Carter Benefit at Astrodome
HOUSTON — The Rolling Thunder Revue made its first stop in Middle America January 25th, as Bob Dylan and his band of gypsies, performing once again in support of imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, joined an amazing array of musicians for the Night of the Hurricane II benefit. The seven-hour concert drew about 40,000 people at $12.50 a ticket, but ended amid charges of bad acoustics and rumors of financial extravagance.
Unlike last December’s Madison Square Garden rally, Hurricane II was organized totally by Carter’s defense committee, Freedom for All, Forever. Nor was Dylan the first performer asked to participate. According to George Lois of the defense committee, “Dylan didn’t jump in at the beginning because he wanted to be sure others were coming. When other people became involved he said, ‘Man, I’m coming!’ We weren’t even counting on Dylan because he had busted his hump enough. Actually, the two guys who got it started were Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes.”
Although promoter Clyde Carson (Caesars Palace) had announced that the show was being moved from New Orleans to Houston only ten days before the benefit, the concert began on schedule at two in the afternoon. The 1619 Bad Ass Band, a disco group personally selected by Carter because they had played many concerts in prisons, opened; after that, Shawn Phillips, accompanied by pianist Paul Robinson, played an introspective 50-minute set which evoked a polite but subdued response.
Then came the headliners. Isaac Hayes, serving as emcee and clad in a Hurricane T-shirt and black slacks, introduced Stevie Wonder and his nine-piece band. Wonder, in a green and black metallic Labelle spacesuit, pumped out the tightest set of the day, playing for more than an hour. He opened with two new jazz-funk compositions, ‘Contusion’ and ‘Starburn’, before settling down to more familiar material that included ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin” and ‘Higher Ground’. Then, building to a climax, he did a version of the O’Jays’ ‘I Love Music’ that brought the crowd to its feet on the Dome’s dirt floor to chant “Free the Hurricane” — the most vocal political moment of the benefit. Wonder closed by segueing back into ‘Superstition’.
Hayes picked up the “Free the Hurricane” chant as Wonder exited, and then settled into a brief cocktail piano interlude, with Wonderlove backing him. An intermission followed, during which Carter spoke by telephone to the assemblage, warning that “without freedom there is nothing.” Carter’s wife Mae Thelma and daughter Theodora were presented with a Texas flag and actress Dyan Cannon recited a prison reform poem.
At dusk, Dylan’s troupe took over for nearly three hours — and sloganeering yielded to plain raunchiness. Beginning with the first howling strains of ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, the music was that of a driving, if not exactly polished, countrified big band. Dylan himself sang well but the overly loud harmonies of Bobby Neuwirth and the presence of as many as eight guitarists made the snakelike violin of Scarlet Rivera the only discernible strain in the band’s music. The sound — excluding the terrible echoes — was the result of a week-long warmup in Los Angeles, which had included a surprise appearance at the Troubadour, where Roger Miller was playing, two days before the Houston concert.
The revue regulars — Dylan, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, Neuwirth, Rob Stoner and Roger McGuinn — each performed short sets. During his segment, Dylan mixed ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘I Threw It All Away’ with new songs like ‘Isis’ and ‘Oh, Sister’. In the background, none other than Ringo Starr shared drumming duties, first with Howie Wyeth, then with Joe Vitale. He played no solos and did not sing.
Then Steve Stills, an unannounced celebrity, walked out onto an empty stage and sang ‘Word Games’, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Carlos Santana, another surprise, joined Stills for ten minutes’ worth of ‘Black Queen’ — the most interesting, though cluttered, electric guitar interaction of the night.
Rick Danko of the Band, Dr. John, Richie Havens and token Texan Kinky Friedman (who led a singalong on ‘Asshole from El Paso’) continued the star shuttle onstage. Eighteen songs after he’d left, Dylan returned to the microphone. Playing acoustic guitar and harp, he sang a soft, poetic version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ that ended on a surprisingly gruff and biting note. Joined by the core of the band — Rivera, Stoner, Wyeth and bluegrass pedal steel player Dave Mansfield — he reworked the lines in ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and did up ‘Just like a Woman’ western-dance style. Then the whole cast rejoined him onstage and concluded, naturally, with ‘Hurricane’.
Despite the awesome array of performers, the Hurricane II concert was only the peaceful eye of the storm. Some locals actually thought that the benefit was for the victims of a tropical disaster; and the high ticket price, the arena’s poor acoustical reputation and the question of whether the advertised stars would actually appear prevented a sellout. By the morning after the concert, rumors abounded that the benefit, suffering from high stadium, hotel and transportation expenses, had actually lost money.
On the Tuesday after the concert, promoter Carson was unable to say how much money the defense committee would receive. “I won’t know until after the audit,” he said, but he seemed confident that the concert would show a profit after the Astrodome rental, originally pegged at $100,000, was renegotiated.
Nevertheless, sources at Bill Graham’s FM Productions, which was called in just before the concert to handle the technical side, criticized the rental deal (which also allowed the concessionaires to keep their entire proceeds). “They were rookies on every level,” said Dave Furano, FM’s vice-president of operations. “There was nobody to give any answers to the press,” said Zohn Artman, the organization’s director of public relations. “I think they’ve gone down.”
With George Lois not returning his calls and Clyde Carson waiting for news from his accountants, the fate of Hurricane II is still blowing in the wind.
© Joe Nick Patoski, Rolling Stone, 26 February 1976