Bob Dylan’s Glam Hootenanny: Returning to Rolling Thunder
It turned out Dylan wasn’t done with topical protest songs, either. He had an angry new one, “Hurricane,” which decried the triple murder conviction of the boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter as a racist injustice; Carter was eventually freed in 1985. The boxed set includes multiple renditions of “Hurricane,” and Dylan gives his all to every one. (One of the film’s comic peaks has Dylan making an unannounced visit to CBS Records executives to discuss releasing “Hurricane” immediately.) Dylan’s set list for the Revue also revived a topical song from the 1960s: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” another furious reflection on race, class and murder.
In late 1975, Dylan had already recorded — but not yet released — “Desire,” his album featuring songwriting collaborations with the theater director Jacques Levy, including “Hurricane” and other taut, picaresque story-songs about love, trust and death, like “Isis” and “Romance in Durango,” that Rolling Thunder audiences would be hearing for the first time. The album also included “Sara,” a desperate, mournful, arguably autobiographical love song to his wife; she filed for divorce in 1977.
The music on “Desire” drew on both Dylan’s mid-1960s folk-rock and the wheezy authority of the Band, crucially topping the arrangements with Scarlet Rivera’s wailing violin solos and countermelodies: teasing from a distance, spiraling in on him, darting away and returning like a hint of temptation. The story goes that Rivera joined the band by pure happenstance: Dylan was driving through downtown Manhattan and spotted her on the street, carrying her violin, and invited her to audition.
Dylan and his musical director, the bassist Rob Stoner, assembled the rest of the Rolling Thunder band, called Guam; some of its members, including T Bone Burnett, would go on to form the Alpha Band. The Revue also took on Roger McGuinn from the Byrds, Mick Ronson from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars band, the singer Ronee Blakley and, joining up partway through the tour, Joni Mitchell. In group-sing Rolling Thunder concert finales, Mitchell cheekily adds a verse of Canadian geography to “This Land Is Your Land.” (The film also captures a luminous Mitchell playing “Coyote,” from “Blue,” in Gordon Lightfoot’s home as McGuinn and Dylan strum along.)