Rolling Thunder Rolls Again

1976-04-18, Civic Center, Lakeland, FL

As those of you who were reading this newsletter in the fall will remember, I went through every single Rolling Thunder 1975 show (if you joined more recently, they're all archived here). And 45 years ago today, the second and final leg of Rolling Thunder kicked off. You know what that means…

Not that much, actually. Sorry.

I did consider going show-by-show through the entire tour again. But a couple things worked against that. One, selfishly, I've been enjoying jumping around and trying out new formats in this paid-newsletter era, and putting that on hold for the better part of two months felt like a bummer. 

The second reason though was the deciding factor. A big part of the fall run, as important as the music made on stage (my favorite Dylan shows ever), was what happened off stage. Endless hijinks, shenanigans, controversy, and drama, much of it captured on film for Renaldo and Clara. The 1976 tour still has top-notch music - a hair below 1975, in my view, but still great - but has nothing like the offstage activity.

The main reason was Dylan himself. Everyone I interviewed in the fall who was on both tours described him as a totally different person the second go-round. Here's a sample, each linked to the full interviews I did:

There was a magic to the first leg of the tour. There was a great sense of harmony amongst all the players. Although the music was as good on the second leg, I think it was a little bit less harmonious. Some element of tension wove itself in that wasn't there in the first one. Perhaps it was because Bob was going through his divorce or maybe there was some more tension with the guitar players and the band. I don't know. There was a little bit less of that magic fairydust glow on the second one for me. - Scarlet Rivera

It shouldn't have happened, honestly. A good thing happened and then they tried to recreate it in a different space and it didn't work. It just wasn't the same. Nobody felt the same way about it. They should have stopped and just left it at the one. - Chris O'Dell

All of that mood stuff in the band is always set by the main guy. The train follows the locomotive. And the locomotive was dragging, discouraged. - Rob Stoner

The first part of the tour was unbelievable. It was idyllic. It was romantic. We were all having a wonderful time, and Bob was very happy. The second part of the tour, he was like a different person. I mean, he was great on stage. There was no point in time that he wasn't really good. But he wasn't a happy camper. You know, everything starts at the top, and it filters through. And that was the case on the second tour. - Claudia Levy

It was a totally different vibe. Bob was very serious and he was totally into it. You can see in some of those concerts - the footage from the Hard Rain concert in Colorado, I think is amazing footage, just amazing. I think that tour, the performances were in some cases more intense than they were relaxed. It was a different atmosphere, but the shows were great. - Louie Kemp

Great music on stage, bad vibes off. There were occasional Rolling Thunder '75-esque outings - Kinky Friedman's parents' house, Bobby Charles' ranch for an alligator cookout - but far fewer. So instead of doing every show, I'll dip in and out, checking in a few more times over the next two months. This first one will be open to all; the others will be for paid subscribers only.

Since the main thing about 1976 is the music - and since this first show looks and sounds shockingly different than anything we saw in 1975 - I thought we'd look at it song-by-song. As those of you who have subscribed for a while know, I usually avoid this setlist deep-dive approach. I find it often pretty tedious to write (and, I’d imagine, read): "And then Bob did this and then Bob did this and then Bob did this…" But this show, so strikingly different than what came before, I find more interesting to look at that way. So consider the below a little guide while you listen along. Download's at the bottom, as always.

The tour kicked off in Lakeland, Florida, on April 18, 1976 - a notable date for reasons we’ll get to. The band had been camped out in Florida for some time rehearsing in a hotel ballroom (Rob Stoner talks more about that in our first interview). They even tried to tape a TV special in that ballroom a few days after this kickoff show, but Bob scrapped it. The famous Hard Rain television special Kemp mentioned, taped near the end of the tour was a re-do. The songs on the even-more-famous album of the same name come from both that Fort Collins show and a Fort Worth show the week before. Shoulda called the album Maggie’s Forts.

But, a full month before the recordings that most people know, the whole thing started off in Lakewood, Florida with…

1. Visions of Johanna

Opening a show with "Visions of Johanna" - hell, opening an entire tour with it - is a bold move. He's only ever opened one other concert with "Visions" that I can find, a random one-off in 1989. I was hoping for a killer full-band arrangement like Rolling Thunder II offers for so many other '60s songs, but it's solo acoustic. Too bad; a scorching '76-band version of "Visions" would be a hell of a thing. Still, Bob making his unusual entrance with a seven-minute "Visions" must have been pretty amazing to see. Especially after an hour-plus of mostly-loud sets from the Guam backing band (which I’m skipping here - no recording of the non-Bob portions - but may get into in a future installment).

2. If You See Her, Say Hello

One big difference between '75 and '76: Last fall, he opened every show with a roar on "When I Paint My Masterpiece." In ‘76, the band will eventually roar, but not immediately. Each show opens with a pair of solo songs. This is the first time he ever played “If You See Her, Say Hello” - “first time he ever played” will be a theme today - and one of only two times he did on the tour.

"If You See Her" also introduces another Rolling Thunder II theme: Blood on the Tracks songs rewritten to be way meaner. Not a single verse he sings here was on the original album. Most of the new verses are great, but the one you see cited the most arguably pushes the bounds of good taste:

If you're making love to her, watch it from the rear 
You'll never know when I'll be back, or liable to appear 
For it's natural to dream of peace as it is for rules to break 
And right now I've got not much to lose, so you'd better stay awake

3. Vincent van Gogh

Solo songs behind him, the full-band portion opens similar to '75, with a duet between the two Bobbys: Dylan and Neuwirth. The difference is, of course, that those opened with a song everyone knew (“Masterpiece”) and now the band is opening with a song no one knew.

"Vincent Van Gogh" was written by Robert Freimark. Who? Robert Freimark was apparently Bobby Neuwirth's art teacher (what, Bob wouldn't give him Norman Raeben's phone number?). Hence the dude writing a song about a painter. I can’t find any evidence of him recording, or even writing a second song. Neuwirth, Dylan, and Kris Kristoffersen fleshed it out with some lines of their own. Wonder who came up with the so-stupid-it’s-great pun "Where did Vincent Van go?"

4. Weary Blues from Waiting

Debuting your new sound with two covers is a bold choice. At least this one a few people in the crowd might know; it's an old Hank Williams tune. "Vincent van Gogh" would continue to open the band portion at most '76 shows, but "Weary Blues" was a one-off. Dylan never played it in concert before or since (though he and Joan did sing it offstage in 1965, which was recorded for Don't Look Back). At subsequent shows he'd go right from "Vincent" into…

5. I'll Be Your Baby Tonight

Last fall, Rolling Thunder I exploded out of the gate from Dylan's very first song. What's striking listening to this is how gently Dylan eases into Rolling Thunder II. Anyone who's heard the Hard Rain live album might use adjectives like "fiery," "aggressive," even "violent" at times. But the whole thing starts with a couple acoustic songs, then a couple folky covers, and now a pleasant country version of a pleasant country love song. The only thing so far that really feels like the 1976 we know are those caustic "If You See Her" lyrics. An audience member could conceivably be imagining this would be a mellower version of the fall tour. In fact, it would be the exact opposite, starting with the next song.

6. Maggie's Farm

You might consider this as where Rolling Thunder II really starts. That's no hypothetical; Dylan placed this song in the first slot for the live album. The harder-edged sound defines the tour in many ways, and it's surprising it took so long to show up. He clearly agreed; by the end of the tour, he'd cut several songs to move "Maggie's Farm" up a few positions.

Bob’s recent tours don’t sound much like Rolling Thunder, but one unexpected echo is in this stop-start arrangement. In the last couple years, he’s done a similar approach on songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” where all of a sudden the band will cut out for a bit before crashing back in (here’s a taste).

7. One Too Many Mornings

A theme of the first Rolling Thunder was Dylan taking a number of his early folk songs - "Hard Rain," "It Ain't Me," "Hattie Carroll," etc - and giving them louder, faster band arrangements. "One Too Many Mornings" feels like the clearest echo of that here, albeit with Rolling Thunder II's usual harder edge. It also is the first time Scarlet Rivera's violin is prominent; she dominates the sound far less than she did in ‘75. That's one reason I slightly prefer the fall. You know how Deadheads would show up with "Let Phil sing!" signs? Someone should have showed up with a "Let Scarlet bow!"

For you lyric-change hawks out there, "One Too Many Mornings" also boasts a new half-verse at the end:

I've no right to leave
And you've no right to stay
We're just one too many mornings
And a thousand miles away

8. Seven Days

Yet another debut, and the first time anyone heard this song. The wider world wouldn't until the first Bootleg Series fifteen years later. That recording was taken from only three nights after this one, and it's remarkable how much the song improved in a short time. This debut feels sloppier, lacks the punch of the "official" version.

Incidentally, I’m working on a mammoth Best Dylan Covers list for Cover Me, and "Seven Days" has earned itself a few knockout covers, from Mountain, The Feelies, and the Jawhawks:

9. Railroad Boy

Another similarity to Rolling Thunder I: The mid-show Bob/Joan duets set. I have to say, out of all the duets they did between the two tours, “Railroad Boy” might be my favorite of the bunch. This version sounds like it's missing Joan's cool little finger-picked thing, which is one of the best parts of the song. Go watch the Hard Rain version if you don't remember what I'm talking about.

10. Wild Mountain Thyme

We're ten songs in, and “Wild Mountain Thyme” is the first song he played on the entire 1975 tour! Out of all 22 songs tonight, only three are repeats from Rolling Thunder I. And the first is followed quickly by the second:

11. Blowin' in the Wind

As the tour progressed, Bob perhaps bowed to audience expectation by moving this to the opening of the Bob/Joan sets. I kind of prefer making 'em wait for it. Another one where I kind of wish he’d let the full band take a crack at it rather than going the more obvious acoustic-duet route. That would have to wait until 1978.

12. I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Arguably the best of the Dylan/Baez duets on one of Dylan's own songs (overall, I’m still stanning “Railroad Boy”). Later on in the tour, they'd add Woody Guthrie's "Deportees," giving their duets an immigration theme, but for now “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” stands alone. I like Baez's wordless vocals that close the song, which I don't remember from other versions. Bob gives her a hearty "the great Joan Baez!" to end their set.

13. Shelter from the Storm

The first performance Dylan ever gave of this song, and now the second song so far from Blood on the Tracks. Why is that notable? Because that's two more songs than Desire - ostensibly the album he's out promoting. Rolling Thunder did it backwards; the fall tour, which should have been pushing his new album Blood on the Tracks, was all not-yet-released Desire songs. Then the spring tour, when the audience would have actually known the Desire songs, Bob largely skips 'em and jumps backward to Blood on the Tracks. Not that these versions sound much like the folksy album, of course.

Here’s another notable thing about “Shelter”: Bob playing slide guitar, something he has almost never done. He’s no Duane Allman, but it adds a cool touch. Plus he plays it on one crazy-ass looking guitar. Here’s what the tour’s guitar tech Joel Bernstein said about it, from an old interview in The Telegraph fanzine (shoutout James Adams for digging this up for me):

That guitar was a terrible guitar. That was the first one I’d seen of those. It was in the shape of the USA. Bob called that guitar "Rimbaud". He had us put "Rimbaud" on it - we got a book of Rimbaud and cut out the name and attached it to the guitar. When he wanted that guitar, Bob would ask for Rimbaud.

I’d never realized it was shaped like America before, but I can kind of see it (though it looks like someone took a bite out of Arizona). He liked that insane guitar so much, he even dragged it around on the 1978 tour without actually playing it. He did pose for a Rolling Stone cover backstage, which is where the below photo comes from.

Watch Rimbaud in action from the Hard Rain show:

14. I Threw It All Away 

It's easy to read too much of Dylan's personal biography into his song choices (and fun too!), but one has to imagine him dusting off this Nashville Skyline deep cut was not entirely unrelated to his marriage collapsing around him. If you really want to read the tea leaves, what does it mean that he took out the line "I was cruel / I treated her like a fool" and swapped in "But what did I do / I let it all slip through"?

15. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues

I keep mentioning the Hard Rain album because that's how 90% of the world knows this tour. And for those that know a second recording, it's probably the longer Hard Rain concert film from the second-to-last show at Fort Collins. Between the two of them, you get a lot of the highlights of the 1976 sets. But to me, arguably the best song not on either is the ragged and raw "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," full of barrelhouse piano and scorching slide guitar, played by Dylan himself on Dylan must have disagreed with me about “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” though. Despite rehearsing it a bunch with the band, he only played it one other time on the entire tour. Perhaps the band mostly worked it up for this one show. Why this one? Because April 18, 1976 was Easter Sunday! In case anyone in the crowd missed the connection, at the end Bob repeated the opening line a cappella: “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter time too”

16. Mozambique

Whaddya know, a song from Desire! I bet people who showed up hot on Dylan's new album, only three months old at the time, were surprised it took so long to get to it. And - spoiler alert for those people - "Mozambique" will be it for the night. It’s one of the few Desire tracks Bob didn't play the previous fall, making this another in the growing list of first-timers. Later on he'd bring back "Romance in Durango," "Oh Sister," and "One More Cup Of Coffee" on occasion - and "Isis" often - but the first couple shows were almost entirely free of Desire.

17. Going, Going, Gone

"We've never done this one before," Bob announces before "Going, Going, Gone." True! Though if it sounds familiar, the arrangement is not dissimilar to At Budokan in 1978. For us ‘75 fans who miss Scarlet Rivera's violin being so prominent, this is another chance. I think this song sounds more like it could have come from the fall tour more than any other. (Well, except for the Bob/Joan duets that did come from the fall tour.)

18. Lay Lady Lay

Another of the tour's best-known rearrangements, again via Hard Rain. With its aggressive shouting and less-than-romantic new lyrics, "Lay Lady Lay" stops being a love song at all. "Forget this dance, let's go upstairs / Let's take a chance, who really cares?" I'm on record questioning whether "Lay Lady Lay" was ever that romantic in the first place, but this version throws even the pretense out the window. He commented on the new lyrics in a 1977 interview in Playboy (an appropriate outlet, in this case):

A lot of words to that song have changed. I recorded it originally surrounded by a bunch of other songs on the Nashville Skyline album. That was the tone of the session. Once everything was set, that was the way it came out. And it was fine for that time, but I always had a feeling there was more to the song than that.

(19. Silver Mantis)

As with Rolling Thunder I, there was a lot more to Rolling Thunder II than Dylan's sets. The show typically began with the backing band Guam rotating through their own songs and backing Kinky Friedman, replacing Ramblin' Jack Elliott in the token Gnarled Folkie slot. Then Dylan's first set, Roger McGuinn and Joan Baez sets in the middle, then Dylan's second set. Basically the same structure as the 1975 tour.

Here's the one change: T-Bone Burnett gets a second song right smack in the middle of Bob's second set. Does this mean Bob remained onstage playing guitar? If so, it would be the only song of either tour where he played second fiddle as an accompanist for someone else.

20. Idiot Wind

Another live debut, and what I think many would call the piece de resistance of Rolling Thunder '76. Maybe he needed that "Silver Mantis" vocal break to rest up his voice for this. It tops 11 minutes, Dylan hollering himself hoarse for every one of 'em. This version is notably slower than it would get later in the tour (including on Hard Rain), Dylan drawing out the full lacerating power of each syllable.

21. Knockin' On Heavens Door

The Rolling Thunder II shows didn't have an encore, but, spiritually, this feels like the encore. Two impassioned sets climaxing in an epic "Idiot Wind," encore break, then a couple feel-good sing-alongs to close things out (I realize "Knockin' On Heavens Door" is not strictly speaking a "feel-good" song, but it functions that way when Roger McGuinn and Bob are trading vocals and everyone's jollily singing the chorus, the one full-band holdover from 1975).

McGuinn gets in his own, extremely lame lyric change: "Mama can you hear that rock and roll / Can you feel it thundering through the floor / I feel like I'm playing in the Super Bowl / I feel I'm knocking on heaven's door." Oof. Shoulda asked Jacques Levy to help him polish that one.

22. Gotta Travel On

In the fall, from “Knockin’” they'd go into "This Land Is Your Land" for the big all-hands-on-deck finale, but Bob swapped it for "Gotta Travel On" the next tour. It's a song he'd loved for a while, first recording it on the so-called Karen Wallace tape way back in 1960. He recorded a version for Self-Portrait a decade later, but the song achieved its best version in the raucous sing-alongs that closed every Rolling Thunder II show.

Everyone who was around on a given night got a verse, with Joan throwing to ‘em with what sounds like no warming (in later shows, you can hear Joni Mitchell struggling to come up with something). Kinky Friedman steals the show here. From the recordings I've listened to, it sounds like he improvises a new verse every night. Tonight, following Joan Baez:

Joanie sang it first (x4)
I tried to sing it better
It only sounded worse
Gotta take this fucker home
And rehearse!

1976-04-18, Civic Center, Lakeland, FL