Primary Personel: Bob Dylan - vocals, guitar; Bob Neuwirth - guitar, vocals; Joan Baez - vocals, guitar; Ramblin' Jack Elliott - guitar, vocals; Roger McGuinn - guitar, vocals; Ronee Blakley - vocals, piano; T-Bone Burnett - guitar; Steven Soles - guitar; Mick Ronson - guitar; David Mansfield - steel guitar, violin, mandolin, dobro; Scarlet Rivera - violin; Rob Stoner - bass; Howie Wyeth - piano, drums; Luther Rix - drums, percussion; Musical Guests: Robbie Robertson - guitar; Joni Mitchell - vocals, guitar; Roberta Flack - vocals, piano; Roberta's band: Gwen Guthrie - guitar, vocals; Harry Whittaker - keyboards; Anthony Jackson - bass; Crusher Bennett - percussion;; Speakers and other onstage Guests: Muhammad Ali; Rubin Carter (via phone); Coretta Scott King; Bill Franklin; John J. Hooker
Other than Dylan's controversial 1966 Tour, when he first went electric, his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue Tours of 1975/1976 are the most documented and respected tours of the 1970s. This final night of the 1975 leg, when a huge entourage of musicians, celebrities and guests descended upon Madison Square Garden to raise awareness and funds for the defense of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, is the most monumental show of that tour.
Following the intermission, the show continues with something few ever expected to see again, a set of duets with Dylan and Joan Baez. It begins with the welcome starkness of just their two voices and acoustic guitar on "The Times They Are A Changin'." The awkwardness Baez was experiencing earlier in the tour is replaced here with humor. On this first duet number, rather than attempting to harmonize with Dylan, she becomes Dylan herself, imitating his voice and idiosyncratic phrasing! Dylan seems to enjoy it and even says "That's Bob Dylan, but I'm not Joan Baez" following this number. The duets with Baez continue in a more serious manner with several band members joining them for a cover of Merle Travis' "Dark As A Dungeon," followed by "Mama, You Been On My Mind." Dylan then asks the audience if anyone remembers Johnny Ace as several more members of the band assemble on stage. They then perform a lovely take on Ace's "Never Let Me Go." Dylan's love for this lyric is obvious and he sings with both a forcefulness and a rare tenderness. Dylan dedicates "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" to Herman Melville and then winds up his stage time with Baez on "I Shall Be Released," which resonates strongly in the context of Rubin Carter's predicament. In a rare display of respect to an old arrangement, Dylan stays close to the original with David Mansfield adding lovely pedal steel embellishments.
Following this set of duets, Dylan exits the stage and Joan Baez fronts the band for a six song set of her own. She begins with her original, "Diamonds And Rust," a song containing many allusions to Dylan. After years of being out of the spotlight, this song brought Baez a commercial radio hit and helped rejuvenate her career. It's a beautiful version and the band adds a lot to the arrangement, making it delightfully different from the more sterile studio recording. Next Baez encourages everyone in the house to join in on "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" with her voice soaring above the fray. The middle of her set focuses on songs that reflect the social issues of the evening, beginning with her "Prison Trilogy" (aka "Billy Rose") and two older songs, "Joe Hill" and the traditional "Long Black Veil." Baez concludes her set with a lovely rendition of her current radio hit, a cover of "Please Come To Boston."
At this point Baez announces another special guest is in the house and introduces Roberta Flack to the stage. It takes several minutes for Flack's band to set up and replace the other musicians on stage and during this downtime, she brings out Martin Luther King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who is greeted with applause but does not speak. Once things are in place, Flack and her band perform two Eugene McDaniel numbers, "25th Of Last December" and "Why Don't You Move In With Me." Flack's beautiful voice and the jazzy accompaniment of her band are greeted with rapturous applause.
Following this, The Rolling Thunder Revue band return with Roger McGuinn in tow and launch into a fiery rendition of the Byrds' classic "Eight Miles High" followed by a full band arrangement of "Chestnut Mare." Baez returns to the stage and joins McGuinn and company for a rousing rendition of The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a song she would also take to the top of the charts.
Everyone exits the stage and to the delight of the audience, Dylan returns alone, with just acoustic guitar and harmonica. He then proceeds to mesmerize the audience with deeply moving performances of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" followed by "Simple Twist of Fate," the latter featuring new lyrics quite different from the studio recording from the previous year. This is classic Dylan, feeling every word and capped off with his expressive harmonica playing.
The band returns to the stage for the climactic final set of the evening. They begin with a new song recorded during the Desire sessions, "Oh Sister," which Dylan dedicates to "all our sisters out there tonight." Then Dylan begins a brief introductory monologue saying, "We're gonna play this song now. This is what this concert, or this show is all about, and this person, he's a beautiful man, and beauty should never be in prison," before launching into a forceful eight minute reading of "Hurricane," a song often perceived as a return to political commentary and protest.
Continuing to showcase new material from Desire, Dylan continues with a heartfelt reading of "One More Cup Of Coffee," before performing "Sara," one of the most openly revealing songs of his career. In a rare example of straightforwardness, Dylan laments the disintegration of his marriage and through a series of photographic snapshots in the lyric, reveals himself in a gutwrenchingly honest manner. In light of this song, "Just Like A Woman," which follows, takes on an autobiographical resonance that hadn't existed before. To wrap up the night, Roger McGuinn returns to the stage and he and Dylan trade verses on "Knockin On Heaven's Door," before leaving the stage amidst thunderous applause. The entire Rolling Thunder entourage return for an encore and close this memorable night with a final song of solidarity, Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
-Written by Alan Bershaw