How Bob Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’ Live Album Went Wrong
For a long time, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue was remembered poorly – in both senses of the word. The freewheeling 1975-76 performances were maligned, but for a host of vague reasons. These included guesses at Dylan’s state of mind and sobriety, plus critiques of the sprawling band: too many drummers, too many concerts, too many members, too many mornings (and a thousand miles behind).
But for those who weren’t there, Rolling Thunder mostly got a bad reputation because of the only official document of the tour: the 1976 live album Hard Rain. Named not for the early Dylan protest tune (“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”) but for the precipitation that occurred during some of the recording, Hard Rain captured the Revue during the tail end of its second, and final leg.
Often, by the end of a tour, a band sports a cohesion forged over many, many dates. But that wasn’t the case with Dylan and pals, which included ex-David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson and future Americana deity T-Bone Burnett. As Janet Maslin famously observed in Rolling Stone: “Hard Rain seemed to come at a time when the Rolling Thunder Revue, so joyful and electrifying in its first performances, had just plain run out of steam.”
The album’s nine tracks were captured during a pair of dates: May 16 in Fort Worth, Texas, and May 23 in Fort Collins, Colo. The second show was also filmed for an NBC concert special that aired in conjunction with the album’s release on Sept. 13, 1976.
Neither the album nor the broadcast were warmly received by the press or the public. Reviewers disparaged Dylan’s barking delivery, the start-and-stop nature of “Maggie’s Farm,” the bloated version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and the raw nature of so many of the performances. The album eventually went gold, but sold far fewer copies than Dylan’s recent (and heralded) studio albums, Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Ratings for the special weren’t good either.
The Revue ended and Bob took a break from touring and recording for a couple of years. For many fans, Hard Rain went in the bottom of the Dylan barrel (right next to Self Portrait) – an album better ignored than explored.
Sometimes, over the years, perceptions can shift. And that’s what happened with the Rolling Thunder Revue, helped by the 2002 release of the fifth installment in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, which presented two discs of tracks from the first, and better-loved, leg of the tour. Sporting crackling reinventions of ’60s material, intense versions of material from Desire and duets between Dylan and Joan Baez, the set provided a wider perspective on the infamous tour.
Since that Bootleg edition, some fans and critics have softened their opinions on Hard Rain, especially the second side of the LP, which features Bob roaring through some of the Blood on the Tracks material. These performances, no doubt, feature blistered edges, which might lure in as many listeners as it pushes away. Decades later, there are apparently enough fans who fall into the former category, because rumors persist of an official release of the Hard Rain TV special as well as a documentary about the tour. The Revue might just get rolling again.