Time Capsule: Bob Dylan and The Band, Before the Flood

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, upon the album’s 50th anniversary, we’re looking at Bob Dylan and the Band’s final waltz together—a 21-song behemoth of chemistry, mayhem and disinterest pulled from the final three shows of their underloved 1974 tour.

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Time Capsule: Bob Dylan and The Band, Before the Flood

By 1974, Bob Dylan and the Band had already carved out their own influential and ineradicable places in the history of modern rock and roll. Many of those hallowed chronicles found them alongside each other for what we now recognize as critical turning points for both the genre and popular culture. On Dylan’s 1966 world tour, the Band—still billed as the Hawks—climbed into the trenches as the “voice of his generation” turned Judas, blaring his electrified, modernist rock music to the disapproving masses across three continents. A year later, following Dylan’s infamous motorcycle accident, joint songwriting sessions in rural New York would inadvertently spark the modern bootleg industry and nudge the Band and their seminal Americana sound out of the basement of “Big Pink” and into the international spotlight.

Given the momentous weight of their history together, it’s somewhat surprising that an official live album documenting Dylan and the Band’s 1974 reunion tour has been relegated to a mere footnote in their shared saga. Despite critical praise upon release and platinum sales to match, Before the Flood rarely gets mentioned when considering either artist’s legacy as live performers. Concert recordings from Dylan’s own celebrated Bootleg Series—including a volume dedicated entirely to his heretical 1966 world tour with the Band—have overshadowed Before the Flood on several occasions. As for the Band, 1972’s Rock of Ages, featuring Allen Toussaint’s transformative horn arrangements, and 1978’s classic concert film The Last Waltz—shot by director Martin Scorsese, a recruit of Band guitarist Robbie Robertson—have both entered the live music canon. And, of course, each of those touchstones features cameos from none other than the Band’s friend and former boss, Bob Dylan.

Both Dylan and members of the Band have also been rather dismissive of the ‘74 tour, a two-month string of dates that saw them bring their roaring rock revival to large arenas across America. Dylan has admitted to having felt like they fell into the trap of merely reprising their familiar roles as Bob Dylan and the Band, respectively, rather than forging ahead in new creative directions. Band drummer-singer Levon Helm shared that sentiment in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, reflecting that the tour “just wasn’t a very passionate trip for any of us.” Such a shrugged-off recollection should really stick the proverbial fork in trying to find some neglected merit in what might be considered a rehashed, overblown and dusty artifact of a double live album; and yet, the sea of flickering lighters dotting Before the Flood’s album cover like fireflies across an open field suggests that something was happening on that ‘74 tour, even if Dylan and the Band couldn’t quite appreciate it at the time.

Much of the malaise expressed by Dylan and Helm regarding the tour can likely be attributed to the shape both acts found themselves in at the time. Dylan, long fed up with the tangles of fame and disillusioned with his longtime label, Columbia Records, had been off the road for nearly eight years and bolted to David Geffen’s Asylum Records. In addition to the Band also having been sidelined for an extended patch of time due to Robertson’s writer’s block and pianist-singer Richard Manuel’s alcohol abuse, Helm admitted that the group’s 1973 covers album, Moondog Matinee, stemmed from the quintet harboring too much dysfunction and resentment to possibly work on new songs in the brotherly, collaborative manner that had produced their finest music. As Dylan’s new album, Planet Waves, which the Band played on, neared release—a record that would top the charts and receive praise for being his most compelling album since 1967’s John Wesley Harding—the reclusive artist and his old backing group pinned their respective comeback hopes on one last waltz together.

Before the Flood does an admirable job of capturing what Dylan and the Band’s 1974 tour had shaped into by its final stops. Drawing from the tour’s last three shows across two days at the Forum in Inglewood (the lone exception being the inclusion of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from a Madison Square Garden show two weeks earlier), the double album stays true to the disjointed mini-sets and shuffling personnel of those events. Dylan would open and close the show with support from the Band, and the interim would feature multiple Band sets as well as a short solo stint by Dylan. It’s only a snapshot, of course, as the acts continually fiddled with the rhythm of shows, tinkered with their own performances and experimented with setlists—a fascinating evolution to trace via the many bootlegs that have surfaced over the years. Still, Before the Flood not only documents this unique collaborative structure but also staggers the imagination regarding what it must have been like to see such rock and roll heavyweights sharing not only a marquee and a stage but now a setlist.

Dylan’s initial set begins with the tour’s favored opener, the abrasive, rollicking “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” a deeper cut off Blonde on Blonde that serves as a defacto musical mission statement. If Dylan had, at times, sounded like his voice was competing with the Band’s backing in their earlier days together, he now sounds utterly locked in with Helm and bassist Rick Danko—his gruff, Nashville Skyline-era singing and almost-shouted punctuations running neck and neck with his bandmates, rather than trying to climb on their shoulders and topple them. These louder, sped-up arrangements lend clunky classics like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Lay, Lady, Lay” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” a newfound urgency with enough white space between verses and lines for Robertson’s guitar, Manuel’s keys and Garth Hudson’s organ to color in and texture every inch of the canvas. And thank goodness we now get to hear Danko, Helm and Manuel—three of classic rock’s most distinctive voices—give a song like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” its appropriate spiritual ether with their onomatopoetic harmonies.

That funky, unmistakable opening to “Up on Cripple Creek” (not to mention Hudson’s wah-wah clavinet following the choruses) reminds modern listeners of just how much had changed since the Band had last formally backed Dylan on tour. Chief songwriter Robbie Robertson and company had done their own world-conquering and now had not only the musical chops but the songs to follow an act like Dylan. Helm steps right off a Southern train station platform to tell of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; an anxious-voiced Danko inches sheepishly to the forefront on the skittish “Stage Fright”; and Manuel frantically stomps along to Hudson’s carnival Lowery organ on the desperate “The Shape I’m In.” All would have been instantly recognizable to the crowd at this point, which makes a rare runaway like “Endless Highway” all the more freeing as Robertson’s soloing stretches out towards the distance or Manuel’s one-of-a-kind falsetto even more poignant as the Band nod to Dylan on the latter’s “I Shall Be Released.”

As mentioned above, Dylan often felt at odds with the overwhelmingly positive reception as he and the Band blazed through old songs in new ways throughout the 1974 tour. Plaudits hinging on words like “louder,” “faster” or “energy” seemed to be missing the point in the songwriter’s eyes. In one sense, Dylan and the Band were now being championed for the same aural atrocities that had gotten them castigated and booed mercilessly back on their 1966 tour. As Robertson recalls, once the Band realized that Dylan’s instincts were correct on that earlier tour, their playing had become like a loud middle finger to an audience unable to “dig” what was coming next. Fast-forward to 1974 and that attitude seemed moot. Dylan and the Band were no longer musical conquistadors; the approval heard ringing throughout Before the Flood bears witness that their audience had already been converted. In fact, the crowd appears nostalgic for the Dylan and Band that they had either misunderstood or missed altogether eight years prior. This swung the onus back on Dylan and his tourmates to create new meaning for themselves as they looked to keep busy being born.

Dylan’s three-song solo set definitely does reveal a new type of intimacy with his audience. While some of the nuance of a song like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” may feel lost as Dylan puts his head down and proceeds full steam ahead, we do experience a new back-and-forth dynamic at play between him and those in attendance. It’s especially evident on “Just Like a Woman.” Gone is the hushed reverence we heard a decade prior in stuffy halls, replaced here by a rousing feedback loop as an arena crowd—no doubt nursing beer in paper cups—punctuates Dylan’s choruses with applause and urges him on during his harmonica outro. As commonplace as that type of interaction may seem by today’s concert experience, it does feel like a shift for Dylan fans as they cease to be witnesses to some anointed messenger and instead start becoming active participants as concertgoers. Similarly, we hear the crowd explode in approval during “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” when Dylan declares, “But even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked.” It’s a lyric that still elicits a loud cheer when Dylan delivers it five decades later.

Before the Flood closes out like an all-star jam from artists who have classic songs to spare. After the Band deliver their own showstopper with “The Weight,” Dylan rejoins them for four numbers that would take turns highlighting his encores for years to come. The most forgettable, “Highway 61 Revisited,” feels like the noisy, spiritual bookend to opener “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” and finds its footing thanks to Dylan’s emphatically barked refrain and Robertson’s guitar heroics. “All Along the Watchtower” turns into the apocalyptic exodus it deserves to be, as Dylan and the Band lean into a version that owes everything to Jimi Hendrix, and “Like a Rolling Stone” bounces atop Manuel and Hudson’s keys and transforms from acerbic to uplifting as the Band harmonize with Dylan on every therapist’s favorite question: “How does it feel?” Before the Flood fittingly ends with a rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” spliced from two performances, the earthy backing vocals on the choruses somehow managing to bring the song into the present while also harkening back to all the vexing ages of human existence that brought us to this point.

In hindsight, we can think about Before the Flood as a pair of celebrated musical acts leaning into their past one last time before facing a far-from-certain future. As remarkable as the Band sound here, their days as a true collaborative group were dwindling—as was the Robbie Robertson era. Dylan, on the other hand, would turn personal turmoil into his most revealing album, the devastating Blood on the Tracks, a mere year later and continue to seek out a more intimate and fulfilling vehicle for performing as he embarked on his famed Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour. And yet, I suspect the most enjoyable way to partake of Before the Flood might be to crib from those in attendance: beer in hand, lighter raised and voice hoarse from singing and screaming along to Bob Dylan and the Band. In other words, don’t think twice—just listen.

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