I’ve seen Bob Dylan four or five times, but it’s mostly been when he’s been in his 60s and 70s.
Dylan can be inconsistent as a live performer – at one show every lyric sounded like “muzza muzza BUZZA muzza” and on another, he was an elegant elder statesman who even SMILED at one point.
But there was a point where Dylan was a blazing fireball on stage, during his mid-1970s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. It’s the subject of a new documentary by Martin Scorsese, and it’s must watching for anyone who thinks Dylan couldn’t sizzle live on stage. The man was fierce.
In 1975, Dylan hadn’t really toured since his late ‘60s motorcycle accident. He put together a kind of travelling show featuring guests like Joan Baez, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Allen Ginsberg and more to play smaller, intimate venues. The Rolling Thunder Revue had a theatrical bent – Dylan painted his face white, like a kabuki performer, and added touches like a dazzling electric violinist to his songs. There was a freewheeling electricity to the atmosphere.
He’s performed thousands of shows over more than 50 years, but I’d argue that for the 50 or so shows of Rolling Thunder, Dylan was never better. Scorsese’s documentary shows him commanding the stage, stalking, staring and singing like his life depends on it. There’s no mumbling here. He spits every syllable of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with a power that makes this account of a racist murder a harrowing listen. Chestnuts like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” or “Blowin’ In The Wind” seem revitalised. Then-current songs like “Isis” and “Hurricane” rage when he performs them.
Clear-eyed and potent, there’s a fierceness to Dylan’s presence that’s remarkable to watch. Sparks fly off him when he enters a room, not in a showy David Bowie or Mick Jagger way, but in a concentrated, smouldering focus. He combines the intensity of young folkie Dylan with the more grizzled maturity of someone in their mid-thirties, and it lends his songs new power.
“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story” is a great movie, and fitting with Dylan’s mystique there’s a bit of flirting with fiction and masks (let’s just say some of the people interviewed are not what they seem). But in the end it’s a celebration of one of Dylan’s most fertile periods and a reminder that one of the greatest songwriters of all time could throw down with the best of them when he wanted.