Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

19. Hard Rain (1976)

The recordings on Hard Rain are taken from the second leg of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.  The first leg began in the autumn of 1975 in the north-east of the US (incorporating some Canadian dates too) and took in mostly small venues.  It was wildly successful, so in the spring of 1976 Dylan attempted to recapture the magic by touring the south and southwest.  Unfortunately this stretch was plagued by poor ticket sales, promotional problems, bad weather, cocaine and ongoing marital strife for Bob. Perhaps as a result of where his head was now at, many of the songs from his latest album Desire were dropped, to be replaced by more from Blood On The Tracks.

Four songs on Hard Rain were recorded on the 16th of May in Texas and the remaining five on May 26th at a huge stadium in Colorado in the pouring rain.  This latter date was filmed for a TV special, which can be seen here:   Not only is Dylan angry (and wants everyone to know about it), according to bassist Rob Stoner, Bob was "really hitting the bottle that weekend", and what we get for much of Hard Rain is a raw, intense performance that's very different to the Bootleg Series 5 which documents the carnival atmosphere of the autumn leg of the RTR.

Things kick off with a rollicking country-rock reinvention of Maggie's Farm from BIABH.  Where the original was acidic and rather sarky, this is almost cheery and features some wonderful pedal steel from David Mansfield and plenty of lead guitar licks from ex-Spider Mick Ronson.  It's the first song to demonstrate the often criticised stop-start arrangements that were a prominent feature of the tour, but the crowd seem to appreciate it.  On the television footage Ronson can be seen removing his guitar and ambling off backstage before the others go straight into One Too Many Mornings.  It's a radical re-working of what was a quietly regretful song on 1964's The Times They Are a-Changin', and no doubt done to better suit Dylan's mood.  It benefits greatly from the full-band treatment, particularly from Scarlet Rivera's keening violin which adds pathos as it twists around the guitar during two gorgeous instrumental breaks.  The first of many lyric changes on Hard Rain appears; tacked onto the end is "I've no right to be here, if you've no right to stay, until we're one too many mornings, and a thousand miles away".  I love it; the changes in melody, instrumentation and words give us a brand new song fashioned from an old one.

Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again is one of my favourite songs from Blonde On Blonde, so for me it's difficult to ruin, but here Bob gives it a good try.  He sounds dreadfully tired and the whole thing is very laboured despite the bombastic arrangement, so it's probably just as well that three verses are excised from the middle.  Where Bootleg Series 5 brims with energy, Hard Rain suffers from the sound of a band and its leader drained of all enthusiasm by a tough tour and a spark that vanished weeks ago.  It's not helped by the muddy mix either, but at least the CD in the BobBox is an improvement on the original vinyl release.

The rendition of Oh, Sister has the same basic arrangement as on Desire, understandably so as the newest song here.  The only differences are the lack of harmonica (Bob's gob-iron is completely absent from Hard Rain) and of Emmylou's haunting backing vocals which are replaced by some God-awful shouting.  Also Dylan's voice is a bit wobbly, but a song this superb is able to shine through the murk, assisted by Rivera's dazzling, sorrowful playing.

Next up is Lay, Lady, Lay, its re-written, saucier lyrics played over a kind of country bump 'n' grind (words I never imagined would appear on this blog!).  The subtle suggestion of the Nashville Skyline version becomes a brazen exhortation; "Forget this dance, let's go upstairs, let's take a chance, who really cares?", and is adorned with the beautiful pedal steel that the shouty Before The Flood rendering lacked.  Even more of a surprise is the bouncy Shelter From The Storm, its tender acoustic strumming transformed into an energetic shout-along with layers of electric guitars and violin weaved into a dense wall of fuzz, underpinned by lively percussion and ska-ish strokes.

And so to my favourite performance, that of You're A Big Girl Now, the second of three selections from BOTT.  The tension brought on by the frequent pauses is broken over and over again to heartbreaking effect, stopping and starting like the corkscrewing pain described in the lyrics.  The drawn out 'ohhs' from the original here become even longer 'heeeeys' that slay me each time, as does the downbeat delivery of the last word of each verse.  Bob fumbles the line "I can change, I swear", which comes out as "Well I ...nnn...ange, I swear", which kind of breaks the tension in a different way, but is very funny, particularly as it's usually such a poignant part.

He gets it back together for a full-band version of I Threw It All Away, re-tooled in stadium-filling style, and "take a tip from one who's tried" feels more appropriate than ever.  But nothing on Hard Rain seems to sum up Dylan's frame of mind as much as the final song.  His fraying marriage has reached the point of no return, and BOTT's bitterest offering has had time to fester and is now poisonous.  Idiot Wind becomes a savage marathon; Sara's ditch becomes her grave, and her chestnut mare a "smoking tomb" (changed perhaps in deference to Roger McGuin, present on the tour).  It's Dylan's most energised performance on the album and is perfectly suited to the RTR arena-rock treatment.  His raging glory disappears momentarily when he slips up then corrects himself, resulting in an amusing "...every time you move your mou..teeth!", but on the whole it's a killer version, and reports of an ugly row with either Sara/her lawyer/both just beforehand are believable.

This simmering display wraps up what is often a quite lethargic album, despite its powerful, hard-rock approach.  The 'busy' instrumentation (i.e. probably too many coked-up guitarists crowding the stage) is done no favours by the poor quality of the recordings.  The choice of songs, given that there would have been plenty of other material available, including duets with Joan Baez, is curious.  However, although not all of the new spins on older songs work, Hard Rain has a unique mood and cohesion, making it an ideal compliment to the very different Bootleg Series 5.  Why these nine songs were chosen as the only official document of the Rolling Thunder Revue until 2002 though, is baffling.

*****BobBox price check***** - £99.99 (free postage)
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All prices correct on 16/06/2015

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