Six weeks, 25 cities, 40 concerts. In January 1974, when Bob Dylan mounted his first major tour in eight years, it was touted as the most monumental rock tour of all time. And that was no exaggeration. It was the concert everybody had been waiting for. Even if they didn't know it yet.
Back in July 1966, just after recording Blonde on Blonde and wrapping up a world tour with his new electric backing band The Hawks (soon to become The Band), Dylan was riding along on the winding rural roads near Woodstock, NY when he wrecked his Triumph 500 motorcycle. It's hard to say which wracked him worse, the crash or the tour, but with a cracked vertebra in his neck, Dylan retreated to his Woodstock home to recuperate. However, he soon shut himself off from the world entirely to write songs and raise his young family. Intent on never touring again, the plan was to become a strict recording artist like The Beatles, dropping out an occasional album for the famished hordes.
In the Meantime...
During his prolonged hiatus, when Dylan did play a rare live show, it was an historic event. Much to the delight of a few thousand Bob-starved fans, he made several sporadic appearances. Dylan's first post-accident show was the Woody Guthrie Memorial at Carnegie Hall on January 20, 1968 where, backed by The Band, he did "I Ain't Got No Home," "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt," and "The Grand Coulee Dam."
Then on August 31, 1969, they performed a full show at the Isle of Wight Festival to a crowd of 150,000 And a couple years later, on August 31, 1971, Dylan performed solo at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, where he performed "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall,” "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” "Blowin' in the Wind,” and "Just Like A Woman."
While many music writers claim the above shows were the only ones Dylan played during his eight-year touring sabbatical, there was one that never gets mentioned: The Band's 1971 New Year's Eve concert at New York's Academy of Music, when Dylan ambled out and played “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood),” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Don't Ya Tell Henry,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
All during Dylan's hibernation, The Hawks transmuted into The Band and had been carving out their own swath of royalty in American popular music, releasing several albums and receiving major accolades from the nation's top music critics. They even grabbed the cover of Time magazine in January 1970 as “The New Sound of Country Rock.”
Whisperings of a Tour
By the summer of 1973, a restless Bob Dylan was living in Malibu, California. After dumping his longtime label Columbia, he signed with David Geffen's Asylum. Depending on who you talk to, Robbie Robertson first proposed the tour idea to Dylan. Others claim Dylan and Geffen cooked it up. Either way, the idea must have immediately intrigued Dylan who, with a marriage in fast decay and a career on idle, no doubt saw it as an avenue to escape the turmoil in his life while recapturing the spirit of his mid-'60s apex.
At a November 1 meeting, Dylan and Geffen met with The Band and laid out the details: Dylan and The Band would record a studio album together, then do a major tour, followed by a follow-up live double-album release. With Bill Graham greasing the wheels of this mammoth tour enterprise, Dylan and The Band began marathon rehearsals at 13-hours a crack in November, taking a three days off early in the month to record Dylan's forthcoming album, Planet Waves.
And when tickets went on sale by mail-order in December, the demand was overwhelming; Between 12-15 million people were salivating over the available 658,000 seats. Which translated to four percent of the U.S. population that wanted to see Dylan perform!
One for the Ages
As was Graham's style, the musician's were treated like royalty, being shuttled from city to city aboard Starship One, a 707 jet airplane that had been transformed into a luxe winged house of sin. The premiere show was January 3 in Chicago, and drummer Levon Helm described the set as follows: “The stage was a jumble of amps and old furniture—a rolltop desk, carpets, bunk beds, and Tiffany lamps—that looked like some old Klondike prospector's camp.”
With a two and a half hour time slot, the shows featured an hour-long opening set with Dylan and The Band playing a mix of their songs together. Then Bob would play a few of his songs solo, followed by The Band doing a few of their songs, all wrapped up with a group encore. As Levon Helm wrote in his book, This Wheel's on Fire, “We lived and traveled like kings amid the excesses of all that seventies rock and roll money: the fastest jet, the longest limos, the biggest suites, tons of white powder.”
Before the Flood
Planet Waves was released mid-tour in January, and spiked straight to the top of the charts, becoming Dylan's very first #1 album. Wrapping up the tour on February 13-14 at the Los Angeles Forum, the road-worn musicians parted ways, their voices gone and bodies broken. By all accounts it was the most physically taxing tour that any of them had ever experienced.
Before the Flood was released by Asylum records on June 20, 1974 and quickly climbed to the #3 position on the Billboard charts, grabbing #8 in the UK. Credited on the dust jacket as “Bob Dylan/The Band,” the double live LP featured 21 tracks from the tour. The bulk were captured at the final shows on February 13-14, while a few came from the New York City, Seattle and Oakland shows. Below is the track list from this epic album.
1. "Most Likely You Go Your Way"
2. "Lay Lady Lay"
3. "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"
4. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"
5. "It Ain't Me, Babe"
6. "Ballad of a Thin Man"
1. "Up on Cripple Creek"
2. "I Shall Be Released"
3. "Endless Highway"
4. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
5. "Stage Fright"
1. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"
2. "Just Like A Woman"
3. "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
4. "The Shape I'm In"
5. "When You Awake"
6. "The Weight"
1. "All Along the Watchtower"
2. "Highway 61 Revisited"
3. "Like A Rolling Stone"
4. "Blowin' in the Wind"