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Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue

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By 1975, Bob Dylan was once again ascending, after spending the late '60s and early '70s switching record labels, acting in a Sam Peckinpah film, releasing albums that puzzled fans, finishing a novel, painting, and generally refusing to behave like the counterculture hero that the previous decade had made him. He began his reemergence with the 1974 album Planet Waves and its accompanying tour, both of which reunited him with his old Basement Tapes collaborators in The Band, to considerable success. In 1975, he cemented his return with Blood On The Tracks, a clear-eyed eulogy for his past, his marriage, and the fast-fading dreams of the 1960s. The next logical step was to hit the road, but little about the ensuing tour followed any logic. For The Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan assembled a grab bag of musicians—old friends like Joan Baez, performers who had worked on his then-forthcoming album Desire, David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, and musicians picked up along the way—and traveled the country playing quickly assembled concerts at unlikely venues. Two decades on, the tour maintains an air of mystery that goes beyond its unconventional approach. Why, for example, did Dylan start painting his face white? How much of the spectacle was orchestrated for the epic concert-film/psychodrama Renaldo And Clara, in which Dylan and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Sara played the title roles? The music on this two-disc set makes such matters tangential. Covering the same ground as the 1976 live album Hard Rain, but taken from concerts considered superior by Dylanphiles, Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue is the first of the ongoing Bootleg Series to overlap with officially released material, but it doesn't matter. With The Band, Dylan played his old songs as if he were angry with them. Here, he works through "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll," and others as if understanding them for the first time. Dylan's habit of continually reinventing his old material can be frustrating at times, but here, it sounds like the best way to keep those songs from getting lost in nostalgia. Then there's the new material from Tracks and Desire, played with ferocity and a sense of purpose that remains disarming. Dylan could cover himself with face paint and cryptic statements all he wanted, but there's no avoiding the naked emotion of the performance of "Sara" included here (and performed within earshot of its subject). By the following year, the drugs had kicked in, the tour had fallen apart, and Dylan's fans had to resign themselves to the ups and downs of Dylan's born-again late '70s and his creatively listless '80s. More than a tour souvenir, Live 1975 provides a snapshot of a stunning moment of clarity, and the circus that accompanied it.