Meditating on Dylan’s 1976 live album Hard Rain, I get both inspired and embarrassed.
I had made a friend my first year in college who was a hippie kind of fella that I ended up hanging out with quite a bit. He played the tired old acoustic guitar/harmonica combo and sang Dylan songs all the time. I couldn’t admit to him at the time that I didn’t really know who Bob Dylan was and that I just hated all those fucking long ass songs he was constantly singing. I thought they were his songs! Let’s just say, your first introduction to Dylan shouldn’t be a guy in Birkenstocks and a beaded necklace singing his own nasal interpretation of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. He wasn’t all bad though, he knew girls, got me high and let me borrow Decade by Neil Young.
Somewhere along the line, this guy busted out a cassette of Dylan’s rough and tumble live album from 1976 called Hard Rain. He had bought it at a gas station for a couple bucks and just as soon as it began playing, I was enthralled. Was this the same legendary Dylan this dude was always talking about?
Maggie’s Farm starts the set with everyone kind of warming up before going for it. Dylan’s nasal vocals are bygone and the band behind him is in full rock mode despite being out of tune and not really knowing what the hell is gonna happen next. It’s evident in every refrain of the song’s chorus. They hang in there though, even when Dylan momentarily forgets where he is around the 3:40 mark.
One Too Many Mornings follows, sounding nothing like the folk version recorded back in ‘64. Keep in mind that I hadn’t heard any of that yet, this was the first I had heard of any of these songs and I thought they were exceptional. There was something approachable to the music that the folkier stuff still doesn’t possess for me. The sound of an out of tune telecaster was easier for me to copy than any acoustic fingerpicking.
The big highlights for me continue to be Oh, Sister and You’re a Big Girl Now. Both of these particular readings are not only the most well played tracks of the whole set but are also overwhelmingly ardent. Shelter From the Storm is close behind. Between the groovy/spastic bassline of Rob Stoner, Mick Ronson’s melodic guitar lines and the aimless slide work of Dylan himself, the song gets an uplifting makeover.
Hard Rain is without a doubt my favorite Dylan record. It caused to me think differently about the possibilities of song. To later hear the original versions of these songs and really understand how much the compositions had been changed was sort of a revelation. It doesn’t matter that I first heard it at a hippie guys house, does it?