Rolling Thunder '76 Soundman Talks Touring with Bob Dylan
Plus two never-heard soundboard tapes
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Earlier this year, I was poking around setlist.fm and came across an unusual comment on a Rolling Thunder 1976 setlist. It had been posted way back in 2015. It read, in part, “I was the audio engineer for this portion of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. While I do not have a complete setlist for both the Mobile, AL and Austin, TX shows, I do have tapes of both shows. However, the songs have been combined into a single tape, so I don't know which song was performed at which venue.”
If you’ve read my other interviews, you know this immediately piqued my interest. So I reached out to this anonymous commenter. His real name, it turned out, was David Hendel. He did indeed do sound for the second half of the second Rolling Thunder tour, including the famous Hard Rain show. And he did indeed have tapes. So I called Hendel up to talk Rolling Thunder ‘76.
How did you get that gig?
The company I worked for, Clair Brothers Audio, got the second half of the tour because the tour manager did not like the sound that they were getting for the first half. The manager had worked with us on other shows, so they called us up, and asked if we could do the second half starting in April.
What was your specific job?
I was front of house mixer, the guy who sits out in the audience and mixes the various instruments so that you can hear them. I was also the lead engineer on the tour, so I was responsible for everybody else from the sound company.
Did you have much interaction with Dylan himself?
We were not allowed to talk to Bob directly.
He could talk to us, but we were not allowed to talk to him.
Whose rule was that?
That was the rule that we were given when we first came on-site. It was dumb since we're supposed to be providing sound for him and finding out what he likes and doesn't like. It's hard to have that relationship and not be able to talk to him.
Joel Bernstein was a go-between and so was Jacques Levy, the artistic manager. But he was a weird guy too.
He was involved with the lights, but he would always sit in the audience with his sunglasses on. We always thought it was a little weird to be doing lights with your sunglasses on.
Did that lead to very bright shows for everyone else?
Not really. The lighting was okay from what I remember, but he was just a pain in the ass. We had t-shirts made up that said "I Hate Jacques Levy" on the back.
You said you weren't allowed to talk to Bob, but he could talk to you. Did he ever talk to you?
He may have said stuff to the monitor mixer, but I don't recall him actually talking to me. Usually, I was out front; he was on stage. We had a few days of rehearsal in Clearwater, Florida at the Bellevue Biltmore Hotel, so that might've been the only time I could've interacted with him.
What was your role during the rehearsals? Presumably there is no audience to be mixing sound for.
Just getting familiar with what they were doing on stage. Get used to the songs and who was playing what. Jacques Levy would be sitting there also and saying, "Oh, we need more of this, we need more of that." Generally, that information was taken with a grain of salt.
Why is that?
Usually the guy who loves the artist just wants to hear Bob. They’re biased to put Bob's vocal above everything else. My feelings at the time were, I'm sort of making music, so I want to do a mix where you can hear everything. Obviously you still want to hear the vocals, but you also want to hear the guy playing the triangle.
This leg of the tour, you're hitting a lot of big places. Were they hard to get decent sound in?
The hardest was probably Fort Collins [Hard Rain], because that was the big outdoor show. We had a speaker blow over and get impaled by a piece of scaffolding.
Are there any shows that stick out all these years later in your memory?
One of the shows, in New Orleans, we were at The Warehouse [a famous music venue once located on Tchoupitoulas Street] setting up and Joan Baez went out and bought lunch for the crew. She personally went out and came back with bags of McDonald's, just for the setup crew. We were fairly well into the tour by then. It just impressed me that she actually cared about us.
There was the one show that we did for the Gatesville State School for Boys. That was another outdoor show, which was a little strange. I think that was an add-on date that he decided to do.
That's the one that was for an audience of juvenile delinquents or something?
What was the scene there? That's a weird one.
It was just like a field with a stage on it. I don't think there were a whole lot of people there. It's not the sort of show I normally do.
The reason I found you was that setlist.fm comment. Did you take or keep recordings of some of the shows?
I have recordings of two shows: Austin and Mobile. There's some tapes that are unlabeled that I haven't been through yet. It's possible I might have some more, but I was cheap back in those days, so when I was home off the road, I would put cassettes onto reel-to-reel. For some reason, when I did the Dylan ones, I didn't really keep separate which were from which show. Typically, I would do that, but for some reason I didn't. Unfortunately, I threw all the tapes together. I guess that was because that was really my last tour as a touring soundman.
I don't really know the tech, but how are you recording these? Are you plugging into the soundboard?
The Dylan shows were all recorded off the board. I would just split one of the outputs and plug it into my cassette deck. Two channels, not really stereo. I don't remember which board I had. It might've been a stereo board, but we really didn't do stereo much at that time.
There are some recordings I have of other bands that are called binaural, where I would have two microphones out at the board with me. One would be left channel, one would be right channel. It's actually pretty cool because when you listen to them on headphones, you really get a feeling of the room. It sounds like you're actually in the arena, whereas off the board, it's very dry. You can hear echoes, a little bit of the audience, but the binaural ones, I'm right out in the audience, so you can definitely hear the audience reaction. You can hear people around you.
For the Dylan ones, were you just making recordings for personal enjoyment, or was that an official part of the job?
Personal enjoyment. Again, I was cheap, so I didn't have a lot of cassettes. I would just tape certain shows. A lot of times, I was mixing the sound and wasn't really paying attention to the tape, so sometimes the tape would run out at the middle of the song, and I wouldn't notice it till that song was over. "Oops, I forgot to flip the tape." Most of it was for my enjoyment. Very few of the bands that I worked with actually wanted to hear any tapes of shows.
You were also at Concert for Bangladesh right? That must've been a big one.
Yes. Again, we didn't really talk to anybody but I was very impressed with Ringo's drum set. I found out pretty much how he got that nice drum sound. He had tea towels over most of the drum heads.
Actually, I have tapes of the rehearsals, but not of the actual show because in New York City, you are not allowed to record at Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall.
Is that a union thing?
Yeah. I had a great tape of an absolutely fantastic Van Morrison show at Carnegie Hall. Somehow the union crew found out I had it, so I had to give it up.
That's brutal. And you were at Watkins Glen too, that famous giant show with the Dead, the Allmans, and the Band?
We had no idea what it was going to be like. We stopped on the way up at Painted Post [New York] and checked into a motel. Left all our stuff there, went up to Watkins Glen, started setting up, and then we realized there was no way we were going to get back to the hotel, sleep, and make it back in time for the show. People were starting to show up. We ended up sleeping in our truck, four or five of us. We only had two packing blankets. It was not exactly a comfortable night.
During the setup, they asked me who we wanted to eat with. There were three different caterers, for the Dead, the Allman Brothers and the Band. I said, "Oh, we’ll eat with the Band ." Unfortunately, they were pretty much all macrobiotic types. Health food. My crew was a little upset with my choice.
After the show, we stayed up all night tearing everything down. One of the stage crew was a forklift driver, and the delay towers were probably 20 feet in the air. We built speakers on top of that. He would raise his forks up and we would move a couple of speakers onto it, and he would fall asleep. Somebody had to climb down and wake him up. After about three or four times of that, we just had a guy stay down there and keep him awake.
I have a bunch of old Rolling Stone magazines on my computer. I searched your name and one thing that popped up from a few months before Rolling Thunder is a drug arrest with Bette Midler’s band. Do you remember that?
Yes, up in Buffalo. Some people were in the room, and the hotel parking lot was basically outside the room. Apparently, the cops were sitting out there. [The people partying] were stupid enough to not close the curtains. The cops saw it and they came into the room. There were five or six people in there. It was two rooms actually. They were partying in one room, and one guy was asleep in the other room. He got arrested anyway.
We got out of jail that evening. Went on to do the tour. We were supposed to go back to Buffalo for a hearing but eventually everything got thrown out. They said it was all a political thing by the DA who was running for mayor or some other office.
In terms of that Fort Collins Hard Rain show, how does your job change when the show’s also being professionally recorded for a live album? Is that another team that's there you have to work with?
It depends on who they were. Sometimes they would put their own microphones up on stage, not so much on the vocals but on the set of drums and some of the instruments. We would plug the mics into their plug boxes, and then they would split the signal. One would go to their truck and one would go to the PA equipment.
So it's being mixed separately. You're mixing one half of it for the front of the house and they’re doing it separately for the recording?
Yeah. They’re putting each mic on a single track so that they can go back and do a mix over and over again. They have multiple chances to get it right. In my job, you only have one chance to get it right.
Surprise! Remember those never-heard soundboard tapes from Mobile and Austin? Here they are. Neither has ever circulated before. In fact, no tape period—soundboard or otherwise—of this Austin show has ever circulated before.
The same goes for some non-Bob bonus tracks from other Rolling Thunder ‘76 shows: Willie Nelson’s set in Houston, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez at that Gatesville juvenile detention center show.
1976-04-29 (evening), Expo Hall, Municipal Auditorium, Mobile, AL [FLAC]
w/ Willie Nelson, Bob Neuwirth, Roger McGuinn bonus tracks
1976-05-12, Municipal Auditorium, Austin, TX [FLAC]
w/ Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, T Bone Burnett bonus tracks
Huge thanks to David Hendel for talking and for sharing his recordings.
Bonus thanks to Les Kokay for helping me sort what was what on these tapes—which as that initial comment mentioned, had been mixed together into a single compilation, alongside some other stuff it turned out—plus Ian Woodward for additional fact-checking assistance.