When it comes to Bob Dylan live albums, 1976’s Hard Rain is not exactly one of Dylan’s most celebrated. As one of the most important musical artists of the modern era, and a restlessly inventive live performer, it is quite striking how relatively little Dylan’s live career was officially documented for a long time. This was rectified somewhat with the The Bootleg Series collection of records that began to be released in the late ’90s. That collection provides–for my money–two of the greatest Dylan live albums of all time: Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, “The Royal Albert Hall Concert” (released in 1998), and Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue (released in 2002). Alongside the expansive, dynamite performances from Dylan and The Band’s joint 1974 American tour that was recorded and released as Before The Flood that same year, those two entries in The Bootleg Series serve as my most often returned to testaments to Bob Dylan’s formidable live talents.
“The Royal Albert Hall Concert” is of course one burned forever into popular history as the infamous “Judas” gig, in which Dylan and his band (The Band, here still playing as The Hawks) were heckled thus by a die-hard folkie who objected to Dylan’s new amplified sound. Almost as famously, the concert was not actually recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall, but rather the Manchester Free Trade Hall, as part of Dylan’s 1966 world tour. It’s a truly historic and electrifying (natch) concert for a number of reasons. Dylan going electric was a watershed moment in pop, folk, and rock history. “The Royal Albert Hall Concert” captures that moment and contrast perfectly. Disc one features Dylan alone with his acoustic guitar singing songs like “It’s All Over Now,” “Baby Blue,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Disc two documents what it felt like when this mercurial genius plugged in and lanced lightning from his fingertips with a wanton rock ‘n’ roll energy and a defiant rage aimed at his ceaselessly hostile audience that comes through most powerfully on the acidic “Play fucking loud!” take of “Like a Rolling Stone” that rounds out the album and the gig. Both halves of the album are phenomenal, but you can almost feel the ripples in the fabric of popular culture emanating from what disc two captures.
And then you have Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue. The Rolling Thunder Revue was a 1975–1976 tour that Dylan embarked on before the release of his ambitious and adventurous Desire album. By this point in his career, Dylan was a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll star. The Rolling Thunder Revue was planned so as to give Dylan, an artist with a tempestuous relationship with fame, a chance to play smaller venues and cities and towns, so as to reconnect with his audiences in a way that can be diluted by ever-expanding concert scales.
The first leg of the Revue (taking place in the American northeast and Canada in late 1975) was a big hit. Joining Dylan on stage at various points were friends such as Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, and Scarlet Rivera. As Vol. 5 of The Bootleg Series so clearly attests, the musical chemistry and sense of unhinged fun was electric. Dylan, who often reinvents his own material live on stage, played like a man possessed, taking songs with established identities and daubing them in war paint and feeding them hallucinogens before sending them off, out half-crazed into the night. The musicians followed suit, creating a vortex of energy and a carnival-esque atmosphere tinged with something that felt almost mythic and apocalyptic. One only need listen to track 3 to get a sense of it. Dylan’s rollicking, uncompromising take of his sombre 1962 classic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” sends shivers up the spine on every listen to this day.
While that first leg of The Rolling Thunder Revue was well received, the second leg–covering the American South and southwest in the spring of 1976–was less so. Yet it was this half of the tour that served for the longest time as the only official record of this mad touring cabaret. Prior to the release of Vol. 5 in the early 2000s, 1976’s Hard Rain was the only way to hear what this tour sounded like if you hadn’t been there. Thank the bootleg gods that that was rectified. No disrespect meant to Dylan or his band, but even at the time the second leg of The Rolling Thunder Revue was seen as a bit of a let-down compared to the first. Some have said that because the Revue at times seemed more like a party on the road (rather than a formal musical tour), it was inevitable that as time wore on, the party would find itself winding down, the energy lagging and the revellers outstaying their welcome. Recorded at a May 23, 1976 concert at Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins, Colorado, Hard Rain captured the penultimate show of The Rolling Thunder Revue. It was almost time to go home. No wonder the music didn’t sound quite as energetic and the musicians as energised as when the show roared out of the gates some seven months earlier.
Hard Rain isn’t a bad album by any means. It’s just not essential. That reputation is compounded by the feeling that it shouldn’t have been the record chosen to serve as the sole document of The Rolling Thunder Revue for the longest time. I certainly return to it much less than many other Dylan records from the era.
Except, that is, for one track.
Nestled there in the middle of this oft-maligned album, sits what is for my money one of the greatest live performances of all time. The track that is single-handedly responsible for my almost having disintegrated my dad’s Hard Rain vinyl through repeated needle returns as a kid. Settled between decent enough if slightly tired versions of “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “You’re A Big Girl Now,” is a version of “Shelter From The Storm” that comes on like a biblical hurricane. Out of all of Dylan’s tireless song reinventions, this transformation of the wistful highlight among highlights from what many consider to be his masterpiece, 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, is my absolute favourite.
It starts off slow, with only a hint of the onslaught that is to come. An overdriven guitar fades in, plucking out the main chords, slashes of slide gliding across it. A bass soon introduces itself, with a jab here and a jab there. Then you start to hear that kick drum and hi-hat, gently sliding into the mix. There’s a deceptive manner to the way the instruments build here in the first thirty seconds before Dylan comes in. A lot of intros like this would have made sure to make you feel the anticipation of the explosion about to go off. The opposite is true here. They set up the fireworks all around you without you even realising it.
And then Dylan opens his mouth. “‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood.” Where the studio version is awash in warm acoustic tones, conjuring up imagery of that refuge found amidst the torrent, within the first few lines of the Hard Rain take we are pulled into a different world entirely. This is not someone singing from inside a refuge. Dylan and his band here sound like the storm itself. At various times over the years I’ve obsessed over Dylan’s phrasing of every single line in this version of “Shelter From The Storm.” His gift for re-interpretation is second to none. Dylan’s performance here is so powerful, his voice strong and so full of raw, irreplicable emotion, that it spits in the eye of anyone who dares to wheel out the tired canard that he writes good songs that are best performed by someone else.
Blood On The Tracks is one of the most devastating, brutally honest accounts of heartbreak and the irreconcilable differences that love sometimes cannot measure up to ever committed to tape. If he had only written it, Dylan’s place in the hall of great artists would have been cemented. That he also performed and recorded it makes it unquestionable. To then take a song from that album, and to reimagine it and give it a spin like he does on Hard Rain is operating on a level that very few people ever manage. Hard Rain‘s “”helter From The Storm’ is an ineffable blast from another dimension. It is pure electricity. It is it.