Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Before the Flood: Dylan/The Band Perform One More For the Road

Released by Columbia Records, June 20, 1974
After recording Planet Waves, Dylan and the Band embarked on a tour throughout America in the winter of 1974.  In July Columbia released a live album, Before the Flood.  Despite the mixed reactions to the tour and the album, all agreed it was great to see Dylan back onstage.  Of the 21 cuts on the LP, there are 13 Dylan songs and 8 from The Band.  Before the Flood has an array of interesting moments and yet nothing stands out.  There's enthusiasm, but nothing like the passion from their previous tour eight years earlier. Dylan's foray into arena rock rode the nostalgia train to a nice paycheck and manufactured some exciting music for a live LP of adrenaline fueled performance.

The Dylan songs:

Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll go mine)
Lay Lady Lay
Rainy Day Women 12 & 35
Knockin' on Heaven's Door
It Ain't Me Babe
Ballad of a Thin Man
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right (acoustic)
Just Like a Woman (acoustic)
It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) (acoustic)
All Along the Watchtower
Highway 61 Revisited
Like a Rolling Stone
Blowin' in the Wind

The Band Songs:

Up On Cripple Creek
I Shall Be Released
Endless Highway
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Stage Fright
The Shape I'm In
When You Awake
The Weight

All but one of the numbers were taken from their February 13-14 shows at the LA Forum. Ticket prices were high, but the shows still sold out.  Unlike Dylan's previous tour back in 1966, when crowds met him with a cascade of jeers and screamed JUDAS at him, in 1974 his fans were ecstatic. Regardless of the music's quality, the mere "event" proved enough. After all the children of Dylan had reached their 20s and 30s.  The Beatles were a memory.  Nixon was on his way out.  The protests came to a halt. Elvis set up shop in Vegas.  Times were changing.

The rock concert scene had changed considerably as well.  Major acts like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin played arenas and reveled in working their fans into a frenzy.  While Dylan offered some new arrangements of his familiar hits, the tracks are often loud with Dylan shouting more than singing at times.  On "Most Likely You Go Your Way" he sounds as if he's trying to overpower the Band and the crowd.

The album ends on a soaring note with "All Along the Watchtower" a favorite of Dylan's to play to this day.  Robbie Robertson's guitar on "Blowin' in the Wind" transforms a folk song into a rock anthem.  That's a memorable moment.

Before the Flood begs the question: What makes for a great live album.  Is a true live album one that plays the entire concert from beginning to end?  Should those with selected cuts be critiqued differently? 

A good rapport with the audience can translate to a great record.  Live albums from Sam Cooke, Bruce Springsteen, and James Brown all have that audience connection thing going. Sometimes the historical moment adds drama, as in Dylan's Royal Albert Hall concert.  or Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Nirvana's 1994 Unplugged album achieved an intimacy with audience- whether present, watching at home, or listening on headphones.  Some live LPs can capture the virtuosity and unpredictability of a live performance you might get from the The Allman Brothers Band or the Grateful Dead.

Granted, Dylan was bound to sound a little rusty after being off the road for so long. While Before the Flood isn't one for the ages, listening to it makes the moment come alive - and that's something.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Planet Waves: Rainy Days on the Great Lakes

Released January 17, 1974
Newly signed by Geffen records during his brief estrangement from Columbia, Dylan recorded a new batch of songs with The Band, by then a phenomenon in their own right.

The album opens with the jubilant "On a Night Like This" in a sound reminiscent of the Basement Tapes with its accordion driven, wintry, back country atmosphere.  

A shift in mood occurs on "Going, Going, Gone."  Dylan's despairing lyrics combined with Robbie Robertson's blistering guitar, and Richard Manuel's piano seems to almost float - musically my favorite moment on the album.

The appropriately titled 'Tough Mama" blends the sacred and profane with pure rock and roll.  Then a shift to the angelic "Hazel", reminiscent of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

"Something There is About You" opens with a memorable stanza:

Something there is about you that strikes a match in me
Is it the way your body moves or is it the way your hair blows free?
Or is it because you remind me of something that used to be
Somethin’ that crossed over from another century?

The mystical and primal once again blend in a familiar Dylan trope.

Then one of Dylan's most enduring compositions 'Forever Young."  Placed at the end of side one, the track has an epic sound and builds up to a soaring crescendo.  Written for his son, Dylan wanted to write something for his kids without being overtly sentimental.  The homespun version on side two makes for a nice coda.

"Dirge" may be the bleakest song Dylan ever recorded.  Full of rage after a relationship ends, the narrators spews anger in every direction. In her review Patti Smith described "Dirge" as the type of love song, "Burroughs could get into . . . Broken masculine honor on low streets."

"You Angel You" feels sentimental and even a little perverse coming after "Dirge" with its syrupy lyrics.  "Never Say Goodbye" has a great line, "My dreams are made of iron and steel."  "Wedding Song" promises eternal devotion.

The first of an amazing trilogy of albums in the mid 1970s with Blood on the Tracks and Desire to follow, Planet Waves brought back an edge absent on previous albums like New Morning and Self-Portrait.  I'm sure every Dylan fan has a few "go to" albums, ones you can listen to on any day, and I would put Planet Waves in that category for myself because of its own unique groove of shifting tone and emotion - a rainy day album.