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In 1974, following a seven-year touring hiatus, Bob Dylan returned to the stage with a new album, Planet Waves, and an old backing crew: The Band. As they journeyed across North America in the first two months of that year, expectations were tremendous. More than five million paid mail orders were reportedly sent in for the 650,000 tickets available during the course of the tour, making them the most in-demand tickets in the history of rock music. Forty concerts were performed in 43 days, culminating in three performances at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., where the bulk of the live album Before the Flood was recorded.
A huge factor in the rabid anticipation for this tour was Dylan reuniting 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 Dylan’s first electric performance at Newport in 1965 and his guest appearance at the Concerts for Bangladesh in 1970, The Band were the only group to back him publicly up to this point in time. Through the bourgeoning underground network of bootleg recordings, their musical relationship had taken on a near mythic status, despite having never been heard by the majority of fans at the time. Since Dylan’s touring hiatus, The Band had become stars in their own right, having released some of the most compelling and distinctly original records of the late 1960s. Performing less frequently, they were a considerable draw on their own by this point, and with their 1971 album 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.
Read: The 42 Best Bob Dylan Songs
As the tour progressed, Dylan and The Band experimented with set lists and sequencing, avoiding the standard opener/closer routine and instead mixing things up. It was a basic two-set format, each with The Band performing both with and without Dylan; following the intermission, Dylan began the second set solo acoustic. 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. Perhaps aware of his audience’s thirst for the favorites, Dylan chose to perform a variety of his most revered songs, including 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,” he even avoided material from Planet Waves. Instead, he returned to many of the songs that had made him famous—but, as would become more prevalent in the years to come, he often revamped or rearranged them, bringing new meanings to lyrics by emphasizing different words or occasionally by changing them altogether.
One of the most highly anticipated runs on the tour arrived on Jan. 30 and 31, with three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. With the exception of two songs that weren’t completely captured, here we have the entirety of Bill Graham’s recording of the third and final MSG performance. 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 I’ll 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 worship.
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 Women #12 & 35” (with humorous new lyrics)—and concludes with his ultimate “us vs. them” song, “Ballad of a Thin Man.” On every song, the Band proves just how well they adapt to Dylan’s idiosyncrasies, playing in a collective manner that is full of fire.
In the middle of each set, Dylan takes a break so The Band can perform original material. On this night opened 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 had the innate ability to seem loose and relaxed while remaining incredibly tight. These are prime examples of that cohesiveness, each member contributing to the collective whole with little grandstanding or superfluous soloing. Instead the intensity is generated by the energetic piano playing of Richard Manuel, the unparalleled flavoring of Garth Hudson’s keyboard arsenal and Robbie 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 they deliver three more songs, 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 with its original incarnation, this has been transformed into another stomping rocker, with Dylan growling out the vocals, Robertson interjecting sharp guitar lines, and the entire 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.”
The 1973-74 tour concluded 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 the 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.”