No doubt about it – Bob Dylan has had some pretty amazing musicians backing him over the years. Take your pick: how about Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper helping him make electric history at Newport in ’65 – or the years The Band was his band? How about those strange trips down the rabbit hole with the Grateful Dead in the ‘80s? Or the shows with master-of-all-things-with-strings Larry Campbell at his side in the late 90s and early 00s?
Perhaps the wildest and woolliest coulda-been-a-train-wreck-but-turned-out-to-be-brilliant lineup Dylan ever shared the stage with was the Rolling Thunder Revue from the fall of ’75 through the following spring. Check it out: a core band (working name: “Guam”) of folks like Bob Neuwirth, Mick Ronson, Rob Stoner, Roger McGuinn, Howie Wyeth, T Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera, David Mansfield, Luther Rix, Ronee Bakely, Steven Soles, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Joan Baez (to name a few). Plus, at any given time friends like Joni Mitchell, Rick Danko, Kinky Friedman, or Arlo Guthrie might come out and do a tune or two. Allen Ginsberg was on the bus. Even Dylan’s mom joined the circus at one point.
While all the one-of-a-kind magic was taking place on stage, there was plenty of excitement behind the curtain as well. Dylan used the tour’s stops and its entourage as the setting and cast for Renaldo & Clara, his self-directed brainmash of improvised cinematic weirdness. When Renaldo & Clara appeared to focus on anything, the subject seemed to be Dylan’s lovelife – which couldn’t have helped his already-melting-down marriage to wife Sarah (who even had a part in the movie). In the meantime, Dylan campaigned for the release of imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. And when there wasn’t much else going on, the Desire album was recorded and released.
It was quite a time.
Up until now, the hands-down best book written about the Rolling Thunder tour has been On The Road With Bob Dylan by Larry “Ratso” Sloman. Sloman managed to imbed himself into the fall ’75 leg of the Revue in classic gonzo fashion – pissing off the management, abusing his body, and pulling off some great one-on-one moments with His Bobness and the rest of the Revue. And while Sloman still holds the title in the category of “Best Raoul Duke-Style Tour Journal”, Sid Griffin’s new Shelter From The Storm approaches the Rolling Thunder tour in a very different manner, taking the journalist out of the mix, maintaining a respectable objectivity, and using a wider lens to take in the bigger picture of what was going on with Dylan during that time period.
Highlights include accounts of the focused recruitment and happy accidents that brought the Revue’s cast of musical gypsies together and analysis of Renaldo & Clara (with suggested scene editing by the author). There are chord-by-chord and nod-by-nod accounts of live shows, along with the three television specials Dylan filmed with the Revue. (And when Griffin goes into detail musically, it’s a you-are-there read: the man’s an accomplished picker himself.) Roger McGuinn even allowed Griffin the opportunity to transcribe one of his recordings made on “Phydeaux”, the Rolling Thunder tour bus. Be forewarned: they don’t call him Rambling Jack Elliott for nothing.
Griffin never comes across as a garbage-picker: he’s simply done his homework and deservedly won the trust of those whose paths he crossed while researching the Revue. Shelter From The Storm does a great job of taking you back to the days of Rolling Thunder.
You couldn’t get any closer without getting some of Dylan’s white-faced makeup on you.