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As regular readers of the newsletter know, I usually jump around between shows and eras. But, for the next few weeks, we're going to do something a little more specific: Follow the entire 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, show by show, for its 45th anniversary.
The Rolling Thunder Revue has been written about plenty, lord knows. The avalanche of coverage last year around the Scorsese "documentary" and accompanying box set might have wearied people of Rolling Thunder. But it's my favorite Dylan tour - the title of this newsletter comes from a Rolling Thunder bootleg - and I'm taking a different approach.
By following the tour show by show, we're going to look at the micro rather than the macro. There will be limited discussion of "what did it all mean, man…" Hopefully, if you follow along, you can suss out what it all meant yourself. Though inevitably I’ll touch on the filming for Renaldo & Clara and assorted extracurricular hijinks, the starting point will always be the music made onstage each night.
And not just the music by Bob Dylan either; when possible, I'll be including recordings of the entire show. As rich as the material in last year's box set was, it was only a fraction of the music made each night, leaving out the non-Dylan sets by regulars from Joan Baez to Joni Mitchell and special guests from Arlo Guthrie to Gordon Lightfoot. Luckily, a lot of that was taped, and none of it has been officially released. Subscribe here to follow along:
One note for regular readers, there will be a slight format change for this series. The main text will be as discursive as you've come to expect, sometimes tied to the specific show and sometimes looking at other Rolling Thunder matters (that includes some interviews too!). But since I do want to follow the specifics of the individual shows, I'm adding a second section breaking down the goings-on each night.
And we'll start that now, with opening night in Plymouth, Massachusetts, 45 years ago today…
Rolling Thunder I: Plymouth
Plymouth Memorial Hall offered the platonic ideal of a Rolling Thunder venue: Tiny, old, ramshackle, out-of-the-way. Venues would soon get bigger, causing no end of grumbling that the tour had betrayed its ideals, but it started in the perfect place. Here's what journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, along to cover the tour for Rolling Stone, writes about it in his essential Rolling Thunder memoir:
There was a certain humility and reverence mixed with a pinch of arrogance in choosing this place to kick off the tour. This was one of the first settlements of the New World after all, the first place the Pilgrims touched down and started the great experiment that more than two hundred years later was still alive if somewhat shaky. And for Dylan and company, it was the perfect place to make their new beginning, to kick off their caravan, to bring to the people in as direct and unimpeded a manner as possible the messages that sustained and fed our culture through the ’60s and which power the sounds of the ’70s. It was to be Plymouth Rock for the bicentennial. The symbolic significance aside, a town with a population under twenty thousand ain’t a bad place to break in the act before you hit Boston and Montreal.
Down the road from Walgreen’s is the Plymouth Memorial Auditorium. An old imposing building, lots of nice woodwork, seating about 1,800 at most, including the sea of folding chairs that have been set up on the basketball court floor. The place had been rented the previous week by Barry Imhoff’s advance men, Jerry Seltzer and Jacob Van Cleef, for the staggering sum of $250 a night. At first, they told the Plymouth authorities it was to be a Joan Baez concert, but then word was leaked on some local radio stations and Seltzer and Van Cleef started distributing handbills, which featured ornate Wild West show logos and photos of Dylan, Neuwirth, Elliot, and Baez under the Rolling Thunder Revue banner. And the tickets started getting snapped up in this predominantly working-class town, even at $7.50 a shot. So as we pull up to the auditorium a good hour before showtime the handwritten sign on the red brick edifice spells it out: BAEZ-DYLAN CONCERTS BOTH PERFORMANCES SOLD OUT.”
N/A for the first show obviously, but this does mark the live debut of a bunch of Desire songs, two months before the album would come out: "Romance In Durango," "Isis," "Oh, Sister," "Hurricane," "One More Cup Of Coffee," "Sara." They would morph some as the tour went along - “Isis” especially would get increasingly crazed - but they come out of the gate pretty polished.
It also marks the second-ever "When I Paint My Masterpiece," performed as a high-energy duet between the Two Bobs (Dylan and Neuwirth) which would kick off the Dylan portion of every show. Also of interest: A reworked "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" would soon become a tour regular, but this is the only night the song got performed as a duet between Bob and Joan.
Minimal from Dylan, but I like Joan Baez's comment after Bob leaves and her solo set begins: "That kid is talented." Then she plays her hit song about Dylan, "Diamonds and Rust," which she would perform every night. Ballsy.
None for opening night, though, of course, if you went expecting a regular Bob Dylan concert, it might look like a lot of special guests. Performing their own mini-sets this and most other nights: Bob Neuwirth, T-Bone Burnette, Rob Stoner, Steven Soles, Mick Ronson, Ronee Blakley, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, and Roger McGuinn. No Joni Mitchell yet, but she’ll join soon enough.
“Dylan sang 16 songs in superbly effective style, as forceful as the last tour but with a newfound mellowness, too… For a loose group of jammers the performances were remarkably tight, as was the stage business." - New York Times
“Dylan was for real, and two packed houses loved him... The I-can’t-believe-this-is-Memorial-Hall crowd was jubilant.” - Old Colony Memorial
"It was evident in the opening moments of the show that this crazy-quilt tour and its music — 'the new sound is Plymouth rock,' was an often heard comment — was working… There was none of the forced ambiance of the last Dylan tour with its sofas and Tiffany lamps onstage. All the tour participants — Elliott, Blakley, McGuinn, Neuwirth, Baez, Dylan — got their moment in the spotlight." - Rolling Stone
What'd they do before the show?
Rehearsed! First at the Studio Instrument Rentals (S.I.R.) in New York for a week or so, then where the band was staying at Seacrest Motel in nearby North Falmouth, MA, for a few days before the show. Many recordings from those rehearsals appeared on last year's box set. The evening before opening night is the Mah Jong performance at the hotel that was featured in the Scorsese doc.
The day of this show, they also some photo-shootin’ around town with tour photographer Ken Regan. Bob would use one of the images for the Desire album cover. Here are a few outtakes:
Renaldo & Clara footage
None. The camera crew didn't show up until the second night.
What's on the tape?
Almost all of Dylan's set, just missing part of "Just Like a Woman" and the closing "This Land Is Your Land," plus the Baez/McGuinn interlude. None of the opening songs by the band who dubbed themselves Guam were taped, unfortunately, so we can't hear the first moments of the Rolling Thunder Revue. None of the show has been officially released.
I'll link sources about the individual shows where possible in the newsletters, but for this first one let me shout out the obvious, essential Rolling Thunder resources, from which I will be drawing a bunch throughout:
Larry "Ratso" Sloman, On the Road with Bob Dylan
Sam Shepard, The Rolling Thunder Logbook
Sid Griffin, Shelter From the Storm: Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Years
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story on Netflix
Renaldo & Clara (up on Vimeo…for now)
*** More info on the book here… ***