Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Hard Rain

The most excellent Martin Scorsese Rolling Thunder Revue documentary on Netflix is most definitely a must see, but I won’t be buying the accompanying box set Bob DylanThe Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings; sitting down to listen to 14 discs and multiple versions of the same song (eight of “Isis” alone) is a fatiguing proposition.

There are, of course, two other ways of aurally reliving Dylan’s traveling folk-rock circus of a roadshow, which made the rounds of smaller halls in two legs in 1975 and 1976. Like the box set, 2002’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue captures the roving band on merry minstrels on the first, Northeastern leg of the tour; 1976’s Hard Rain documents the second leg.

Hard Rain received poor reviews upon its release and never shows up on lists of great Dylan albums–as many have noted, the second, Southern leg of the Rolling Thunder tour did not go as well as the first. Call it road fatigue or a simple case of pushing a good thing too far, but the consensus is that Dylan and his band mates were tired; enervated is a word often used to describe these performances.

But–and you can call me a contrarian if you want–I enjoy Hard Rain, and would argue that, at least in parts, it’s better than the other two live recordings. Why? A simple case of song selection. No, Hard Rain does not include versions of the revved-up and extraordinary “Isis,” the impassioned and angry “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” or the divinely lovely “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” on which Dylan and Joan Baez’s vocals mesh so beautifully.

But Hard Rain includes two indispensable performances from the tour in the form of “Shelter from the Storm” and “Idiot Wind,” as well as a couple of interesting performances of songs that weren’t played on the tour’s first leg. The two aforementioned songs boast a hard rock edge not found on the other recordings, and while they’re raw–the band throws plenty of knees and elbows–they’re fiery indeed.

The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau dismissed the musicianship on Hard Rain, noting “these are folkies whose idea of rock and roll is rock and roll cliches.” While he’s right to an extent, I love the album for its lack of subtlety and sheer bluster; “Shelter from the Storm,” for instance, comes at like a very pissed-off hurricane, and you de yourself a disservice by not playing it at top volume. The damn album should come with its very own storm advisory.

Dylan himself was handling lead guitar duties, something he’d never done before, and nobody is going to mistake him for Robbie Robertson of the Band–who accompanied Dylan on his famous 1965-66 and 1974 tours–or Mick Ronson for that matter, who was Dylan’s rather odd choice (from Bowie to Bobby, really?) to play on the much of Rolling Thunder. But he keeps things brutally simple, and on the best songs it works–this shit is folk punk before there was such a thing.

Christgau wrote of 1974’s Before the Flood that Dylan and the Band ran over his “old songs like a truck,” adding “I agree that a few of them will never walk again, but I treasure the sacrilege.“ The same can be said about the best performances on Hard Rain. Dylan rides such songs as “Shelter from the Storm” and “Idiot Wind” hard and puts ‘em away wet. Forget Muhammed Ali, who showed up at a benefit for Ruben “Hurricane” Carter during the tour; the fighter Dylan resembles here is a punch drunk Jake LaMotta wildly delivering haymakers. A couple of them miss the target entirely–I could do without the blustering “Lay Lady Lay,” ditto “One Too Many Mornings”–but when they do, watch out.

On “Idiot Wind” and “Shelter from the Storm” in particular, Dylan sounds like a man hurling himself at a wall–stanza after stanza, again and again. In the latter song he’s been “hunted like a crocodile”; in the former–which he stretches out to a still taut 10 minutes–he’s as wrathful as the Old Testament God. Both songs evoke high winds, and that’s exactly what Dylan sounds like–a mad prophet bellowing into the face of a gusting storm. These are apocalyptic songs, and the noise the band produces is apocalyptic indeed.

Sadly, few of the other performances on Hard Rain are particularly distinguished. The ragged but very animated “Maggie’s Farm” is a small treat–the song proceeds at a gallop, you get a whole lot of cowbell, and Dylan seems determined to sing himself hoarse. “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” sounds a bit thin in comparison to “Shelter” and “Idiot Wind,” but Dylan’s in good voice. And while I’ve never been a fan of “You’re a Big Girl Now,” the version on Hard Rain is simultaneously stately and shambolic. Kinda sounds like it would if the Grateful Dead were performing it; to wit not all that exciting, but oddly absorbing in its own dignified but ramshackle way.

The very dispensable “Lay Lady Lay” is transformed into a sing-along, or perhaps I should say a shout-along; with the whole band laying into the vocals you can forget about love and intimacy–this baby sounds more like an invitation to a gang bang. As for “Oh, Sister,” the lead guitar sounds sickly, Dylan’s phrasing is stilted, and not even Scarlet Rivera’s otherworldly violin can save it.

Hard Rain is an apt title for this collection of tunes; while the Bootleg Series and the box set capture the Rolling Thunder Revue at its folksiest, this baby errs on the side–at its best moments anyway–of kick-ass rock and roll. It’s far from a great album–hell, I’m not even sure I’d call it a good album. That said, if you want to gain a well-rounded view of what the Rolling Thunder Revue sounded like, it’s as helpful a testament as the other two available LPs. And in its loud and belligerent way, it lives up better to the revue’s name. This is the sound of thunder indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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