The big deal was this: Dylan was promoting his forthcoming record Desire at low-key venues across the Northeast. He would arrive with little warning, deliver the goods and then disappear into the twilight. In tow was an eclectic band of performers, old folkie friends, rockers, writers and other hippie-era casualties. It made for a carnival with Dylan as ringmaster and it triggered myth-making buzz, on which Dylan used to thrive.
A quarter of a century later -- with the hocus-pocus neutralized by time -- Legacy makes a strong case that the fuss was justified with its latest Dylan "bootleg" entry. Thunder will dazzle fans that have relied on substandard underground recordings and one sloppy and unsatisfying live disc, 1976's Hard Rain, to document the tour.
The collection mostly is marked by an excitement that has long been absent -- in spite of what the Grammy folks say -- from Dylan's work. He sings with gusto on "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Romance in Durango." He and the band sound like crazy shamans on "Isis." And his solo delivery of "Mr. Tambourine Man" is stunning -- he reminds listeners that although this 1965 tune has been covered dozens of times, it remains most moving in a near-whisper against an acoustic backdrop.
After the Northeast shows, the tours got bigger, but not the myth. A few years later, Dylan found Jesus, and nothing has been the same since. Rolling Thunder marked perhaps the last real surprise in a career that was once full of them. Listen for yourself.