way or the other. I'd never heard songs like “Hattie Carroll” before. I was not a huge Dylan fan. I didn't know that much of his work. It was probably better that way, because I would have been too intimidated if I had really known what a great writer he was. I was much more intimidated about meeting and playing with Roger McGuinn, because I'm a Byrds and Beatles baby.
“Romance in Durango”
Learning to play with him on songs like “Romance in Durango,” where he might just hold a note for four seconds sometimes just because he felt like it— it was really all about knowing how to stick like glue to what you're hearing and roll with any changes. After a while, we learned where the fermatas were and what the phrase lengths were and all that kind of stuff. It settled into a groove. I just remember that song being, at least in the beginning, really unpredictable.
That's one thing about not only Dylan, but playing with Jack Elliott, is that the phrase length in songs would not always be all that predictable. It was really kind of the old, strange folk music where you might drop a beat or add a beat at the end of a vocal line depending on how you felt. It really takes some getting used to, just getting the idea out of your head that it was going to be regular four-bar or eight-bar phrases that were always going to repeat the same way every time.
[On Scarlett playing the violin instead of himself:] I'm sure my ego was telling me, "Oh, yes, I should be playing the violin more" and stuff like that, but it really wasn't a big deal. At first, I probably had, to be honest, somewhat mixed feelings in that she didn't have a lot of classical technique. Then I quickly learned what everybody else did, that her parts just got under my skin. As time went on, I realized she'd really come up with perfect parts to these songs that in many cases were the hooks that helped drive the song.
I remember “Isis” more as a spectator than as a participant. Bob was really quite mesmerizing every night doing that song. He dramatically acted out the part as well as sung it. Every night it was electrifying. I just enjoyed being on stage to watch it.
“Dark As a Dungeon”
That was a song that I knew. I learned a lot about country music from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle be Unbroken record, and things like that. This great folk-country revival by people in the pop world. I don't remember whose version I heard of “Dark as a Dungeon,” but it was probably through something like that.
“Mama, You Been on My Mind”
I remember it being a band song but I don't remember too much where I played.
[On the tour’s much-hyped Bob/Joan reunion:] I was aware that was a big deal. I knew that they had been the king and queen. Joan was so playful with it all. The thing when she started mimicking him, wearing white face makeup and then the same clothes he was wearing. I knew that it was culturally significant in some way.
“Never Let Me Go”
I'd never heard of the song. I knew it wasn't one of his, I could tell that much. That was a fun one to play. I think I pretty much played some straight pedal steel parts on it.
“I Shall Be Released”
Those are the kinds of songs, the more popular ones, that I knew [before the tour]. It was thrilling to play something like that. All of those duo-set songs were just fun, witnessing the playful thing they were doing together and how much goodwill there seemed to be. The audience knew there was a very special moment. There was a lot of electricity around it.
Joan Baez Set
I think I had a little crush on her. Actually, I know I did. I was a little kid at the time. She was quite maternal towards me, and sweet. I remember one time standing at the side of the stage where she was doing her solo set. I was talking to McGuinn, saying, "I think I have a little crush on her." Roger goes, "Don't worry, David, when I was your age, I did too." On the other hand, some of the stuff that she did was so corny that I found myself uneasy around it. Like doing a song like “Please Come to Boston.” It was just so white bread.
As I got older, I got to appreciate Joan even more. I had never known Joan in her early career. I had never heard her sing “Bonny Barbara Allen” or “Butcher's Boy.” When she first came out, she was this kid. Many years later, I heard her voice on those early records and she was so vulnerable. Nothing like the full-throated folk diva that I met in 1975. I had a great time playing with her, even if some of the stuff rubbed me the wrong way a little bit.
Her earlier stuff, she was doing all that soprano stuff, but she wasn't singing as loud. She wasn't belting. She's not Ethel Merman or anything. She had a lot of chops as a guitar player and as a vocalist. I think when she was younger, she felt less compelled to display them in all their glory all the time. I loved playing that set with her because I was so enamored of her. For me, the best song of the set with the band was her song, “Diamonds and Rust.”
Roger McGuinn Set
It was a thrill. We did “Chestnut Mare” every night, which he'd co-written with Jacques, who had co-written Desire and was directing the show. So much of the Byrds’ work really was formative for me. That period where he played with Clarence White [was] particularly important, whether it was the original record of “Chestnut Mare” or the stuff that he had recorded on the live record with Clarence on electric guitar. It had become, in those couple of years, pretty iconic to me. It was very exciting to play on it, even though I was playing pedal steel and I would have much rather been playing guitar and do all the Clarence parts.
After the tour, a lot of people started to try and put together some projects in the wake of those tours, continuing the spirit. One of the projects that we tried to put together was a band with Howie, Rob, Ronson, me and Roger. I think we were going to call it Thunderbyrd. We rehearsed a lot at Howie's loft. Somehow, it never really gelled. It sounded like three songwriters being backed up by a house band. When we were playing one of Roger's songs, it was just like Roger's band, or one of Mick’s songs, like his band, or one of Stoner's, like his.
Roger had to deliver a record to Columbia. We all went out to LA and did that, and made a Roger record. Between the two things, trying to put a band together and making his record, we spent a lot of time together. I think it's safe to say we all felt really proud of that record, even though it sunk without a trace. It was called Cardiff Rose.
Long Offstage Break (for Dylan’s Solo Songs and the Stripped-Down Desire Band):
We were watching the show. People are were hanging out in the wings and watching it every night. I don't recall that anybody was going and hanging out in the dressing rooms. By the end of it, it was such a social scene. People brought their kids along. It's like, who wouldn't want to just keep hanging around the stage? Too much fun stuff going on.
“Just Like a Woman”
Those were all the kind of songs that I knew, of course. “Just Like a Woman” has been covered by so many people, besides. I knew the Richie Havens version. Our version of “Just Like a Woman” was reasonably straightforward. No radical surgery, like turning it into a mambo or something.
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
“Knockin' on Heaven's Door” was so much fun and so thrilling. It turned it into this iconic moment. Bob gave McGuinn a verse on it, and then we have this little instrumental breakdown part. I think Roger was picking some pattern on the 12-string, and I would do this chimey thing on the pedal steel guitar. It was very moving every night.
The reason why we had the band configured the way it was, really, it was all about Neuwirth. That band was basically the band that had formed at Neuwirth's club gig that summer in the Village. Whenever Bobby would get hired for a gig, he would flip out, and he would want to be supported by a million people. When he got that gig at the Other End, I think the first advance he got, he bought his friend's plane tickets like T-Bone, Steven Soles and our friend Cindy Bullens, who didn't go out on the tour. She ended up going out with Elton John instead. So his band would be filled with singer-songwriters.
“This Land Is Your Land”
We were pretty much elbow-to-elbow. It was a real updated hootenanny-style number. The only time that Allen Ginsberg was onstage. Why Bob didn't give him a slot to read a poem, I have no idea. It was a great, rollicking closer. It's also Bob touching all the areas of stuff that he owes a debt of gratitude to. Of course, one of them is Woody Guthrie. How can there be a Bob Dylan without a Woody Guthrie?
It was such a behemoth of a show. At its longest, I think the show was around four hours. It was a big letting-off-steam sing-along at the end, which is just what you need after a night like that.
Thanks to David for taking the time to talk! David remains extremely busy, hosting a live-stream series in his studio with the likes of Amy Helm and Richard Thompson and working on a new musical about Roy Rogers with T-Bone Burnett. Keep up with all his activities at https://www.david-mansfield.com/.
Rolling Thunder XVII: Hartford
I've actually seen several non-Dylan shows at the Hartford Civic Center - now the XL Center - and let me tell you it is extremely unmemorable. Maybe the arena was a little smaller back then, though; Wikipedia states it currently seats 16,282 for end-stage concerts, but local paper's review says this show drew "a capacity crowd of 11,837."
Any Connecticut residents might be interested in this overview I found of Bob's performances in the Nutmeg State. Of particular note is the Indian Neck Folk Festival gig in Branford, CT in 1961. That early gig sowed the seeds for this tour 14 years later: It was the very first time Bob Dylan met Bob Neuwirth.
A couple big changes in terms of new guests, but nothing new from the old performers. Bob's starting to play "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" during his sets a lot, a song he only played once during the first half of the tour. He had rehearsed it with the full band before the tour started; there's a 70-second clip on last year's box set and it sounds great. But he only performed it solo once the tour began.
Jacques Levy's wife told me one of the poets she and Bob first bonded over was Wallace Stevens. I cut that from our interview for space, but apparently I shouldn't have. A few days later and, before "Hattie Carrol," Bob says "I wanna dedicate this to Wallace Stevens from Hartford, a great renowned poet. Wherever you are now, we wish you the best of luck."
Bob also comments on cold weather making his voice sound hoarse after "Never Let Me Go." You can hear it a little in his singing there, but even more when he speaks. I'd guess doing five shows in four days before this show, with only one day off, is as responsible for his voice as the weather. By the time he's doing his solo acoustic songs, you can hear it more. It also sounds like he audibly coughs during "Sara."
After my whining recently that Rolling Thunder didn't really have that many surprise guests, they turn up the heat. Two special guests, and they each bring their own special guests.
First up, Rick Danko. Bob has dedicated "I Shall Be Released" to his Band-mate Richard Manuel pretty much every night, but Danko is the first Band member to appear at a Rolling Thunder show. He won't be the last. He did The Band's "It Makes No Difference" and "What a Town," a song that would kick off on his solo debut record in a couple years (I like this version better than that one). Allen Ginsberg made a rare onstage appearance, playing finger cymbals. It will probably not surprise you to learn they do not add much.
Joan Baez also brought an old friend from the Cambridge folk scene, Sandy Bull. He had been so MIA from the late '60s until 1974 struggling with drug problems that apparently many people assumed he was dead. He comes onstage with a good line too: "When you're waiting back there for half the show or more, you feel like you're going to have a multiple stroke, infantile paralysis, a heart attack, or all three." He then plays a song called "Rebecca Come And Live With Me, which he describes as influenced by Arabic music, Indian music, Puerto Rican music, country and western, and disco. According to a newspaper report, Joan and Joni Mitchell got onstage to dance along. He should have stuck around for more shows! Maybe then he could have busted out his ten-minute Chuck Berry cover.
One more guest: Kinky Friedman, dragged along by Ratso after much corralling. He doesn't get onstage - in fact he skips most of the show - but he does get a song dedicated to him by Neuwirth, and another semi-dedicated to him by Bob. "We're going to dedicate this to all the people in the house tonight from Texas," Dylan says before "Durango." This being in Connecticut, I’m guessing there was just the one. He'd join the tour for the 1976 run.
"A woman in the audience summed up the evening succinctly with an astonished comment: 'This is unbelievable!'" - J. Greg Robertson, Hartford Courant
"The best concert I've ever seen in my life… Dylan was clever to include Neuwirth, Burnette and Soles, a real triumvirate of dorks who merely highlights the excellence of everybody else. McGuinn was better than I've ever seen him, Joan Baez was stunning at times, Jack Elliott was enchanting, Joni Mitchell leaves me cold but she was pretty good." - Pete Frame, ZigZag
Renaldo & Clara footage
Renaldo & Clara was already off the rails if you believe Sam Shepard, ostensibly hired to write a script only to discover there would be no script. Here’s what he writes about this day in Hartford in his Rolling Thunder Logbook:
Feel myself nose diving into negativity. Just wanna go back home. Be in the mountains. Near horses. Near my woman. Back. The organization of the film has fallen into smithereens till it has no shape or sense. No way of planning a day’s shooting. Everything’s at the mercy of random energy. Ideas flying every which way but no plan. Meetings up the ass. Meetings in oval-shaped, U.N.-style conference rooms, so the sense of self-importance permeates you beyond control. More talk of shooting concerts. More talk on how to organize scenes. How to get Dylan into the picture. Sara. Joni Mitchell. Baez. It’s almost that the sheer overkill of available talent is busting us wide open. No one knows where to begin. No information is fed through a common source. Everyone wanders off to rooms, to dining rooms, to front desk, to rent-a-cars, to buses, to game rooms, to bars, to pools, to hospitality suites, to nowhere. Meeting ends. Snow is flying in Connecticut. Buses move out to Hartford concert. Rick Danko and Sandy Bull have joined up now. Like metal shavings on a magnet. My disinterest kills me. Why aren’t I blasting off with them to hear all that great music? I’ve heard it already. But it’s not that. It’s not having an ax. Being a backstage parasite. Running headless through the dressing rooms. Watching everyone get loaded. Dancing through packs of concert freaks with my plastic I.D. card bouncing from a silver neck chain. Getting the nod from security dudes. Grabbing handfuls of dried fruit, nuts, making notes as a means to stay sane. But I’m not. I’m cracking up behind this. My body quakes from it. This is truly being transported back to the mid-sixties when crystal meth was a three-square diet with “yellow jackets” and “black beauties” for chasers. Not just the sixties of the imagination but the actual body-and-mind sixties. The shattered feeling. I DON’T WANT TO GET BACK TO THE SIXTIES! THE SIXTIES SUCKED DOGS! THE SIXTIES NEVER HAPPENED!
What's on the tape?
Full show, so you can hear all of David’s many instruments.
Find the index to all shows covered so far here. Subscribe to get future newsletters delivered straight to your inbox here:
*** More info on the book here… ***