Bob Dylan. Easily the most influential single musician of the second half of the 20th century, his name conjures a melange of images. Dylan has never confined himself to one kind of music. At various times he has appeared as a fingerpicking folk purist, protest-song singer, rock innovator, roots spelunker, and country crooner.
Throughout his career, Dylan has sometimes worn his mantle of inscrutability with a single-mindedness that bordered on curmudgeondom. His ability to change from one thing to another often left his fans wondering which Bob they were going to get – the “good” or the “bad” one. Depending on their tastes, one person’s good Bob is another person’s bad Bob. On The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 we get a little bit of all the Bobs. Lucky us.
In 1975, Dylan came up with the idea of putting together a touring group, not just a band, but an entire musical revue. Instead of a headliner supported by a couple of opening acts as was the norm, Dylan wanted a troupe of musicians, a changing cast of characters, capable of entertaining an audience for an entire evening.
In retrospect, his recruiting methods were not all that strange – assemble a group of musicians and see if they could make music together. But at the time, this seemed like madness, picking musicians seemingly at random.
After a few false starts, the final result produced a remarkable band named The Rolling Thunder Review. Personnel included Joan Baez on vocal and guitar, Bobby Neuwirth on vocal and guitar, Scarlet Rivera on violin, T. Bone Burnet on guitar, Roger McGuinn on vocal and guitar, Steve Soles on vocal and guitar, Mick Ronson on guitar, David Mansfield on steel guitar, mandolin, violin, and dobro, Rob Stoner on bass, Howie Wyeth on piano and drums, Luthar Rix on drums, percussion and congas, and Ronee Blakely on vocals. Besides the musicians the revue included Alan Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky, sound and lighting technicians, fifteen members of a film crew (their footage became “Renaldo and Clara”), and assorted friends and guests. The entire entourage added up to 70 people. Imagine a very hip, very wigged-out Grand Ol’ Opry.
Of the 22 different songs on the two CDs, not a single selection lets you down. From early material like “A Hard Rain is Going To Fall” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” right up through “Isis” and “Tangled up in Blue,” the performances and arrangements are still fresh and exciting. My personal favorites are “Just Like a Woman” and “The Water Is Wide” which feature Joan Baez’ soaring soprano harmonies.
Although many fans taped the shows surreptitiously, and bootlegs have been circulating for years, Legacy chose to use only material recorded by the official sound truck, which taped the revue’s shows in Worcester, Cambridge, and Boston, Massachusetts, and Montreal, Canada. While some cognoscenti will argue that these are not the best performances from the tour, they are the only recordings where the audio quality is at least equal to the level of the performances. Producers Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz did a fine job with song selection and the seamless flow of the songs.
With the sheer number of Bob Dylan albums available, any new release must offer something special and compelling to warrant its purchase. It’s gotten to the point that Bob Dylan is competing against himself. Even with the stiff competition, The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 demands to be heard and owned. It certainly equals any previously released live Dylan album in the quality of the sound and the performances. For those who consider themselves a Dylan fan, this CD is a must-have.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.