When you’re one of the most esteemed artists of the 20th century, an artist who has never truly stopped writing and recording music, then chances are you’re bound to have a dud in your back catalogue. The same goes for the iconic figure of Bob Dylan.
Across Dylan’s extensive back catalogue he, of course, has a plethora of hits and some truly anthemic songs. 39 studio albums, 12 live albums and a whole mess of compilations and bootlegs mean that Dylan’s arsenal of songs is more heavily stacked than most but one on the album, he got it very, very wrong.
Live albums are meant to be exciting. They’re meant to make you wish you were in attendance at the show. The record, as soon as the needle drops, should put your hairs on end and welcome an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a moment in time lost forever if not for this record. Somehow on Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, the freewheelin’ troubadour misses the mark. Tremendously.
Bob Dylan’s tour known as the Rolling Thunder Revue, is one of the most split tours you’re ever likely to come across. The performances went from 1975 to 1976 and, in a recent reflection, became the feature for Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Dylan of the same name. It was this tour that is captured on Hard Rain but while the first half of the run of shows was powerful and dynamic the second half of the tour fell supremely flat.
Often maligned for its over-complication, by the time the group had reached the final dates of the tour they were falling apart. Usually by the end of a tour the players at hand have a good grasp of the material, have a rhythm for playing with one another and have generally bedded in. For Dylan’s Hard Rain it appears as though the opposite happened.
More worryingly, the band was stacked with impressive performers, even glam rock giant and David Bowie’s partner Mick Ronson was in attendance as was future guitar hero T-Bone Burnett. Things really should have gone well but the music captured on May 16th and May 23rd in Texas and Colorado respectively, lack any real joy or impetus and instead feels like a toy train that needs to be recharged.
The night of 23rd in Fort Collins Colorado was even filmed for an NBC special which was equally trashed by reviewers. Those critics took umbrage with Dylan’s vocals, they hated the way he tried to add texture to ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and were deeply unimpressed with ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. While The Rolling Thunder Revue had championed a rawer sound, when viewed away from the spectacle of actually being in the crowd, the performances felt more disjointed and unrefined than edgy and cool.
Of course, it’s not the only bad Bob Dylan album. If we utter two simple words we’re sure to bring a shudder to the spines of Dylan’s most diehard fans; Self Portrait. That record, an album of covers which sees Dylan in the middle of his fame-hungry 1980s days, is widely considered the worst of Dylan’s repertoire but we’d argue it is this live LP that takes the biscuit.
While the end run of a tour must see the people on stage at their most ragged emotionally and physically, we’d say a man who has made his name on unique live shows and truly captivating songs should have more than enough in his tank to see him through a tour or two.
Add that sentiment to the fact that the aforementioned Scorsese documentary showed off a tour littered with iconography and grandiose moments of spiritual and human connection and the real reason this is the worst album in Dylan’s arsenal comes to the fore—it’s so far under the expectations we hold for Dylan. To put it simply, we’re not angry, just disappointed.
Titled Hard Rain for the heavy downpours the group experienced during the recording of the album, the LP is largely regarded as a washout. Despite songs like ‘Maggies Farm’, ‘Shelter from the Storm’ and ‘Lay Lady Lay’, nothing can quite rescue this record.
So, if you’re looking to reimagine the spectacle of Bob Dylan live then we suggest you suck it up and wait for the great man to tour again, you’ll enjoy it much more.