Bob Dylan - guitar, piano, vocals, harmonica; Robbie Robertson - guitar, vocals; Rick Danko - bass, fiddle, vocals; Richard Manuel - piano, vocals, drums; Garth Hudson - organ, clavinet, piano, synthesizer, saxophone; Levon Helm - drums, mandolin, vocals
Following a seven-and-a-half-year touring hiatus, journey back to 1974 and Bob Dylan's return to the stage. As Dylan and the Band journeyed across North America during the first two months of that year, expectations were tremendous. The tour was the hottest ticket in town, so much so that the US post office had to set up extra mailboxes for ticket orders in many of the major cities. Over five million paid mail orders were reportedly sent in for the 650,000 tickets available over the course of the tour, making them the most in-demand ticket in the history of rock music. Forty concerts were performed in 43 days, culminating in three performances at the Forum in Inglewood, California, where the bulk of the live album, Before The Flood, was recorded. From the start, a live album was planned—the first of Dylan's career. His new label (he left Columbia for David Geffen's Asylum label the previous year) had high expectations. These pressures were likely insignificant compared to Dylan knowing he must transcend his legendary status and the expectations of his audience, which despite his absence from touring had only grown stronger in the intervening years.
Also contributing to the nearly rabid anticipation for this tour was Dylan teaming back up with the Band, who with the exception of drummer Levon Helm, had backed Dylan on the infamous tour of Europe in 1966 and played on the Basement Tapes. Indeed, with the exception of his first electric performance at Newport in 1965 and his guest appearance at the Concerts For Bangla Desh in 1970, the Band were the only group to back Dylan publicly up to this point in time. Through the bourgeoning underground network of bootleg recordings, Dylan and the Band's musical relationship had taken on a near mythical and legendary status, despite having never been released or even heard by the vast majority of fans at the time. Since Dylan's touring hiatus began in 1966, the Band had become one of the most respected and influential groups on the planet, having released a series of albums that remain some of the most compelling and distinctly original of the late 1960s. Performing less frequently, the Band were a considerable draw on their own by this point and with their 1971 Cahoots LP being their last to contain new original music (1973's Moondog Matinee was an album of covers), they too were faced with daunting expectations.
As the tour progressed, Dylan and the Band experimented with song selection and sequencing, consciously avoiding the standard opener/closer routine and instead mixed things up a bit within each set. Performing within a basic two-set format, each set presented the Band performing both with and without Dylan; plus, following the intermission, Dylan began each second set solo acoustic, something he hadn't attempted in quite some time. Once a few adjustments were made, the pacing and sequencing of the concerts worked well and stayed relatively consistent, giving both Dylan and the Band opportunities to perform together and alone. Revealing that Dylan was quite aware of audience expectations, he chose to perform a variety of his most revered songs, including quite a few from the 1966 tour set list, while avoiding recent material from Self Portrait and New Morning. With the notable exception of "Forever Young," Dylan even avoided material from Planet Waves, the new album recorded with the Band, released a few week's into the tour. Instead, he returned to many of the songs that established his reputation in the first place, but as would become more prevalent in the years to come, he often revamped or rearranged them, bringing entirely new meanings to a lyric by emphasizing different words or occasionally by changing the lyrics altogether.
Dylan and the Band together on stage was an event to be celebrated and few left disappointed, but what one gets out of these performances has a lot to do with the baggage they bring to listening. The same applied to the audiences on this tour. While nearly everyone was celebrating the event itself, those with the fewest preconceptions had a greater chance of unhindered discovery, while those fixated on the 1966/67 era bootlegs of Dylan and the Band were destined to have their enjoyment hindered by comparison. Needless to say, Dylan had continued moving forward, even within the context of older songs, many of which had evolved or changed since their earlier incarnations.
One of the most highly anticipated runs on the tour arrived on January 30th and 31st, when three sold-out performances were scheduled for Dylan's previous home stomping grounds, New York City. With the exception of two songs that were not completely captured, here we present the entirety of Bill Graham's recording of that third and final Madison Square Garden performance exactly as it happened.
Following the intermission, Dylan returns to the stage alone, sporting just his acoustic guitar and harmonica to begin the second set. This alone was enough to send waves of nostalgia through the audience and was likely the most challenging part of the nightly performance for Dylan. Thankfully, the clarity of these recordings help to eliminate the lack of intimacy of performing solo acoustic in a giant sporting arena, allowing the listener to hear the nuances of Dylan's performance. Again, his choice of songs reflects his willingness to give the audience what they want throughout this solo set, delivering not only two songs from his pivotal Bringing It All Back Home album, but two additional songs from his earliest albums and the hit from Blonde On Blonde. Dylan opens the acoustic set with "The Times They Are A Changin', another song that takes on new meaning in the context of Dylan's return to the stage.
These versions of "Just Like A Woman," "Don't Think Twice Its All Right," "Gates Of Eden," and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" are quite engaging, with Dylan forcefully enunciating certain words to help get them across to such a large audience. While the delicacy of a song like "Just Like A Woman" is somewhat lost in this translation, other songs become more powerful in the process. This is particularly evident on "Don't Think Twice" (which also contains penetrating harmonica), "Gates Of Eden," and particularly, "It's Alright Ma." With the tour coinciding with the doom and gloom of Watergate and a disgraced presidential administration, this song elicited massive reactions at every show when Dylan hit on the line "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked," which deeply resonates around the room.
Following Dylan's acoustic set, the Band return to the stage for another four numbers on their own. Beginning with the delightful "Rag Mama Rag," featuring Levon Helm on lead vocals and Rick Danko playing fiddle, and ending with "The Weight," the group's most famous song, this second mini-set is equally as engaging as their earlier set. In between, they also treat the audience to "This Wheels On Fire," a Dylan collaboration sourced from the infamous Basement Tapes era. They also deliver a thoroughly enjoyable romp through "The Shape I'm In," before concluding their portion of the second set with "The Weight."
All of this leads up to the grand finale featuring Dylan and the Band again performing together. This final three-song sequence begins with "Forever Young," the sole representation from the new Planet Waves album, when it was fresh and new. A fiery version of "Highway 61 Revisited" follows, before they conclude the set with the song nearly everyone was anticipating, "Like A Rolling Stone." Propelled by Levon Helm's propulsive drumming and Garth Hudson's soaring organ lines, this is a remarkable performance with Dylan and the Band thoroughly in the moment. While comparisons to the 1966 live versions are inevitable, this is an equally strong performance with Dylan belting out the choruses and tearing into nearly every word. Gone is the weariness and arrogance of the 1966 era performances, replaced by a more inclusive celebratory feel that perfectly caps off the night.
With the audience ecstatically encouraging an encore, Dylan and the Band return to the stage and serve up a second helping of "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And Ill Go Mine)," before ending the night with an electrified take on "Blowin' In The Wind." Considerably different than its acoustic incarnation, this closing number features a wonderful guitar break from Robertson while Dylan continues to experiment with his vocals. He seems to intentionally obliterate meaning from the lyrics by enunciating unexpected words, turning what was once an anthem into a more abstract feeling—which in true Dylan form, leaves his audience guessing. It is yet another example of Dylan's approach to his songs as something continuously evolving.
At this moment in time, this tour would stand as one of the most successful ever and it certainly went a long way toward rejuvenating interest in both Dylan and the Band. In his second volume of Performing Artist books on the subject, Crawdaddy! founder, Paul Williams, put this tour in context most succinctly when he stated, "The performances that resulted are not the among the best of his career; but they are frequently very moving and represent a crucial transition: Dylan's reclaiming of the stage after a long and stifling silence, his rediscovery and reassertion of himself as a performing artist."
Written by Alan Bershaw