The background: When Bob Dylan toured for the first time in eight years in 1974 following his near-fatal 1966 motorcycle accident, he was backed by The Band for a triumphant tour dubbed Before the Flood that touched down in sports arenas and other large venues across the country. The following year he assembled a far less structured outing, the Rolling Thunder Revue, something he envisioned being more in line with old-time traveling medicine shows, gypsy caravans or vaudeville tours. He chose smaller venues — mostly theaters that held 1,500 to 5,000 people and predominantly in non-major markets. It opened in historically resonant Plymouth, Mass., with stops in Cambridge, Worcester, Niagara Falls and Augusta, Maine, before ramping up for bigger shows in Boston, and Montreal, and concluding at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The participants: Perhaps most notably, Dylan reunited with folk music queen Joan Baez and also brought along Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn, folk music hero Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and actress-singer Ronee Blakley (fresh off her role as a country singer in Robert Altman’s “Nashville”). The band centered on violinist Scarlet Rivera, lead guitarist Mick Ronson (just out of David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars band) and multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, along with guitarists Bob Neuwirth, Steven Soles and a very young T Bone Burnett, bassist Rob Stoner and drummer Howie Wyeth. Joni Mitchell stopped in for a guest appearance in Connecticut and stayed on through the end of the first leg of the tour.
The name: In a nutshell, according to a source close to Dylan, “Nobody knows why Bob calls anything anything.” In the new Netflix documentary “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” available on June 12, there are references to an original idea of branding it “The Montezuma Revue” and that perhaps after experiencing a string of thunderclaps one day, a phenomenon called “rolling thunder,” the phrase captured Dylan’s imagination.
The shows: Reflecting the spontaneous nature of the music, Dylan insisted that shows be announced spur-of-the-moment style, with little or no formal advertising, relying instead on handbills distributed perhaps a few days before each show. Additionally, Dylan showed up most nights wearing pancake makeup, occasionally behind a plastic mask, and always a broad-brimmed fedora decorated with fresh flowers, a long scarf around his neck and a dark vest.
The setlist: Dylanologists consider it perhaps the purest expression of Dylan’s feelings about live performance: that concerts should never be rote repetition of the past, or note-for-note copies of recordings, but always alive in the moment. The set list from night to night remained about 80% the same, with a few numbers being swapped out: “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” or “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” in place of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in some cities; “The Water Is Wide” or “Dark as a Dungeon” for “Wild Mountain Thyme” in the slot for a traditional folk number in others.
The critical reception: Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin, in his book “Behind the Shades,” crystallized the enthusiastic critical response, writing: “The Rolling Thunder Revue shows remain some of the finest music Dylan ever made with a live band. Gone was the traditionalism of The Band. Instead he found a whole set of textures rarely found in rock. The idea of blending the pedal-steel syncopations of Mansfield, Ronson’s glam-rock guitar breaks and Rivera’s electric violin made for something as musically layered as Dylan’s lyrics.”
The commercial reception: “The tour was a catastrophe,” Dylan tells Scorsese. “It wasn’t a success — not if you measure success in terms of profit.” It’s not a big surprise that financially, the tour ended up in the red, given the large traveling entourage and comparatively small paydays each night.
The documentary highlights: How about footage of Dylan behind the wheel of the Winnebago carrying part of the ensemble from town to town? Or Joan Baez applying white face paint and borrowing Dylan’s clothes to find out how the Spokesman for a Generation is treated by others? There’s also a priceless scene when the ragtag band dropped in on Gordon Lightfoot’s house in Canada, and the camera crew captured Joni Mitchell teaching her new song, which she says was inspired by the tour, to Dylan and McGuinn, with Lightfoot looking on over their shoulders. The song? “Coyote.”