“A Life of Bob Dylan in 50 Objects”
“We had these Rolling Thunder luggage tags that we gave to the tour members to use to identify their luggage by the crew. I think I asked (tour promoter) Barry Imhoff to make some belt buckles of the same style from the same provider..”
“Barry Imhoff came to me with the design and I approved it and the purchase.” — Louis Kemp
The Rolling Thunder Revue was epic Dylan. Perhaps he wanted to explore the limits of the uncommon. What he created was a traveling road show like no other.
A number of critics highly praised the tour. “The Rolling Thunder Revue shows remain some of the finest music Dylan ever made with a live band,” wrote Clinton Heylin. “Gone was the traditionalism of The Band. Instead he found a whole set of textures rarely found in rock. The idea of blending the pedal-steel syncopation of Mansfield, Ronson’s glam-rock lead breaks, and Rivera’s electric violin made for something as musically layered as Dylan’s lyrics…
“[Dylan] also displayed a vocal precision rare even for him, snapping and stretching words to cajole nuances of meaning from each and every line.” According to Riley, “These are rugged and inspired reworkings of many Dylan standards — [Dylan] even talks casually to the audience (now a thing of the past). He lights into a biting electric version of ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ and then a thoroughly convincing rock take of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’…and an ‘Isis’ that makes the Desire take sound like a greeting card.”
According to Lou Kemp, a friend of Dylan’s who helped organize the tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue “would go out at night and run into people, and we’d just invite them to come with us. We started out with a relatively small group of musicians and support people, and we ended up with a caravan.”
Its most unusual feature was its loose conceptual design that enabled it to be different every night, to give it the feel of being a totally spontaneous event.
Yes, some of the acts were pre-packaged, but when it came to Dylan’s lengthy set it would be almost totally unpredictable, a forerunner to what would eventually be recognized as one of Dylan’s trademarks on the Never Ending Tour: shuffling the setlist, flipping time signatures, forever tinkering with approaches to the songs.
Mick Ronson, who’d spent three years as one of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, was not accustomed to the way Dylan would play real fast one night and the next night play the same songs real slow. This was an altogether different experience for Ronson. With Bowie the songs were played the same way every night, every change pre-agreed, every solo pre-planned.
This kind of choreographed performance was probably the typical approach to showmanship. It was quite apparent in Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick tour of 1972. Likewise, when Emerson, Lake & Palmer blew into Athens, their show had the appearance of spontaneity. A artist friend of mine who saw three ELP concerts in that tour observed that every gesture and sentiment was orchestrated, and it left him disillusioned.
Clint Heylin in Behind the Shades Revisited states, “The Rolling Thunder Revue shows remain some of the finest music Dylan ever made with a live band. Gone was the traditionalism of The Band. Instead he found a whole set of textures rarely found in rock.”
It can’t be denied that Scarlet Rivera’s sizzling violin contributed to much of that “texture” Heylin described. Ms. Rivera was certainly a remarkable find for Dylan. Here’s how she described to me their first meeting.
“I was going to a rehearsal on the Lower East Side. He was driving by. Many books say he was riding a limousine, but Dylan fans would know he wouldn’t be that ostentatious. He would not want to be seen. He was blending in, in a normal old car. He rolled down the window and asked if I could play. He struck up a conversation and I started talking to him. He asked another musical question and I started pondering who this is. After a while he said, ‘I really have to hear you play.’”
And within 24 hours she was in the mix for his new album Desire, a striking contrast to Blood on the Tracks. Much of this new material from Desire, with its scintillating “Hurricane” centerpiece, would fill a third of Dylan’s set each night.
Caravan of Vagabonds
Another feature of the Rolling Thunder Revue was its travelling circus feel where different acts would come and go as they went from town to town. Joan Baez was back performing with Bob, which produced a measure of electricity. Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, T-Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth and others were on board or came and went including Eric Anderson, Patti Smith, Bette Midler, Phil Ochs and the poet Allen Ginsberg.
And then there’s the subtext of Sam Shepard tasked with turning all the film footage recorded into a film a la Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The four-hour final product that Shepard and Dylan produced was knighted with the title Renaldo and Clara. Despite negative reviews and a brief theater run, it continues to have a cult following in Dylan circles.
If you’re lucky you might see one of these Rolling Thunder belt buckles in the film. In real life, it’s going to be doubtful as they are quite rare. They only produced enough buckles and luggage tags for members of the Revue.
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Two Sentence Wikipedia Description
The Rolling Thunder Revue was a concert tour by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan with numerous musicians and previous collaborators. The purpose of the tour was to allow Dylan, who had now become a major recording artist and concert performer, to play in smaller auditoriums in less populated cities where he could be more intimate with his audiences.
In May, a portion of the William Pagel Archive will again be on display at Karpeles Manuscript Museum Library in Duluth during Duluth Dylan Fest. Here is the tentative schedule of events for that week.