Bob Dylan II – Rolling Thunder

It seems a little silly to wait 41 years to do a concert review. It isn’t like the reviewer is going to remember much if anything about the show.

But Thursday’s announcement that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature was being awarded to Bob Dylan got me to thinking about the first time I saw him in concert. It was memorable enough that four decades later I still remember a lot about it.

It was a five hour bus ride, a small price to pay to witness part of musical history. The Rolling Thunder Revue was to perform at the Colisee de Quebec with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as headliners. An Ottawa record store arranged for the bus and tickets. I think it was about $40 for both. Maybe even less $40 was a lot of money back then. I paid $15 earlier that year for floor seats to see Led Zeppelin (but that’s another story).

I’m not sure Dylan ever clearly figured out just what he was doing in creating Rolling Thunder and taking it on the road. Part of the motive was to shine a light on the injustice done to boxer “Hurricane” Carter. Part was to make a movie (Renaldo and Clara). And a lot, I suspect, was just to hang out with a bunch of friends and make some music together.

These days you can find set lists online, but they are incomplete as far as this show goes. The songs listed for that show are the ones Dylan played; there are no lists for the other members of the Revue. It really was an ensemble, a circus with Bob Dylan as ringmaster, and the contributions of others were important.

My now imperfect memory tells me that a Quebec duo was first up with a couple of songs in French. Local colour, and I don’t remember their names.

Then Joni Mitchell came out. She hadn’t been billed on the tour, I gather she had just dropped by to say hello and wound up staying.‎ I think she did two songs, both brand new. One was coyote, which would later appear on her Hejira album. I think she may have said it was the first time she had played it live, that she had just written it.

Bobby Neuwirth and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott each had a couple of songs. You may never have heard of them – but Dylan liked them, which is how they wound up as part of the musical menagerie. I remember the audience reaction as polite but subdued – no-one was there to hear these guys.

Mick Ronson (probably best known as David Bowie’s guitarist) was on lead guitar. He did have one solo song, but I don’t want to go out on a limb and give the title. It was a good rendition though, I remember I was pleased to see him play.

Roger McGuinn (best known as the lead vocalist/guitarist for The Byrds) was there too. For me he was as big an attraction as Dylan. He only played one song though. Fortunately for me he chose a tune that was (and is) one of my favourites‎ “Chestnut Mare.” In the early 1980s I would see Roger perform a couple of times and get to know him a little; his live shows are special.

Dylan was only half the main attraction. Joan Baez was there too, performing solo and with Dylan (the online set list does not indicate which songs they shared). The highlight for me was a song she had written about Dylan, a song I still feel is her best, “Diamonds And Rust.”

The whole thing was backstopped by a talented band that backed up all the solo artists and included Scarlett Rivera, an unknown to that point who Dylan had discovered busking, who danced all over the stage playing fiddle. Everyone flooded onto the stage for the finale, “This Land Is Your land.”

The backup band called themselves Guam, though they didn’t use that name onstage. I discovered the name when reading one of the books written about the tour. At its core were three musicians who would go on to successful music careers: T-Bone Burnett, David Mansfield and Steven Soles. Indeed, those three stuck together after the tour ended and formed The Alpha Band, a highly acclaimed, commercially unsuccessful group that was years ahead of its time.

So much has been written about the Rolling Thunder Revue that I hesitated to add to it, but there is an aspect that I don’t think has been explored, the spiritual side of what was going on with those musicians. Did that experience cause them to examine their lives and make changes? Within a few years of the tour ending Dylan, McGuinn and the three Alpha Band members had become Christians. All of them would make some great records reflecting their faith.

I wonder what motivated the change? It would be interesting to find out.



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