Rolling Thunder XIII: Worcester

1975-11-19, War Memorial Auditorium, Worcester, MA

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We’ve got a special guest writer today: Tyler Wilcox. Many of you will know Tyler’s writing. He runs the essential Doom & Gloom from the Tomb blog; his Never Ending Tour series there a few years back was an inspiration for this newsletter (he’s since done similar series on Neil Young and Lou Reed). He contributes to a bunch of places including Aquarium Drunkard (where he reviewed last year’s Rolling Thunder box set), Pitchfork, and Uncut; and is a great Twitter follow. Speaking of the Rolling Thunder box set, today’s show in Worcester marks the first show included in it. Over to Tyler…

Last year’s supersized Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set gave us three discs of worth of October 1975 tour rehearsals and warm-ups — an embarrassment of previously un-bootlegged riches that provide a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of Dylan and co. getting ready to bring the Revue to life. But then, we jump forward three weeks to this show at Worcester, MA’s Memorial Auditorium. What can happen in three weeks? Well, as Ray’s work has shown, a lot.

By the time the RTR rolled into Worcester, the musicians now known as Guam had found their footing; any tentativeness is long gone as they lean into these songs with both abandon and precision. They know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it with elegance and energy. A fact worth lingering on for a sec! Those aforementioned rehearsals are a delight, bringing a familial Basement Tapes vibe to the Rolling Thunder saga. But they’re also extremely loose. Ragged, even. Throughout, Dylan is as cool as a cucumber, laid-back and supremely chill. He doesn’t sound like a guy who’s too stressed about a concentrated stretch of touring ahead of him, during which he’d be playing with an untested group — a group that, after The Hawks/Band, was more or less the second long-term live band Bob had ever fronted. It begs the question: did Dylan know that this band could deliver? Did he wake up on the nights leading up to the tour filled with doubt? “What the fuck am I doing?”

Probably not. The Dylan of 1975 seems almost superhumanly confident, able to effortlessly create … well, if not order from chaos exactly, but art from chaos. He’d make the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue a success by sheer force of will. I’m reminded of the line from “Joey”: “When they asked him why it had to be that way, ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘just because.’”

And it feels like the confidence was contagious, as Guam eagerly follows Dylan over the falls. The Worcester set swaggers mightily, drunk on its own power but still in control. It’s not quite as off-the-rails and wild as it’d get in the upcoming weeks, but it’s getting there. The first set kicks off in usual fashion with a boisterous, boozy “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the Guam glam-country-rock sheen never more apparent as David Mansfield on mandolin trades licks with guitar hero Mick Ronson. “You had to be there!” Dylan exclaims in an aside at one point, but there’s nowhere else anyone would rather be. “It Ain’t Me Babe” is a dynamic re-imagining, with a rubbery rhythm that allows Dylan to sink his teeth into every syllable, hanging back and then lunging forward like the middleweight champion he’ll sings about later. And “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” has emerged as a showcase for drummer Howie Wyeth and bassist Rob Stoner, who dance nimbly around Dylan’s impassioned vocal. By the time Scarlet Riviera emerges from the wings for “Romance In Durango” (dedicated to Sam Peckinpah, natch) and “Isis,” the band is hotter than hot chili peppers in the blistering sun.  

So, it’s almost a shame that the spell has to be broken when Joan Baez pops up for her duets with Dylan. These are my least favorite Rolling Thunder moments; Joan and Bob have a weird chemistry, for sure, kinda singing across each other instead of singing with each other. But there are good moments in Worcester — especially the rollicking “Mama You Been On My Mind.” (Interestingly, a reviewer from Worcester Poly Tech claimed that Baez “totally stole the show” during her set. Alas, there’s no extant tape of that – or any of the other non-Dylan Nov. 19 performances.)

Only one solo acoustic tune tonight — a somewhat rushed version of “Tangled Up In Blue.” Impressive how disinterested Dylan was in promoting Blood on the Tracks, likely his most acclaimed LP since the 1960s. There’s fresher material to get to! The by-now-standard four-song Desire mini-set is terrific: “Oh Sister,” “Hurricane,” “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Sara.” This section of the ’75 Rolling Thunder shows is always a thrill, the smaller band setting giving Dylan a chance to rein in some of his shoutier tendencies. “Hurricane” is especially on point tonight — you can understand why the compilers selected it for inclusion in the original Rolling Thunder Bootleg Series back in 2002. But the magnetic, mysterious “One More Cup Of Coffee” is always my favorite; such a weird, dangerous song that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Once again, it’s by sheer force of will on Dylan’s part. No one else could pull it off. “This song comes from the underground,” he says by way of introduction, and you believe him.

From there, Dylan and the gathered musicians give us intense, mournful readings of “Just Like A Woman” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” the latter song benefitting from Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12-string. High drama! The closing “This Land Is Your Land” is a rowdy singalong, as per usual; Joni Mitchell sounds especially hilarious, her pure soprano ramming up against the gravely Ramblin’ Jack and Bob Neuwirth. Quite a night in Worcester. Amazingly, the ensemble had two shows to play in Cambridge the following day ... and somehow those were even better. The Rolling Thunder Revue was just getting rolling. 

Thanks Tyler!

Rolling Thunder XIII: Worcester

The Venue

Ratso writes in On the Road:

Inside, it’s a gorgeous old hall very reminiscent of the first venue in Plymouth, with a beautiful wood balcony, ornate wood carvings, and a nice marble lobby. And the band seems to be up for this, the first concert in the Boston area. T-Bone is resplendent in a Merlin outfit, complete with long pointed hat, and Soles looks positively Western in his fringed buckskin jacket, matched by Ronee Blakley in her red cowgirl hat.

In fact, the only sour note seems to be Bobby Neuwirth’s voice, which by this juncture resembles a razor blade after a Hare Krishna initiation. And what makes it worse is that the film crew is filming this concert in its entirety and Fedco has brought up a special mobile sound truck to record the affair for a possible live album.

Everyone seems to love this smallish hall, especially Dylan, and for the first time that Ratso can recall, he inserts a rollicking version of “From a Buick Six,” [sic - it was "It Takes a Lot to Laugh"] introducing it as “an autobiographical song for ya.” By “Durango,” the band is really cooking, four camera crews are positioned at various angles (including the new crew, manned by Michael Wadleigh, who did Woodstock) directly in front of Dylan, shooting right up his nose.

Show/Setlist Changes

New opening verse to "Knockin'": "Take these chains off of my leg / I can’t walk so good with them on anymore / Old Gypsy told me to stay full length in bed / And I feel like I’m looking into heaven’s door”

Ratso says it's "full length in bed." To me it sounds more like "full like an egg." Either way, not Bob's finest writing. He's reverted back to the old lyrics by the following night.

Special Guests

None, unless we're going to count Joni each time. The local paper did: "The only real surprise of the Worcester date was the appearance of Joni Mitchell. As the tour moved into Boston rumors were circulating that Bruce Springsteen, Arlo Guthrie, John Lennon, and who knows who else would also appear."

Contemporary Reviews

"Dylan's voice was as raspy and spirited as ever, but the band's unique interpretations made the music seem new and different." - Worcester Poly Tech Newspeak

What'd they do before the show?

Not sure what they did before; as you can tell from the map, they had a long haul from Rochester. They had a late night after the show though. The Renaldo & Clara scene Ratso told me about where he’s yelling at Dylan about access? That was filmed in the hotel lobby after 2 A.M. Then Joni Mitchell and Roger McGuinn showed up and they staged a scene in which Ratso played the night clerk who Roger was asking for his messages. Ratso recorded how Dylan described his character's motivation:

You’re a writer, you write songs and you wanna get some of your songs recorded and you know the Rolling Thunder Revue is staying here and you hit on McGuinn. Then after McGuinn can’t help, you get really frustrated with your job, throw a pile of papers all over the floor, and stalk out from behind the desk as if you’re quitting.

Film footage

Given the new film crew on set, you'd think more footage would be have been used, but the only thing I can find is that the "Hurricane" used in last year's Scorsese doc comes from this show. You can see a brief clip of it in the trailer:

What's on the tape?

As noted, this marks the first officially-released show of the tour (so no download below; the full recording is in last year's box set). Unfortunately, none of the non-Dylan portions were taped.

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