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.


  1. I just gave this a re-listen a week or so ago, as a follow-up to the Bootleg Edition release of the Basement Tapes, and came to more or less the same conclusion you have. There isn't really enough of Dylan and the Band on record, and what there is mostly just suggests how transformative this collaboration was-- for Dylan, for the members of the Hawks, for rock and roll and for American popular music generally. As things stand presently I'd say the best examples of this collaboration are on the electric side of the Live 66 set (ironically, Levon Helm is absent there), followed by the Basement Tapes set and then Before the Flood. Planet Waves is charming in its way, but probably the weakest collection documenting this period. Ranking them like this sort of diminishes the individual pleasures to be found on each, and I don't mean to do that-- sometimes I want to hear a particular set for its own merits, and it is important to bear in mind that what we are talking about here are great musicians working at or near the height of their powers

  2. Bill - Thanks for your comment! I think more needs to be written about Dylan as a musical collaborator in general, because he's done so much of it throughout his career. While Griel Marcus has written at length on what inspired the basement tapes, we need more on how Dylan/Band continue to influence American music, even notions of American identity.