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. Two prime examples of how Dylan had revamped older songs to fit his current state of mind are included in the opening six-song sequence, which features Dylan and the Band performing together. Both of these songs, "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And Ill Go Mine)" which kicks off the set, and "It Ain't Me Babe," several songs later, now speak directly to Dylan's audience, declaring his independence from their expectations. Both are strong engaging performances. The remainder of this first Dylan/Band sequence includes a revamped "Lay Lady Lay," two of his most enjoyable counter-culture/drug influenced songs, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35"(with humorous new lyrics), and concludes with his ultimate "us vs. them" song, "Ballad Of A Thin Man." On every one of these songs, the Band proves just how well they adapt to Dylan's idiosyncrasies, playing in a truly collective manner that is full of fire.
In the middle of each set, Dylan takes a break so that the Band can perform original material within each set. Here they open with the title song off their third album, Stage Fright, with Rick Danko fronting the group on lead vocals. The remainder of their set focuses on material from their most beloved album, their self-titled sophomore effort. These are all highly engaging performances, from the classic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "King Harvest" to the more obscure "When You Awake" and concluding with the percolating "Up On Cripple Creek." The Band has the innate ability to seem loose and relaxed, while playing in an incredibly tight manner. These are prime examples of that cohesiveness, with each member contributing to the collective whole, with little grandstanding or superfluous soloing. Instead the intensity is generated by the energetic piano playing of Manuel, the unparalleled flavoring of Garth Hudson's keyboard arsenal and Robertson's controlled biting leads—all weaving in and out of the supple rhythm section of Danko and Helm, who are superb here, both on their instruments and as lead vocalists.
To conclude the first set, Dylan returns and together these musicians deliver three more songs together, beginning with a fast and furious arrangement of "All Along The Watchtower," with an overt similarity to Jimi Hendrix's take on the song. Despite being incomplete due to a tape stock change, here one can enjoy the Band at their most blazing. A radically revamped "Ballad Of Hollis Brown," one of Dylan's vintage topical songs is next. Practically unrecognizable compared to its original incarnation, this has been transformed into another blazing rocker, with Dylan growling out the vocals, Robertson interjecting biting leads, and the collective group bearing down hard and heavy between the verses. They wrap up the first set with an emotionally engaged vocal performance from Dylan on "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."
(Note: Set 2 is also available here at Wolfgang's)
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