Depending on how you view Bob Dylan's fabled mid-'70s traveling road show, the 14-CD The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings is either a treasure trove of material from a criminally overlooked period or way too much focus on a not-very-good thing.

In late 1975, when Dylan assembled a crew of friends, poets and fellow singer-songwriters for a tour of smaller venues, he was coming off one of the most acclaimed albums of his career, Blood on the Tracks, which was released early in the year after being delayed a few months. As usual, Dylan had moved on by then.

By fall of that year, when the first of two Rolling Thunder Revue legs launched, he was ready to scale back in some ways, expand in others. The stages he played were smaller than what he was used to; buzz for the shows was less frantic too, since Dylan announced them with little fanfare. But the concerts often went on for four hours, with artists like Joan Baez, T Bone Burnett, Roger McGuinn and Mick Ronson occasionally taking the spotlight.

The Rolling Thunder Revue ended up in two parts: the first half covered Canada and the Northeast U.S.; a spring 1976 run hit other parts of the country. In between, he released Desire, a No. 1 LP and his last great album before a long period of mediocre records and tours. And sometime during the break between Rolling Thunder legs, Dylan and the tour lost some steam.

The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings includes rehearsals, five complete Dylan sets from the tour and some of the shows' more obscure numbers that weren't performed at every stop -- all taken from the superior 1975 dates. In a way, the set falls somewhere between a gem of a collection for Dylan fanatics and overkill for anyone who misses the revelatory appeal of his legendary 1966 concerts. (A 2002 Bootleg Series volume scattered various dates from Rolling Thunder's 1975 half across two discs.)

There's nothing you need to hear here; much of it covers the same ground over and over again. But as the most thorough audio chronicle of a divisive era in Dylan history, it connects the dots between periods and sorta helps to explain how and why things went so wrong for him in the decade ahead.

The best songs here come from an evening show at the Boston Music Hall in November, including classics like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "I Shall Be Released" and "Just Like a Woman," as well as a set-closing cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," which the ensemble performed every night. In a way, the entire Rolling Thunder Revue was a tribute of sort to Guthrie and other veteran folksingers who influenced Dylan early in his career. The tour's rambling, freewheeling spirit owes much to the hootenanny ethic that inspired him when he first started out.

Problem is, Dylan had moved beyond that scene a decade earlier, particularly during his legendary and confrontational shows in the U.K. from 1966 (a 2016 box, even heftier than The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings, documented this historic run). So the songs found on The Rolling Thunder Revue occasionally sound thin and lifeless compared to some of the more electric shows from the previous decade. The rehearsals especially come off tired and bored with the material that wasn't even road tested at that point.

Still, the performances sharpened as the tour progressed. And that's when this set gets interesting. Scarlet Rivera's violin adds new shades and textures to many of the old, familiar songs, and Dylan's snarling, seething delivery of some of the songs -- particular “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and the then-new "Hurricane" -- recalls the rage of those legendary '60s shows.

By the time the tour wound down in early December -- the second-to-last concert, from Montreal, is collected here -- Dylan and the band sounded as tight as a relatively loose collective like this could sound. A byproduct of this is that there's plenty of repeated songs on The Rolling Thunder Revue, and not too many surprises along the way. Once you heard one version of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)," the others really don't offer much difference.

So, even more so than the various Bootleg Series collections, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings is designed for fans who study every breath Dylan uttered onstage and in the studio over the years. That can make it a haul for more casual fans and even those who never really got into Rolling Thunder. An even more divisive era was right around the corner, as Dylan entered his reviled gospel years, only to be followed by a long, dismal stretch that included most of the '80s. In its own way, the Rolling Thunder Revue stands as one last breath of inspiration from his classic period. This set sorta makes that case.

 

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