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Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan and the Band: Before the Flood

C. Michael Bailey By

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Bob Dylan / The Band
Before the Flood

You walk into the room / With your pencil in your hand You see somebody naked / And you say, "who is that man?"

Before the Flood was Bob Dylan's first live recording to be commercial released. It was recorded during Tour '74, Dylan's first full- fledged tour since 1966, when he hit the road with The Band, then the Hawks, for a comprehensive world tour that took place between the releases of Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (Columbia, 1966). Between 1966 and 1974, Dylan had a motorcycle wreck that sent him underground. For the next two years, Dylan lived in the basement of The Band's "Big Pink" and he and the boys recorded what would become The Basement Tapes (Columbia, 1975). John Wesley Harding (Columbia, 1967) and Nashville Skyline (Columbia, 1969) followed and then Dylan entered the 1970s with Self Portrait (Columbia, 1970), New Morning (Columbia, 1970), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Columbia, 1973), Dylan (Columbia, 1973), Planet Waves (Columbia, 1974) meeting both praise and indifference. Planet Waves reunited Dylan with the Hawks, now The Band, and the two made a dual "comeback," The Band from the off releases Cahoots (Capitol, 1971) and the covers recording Moondog Matinee (Capitol, 1973).

The 40-date, 21 city tour began on January 3, 1974 in Chicago, ending a mere six weeks later on February 14, 1974 in Los Angeles. Dylan had recently left Columbia Records for Asylum Records. The new label had ambitious plans for Dylan's first tour in eight years. Ten live recording sessions were planned: three in New York City at Madison Square Garden on January 30th and 31st; two in Seattle at the Center Coliseum on February 9th; two in Oakland at the Alameda County Coliseum on February 11th; and the final three performances in Los Angeles at the Forum on February 13 and 14. Before the Flood assembled from the final three shows in Los Angeles with only "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" coming from one of the New York City show.

Of all of his live recordings, Before the Flood rains Bob Dylan's best. Perhaps it is not the most (in)famous; that might be the "Albert Hall" show recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 (The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia, 1998)). It might not be the most daring; that might be the failed Bob Dylan at Budakon (Columbia, 1979). It is not really the most interesting as is much of Hard Rain (Columbia, 1976) is and not as pedestrian as Real Live (Columbia, 1984). It was not blatantly commercial as was his brief union with the Grateful Dead and his flirtation with Tom Petty. Yes, this set is his best. Before the Flood is the most complete and least compromised of Dylan live recordings.

For this tour, Dylan elected to do a major retooling of some of his better known songs, giving them a taut, serrated edge. This is most manifested in "Don't Think Twice," "Lay Lady Lay" (further transmogrified on Hard Rain ), and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," where Dylan sings with an edge of anger and arrogance revealing his state of mind while underground for those years. Dylan does not so much reclaim "All Along the Watchtower" from Jimi Hendrix as he recasts it with the incandescent performance here, which is further super- heated by some of Robbie Robertson's best guitar playing on the release.

"Highway 61 Revisited," transformed into an electric blues pilgrimage by Johnny Winter, is transformed back into the mutant bastard child of Biblical prophecy and 1960s American politics Dylan originally intended it to be. "Ballad of a Thin Man" is transformed by Garth Hudson's use of the Lowery String Symphonizer (an early synthesizer embedded in the Lowrey H25-3 organ that was adapted from the Freeman string symphonizer). It adds mystery and menace to Dylan's already foreboding delivery.

Dylan plays an acoustic "Don't think Twice, It's Alright," with biting irony and rage. "Just Like A Woman" is about as tender as Dylan got in the concert, and he was still spitting his words. "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" was received properly by a 1974 concert crowd weary from six years of Richard Nixon and Watergate...could be today:

...our preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred- dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked...

The Band performs a spirited set of their better known repertoire. The performance does not compare to the sublime Rock of Ages (Capitol, 1972) but it still hold up well. "Up on Cripple Creek" is superb, perhaps only surpassed by The Last Waltz (Warner Bros., 1978) performance. "The Shape I'm In" and "Stage Fright" are vintage, but the performance overall lacks the honest reckless determination of Rock of Ages. It remains difficult to overestimate the importance of this tour and the music it produced. As completest reissues have recently been the rage, I put forth that all three of the final Forum shows be released as a box. The set would require a platinum remastering with the goal of bringing the music in from the distance. It is is time.

The Ten Best Live Rock Recordings

Track Listing: Most Likely You Go Your Way; Lay Lady Lay; Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; Knockin' on Heaven's Door; Ballad of a Thin Man; Up on Cripple Creek; I Shall Be Released; Endless Highway; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; Stage Fright; Don't Think Twice, It's All Right; Just Like a Woman; It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); The Shape I'm In; When You Awake; The Weight; All Along the Watchtower; Highway 61 Revisited; Like a Rolling Stone; Blowin' in the Wind.

Personnel: Bob Dylan: vocals, guitars, harmonica, piano; Rick Danko: vocals, bass guitar, fiddle; Levon Helm: vocals, drums, mandolin; Garth Hudson: Lowery organ, clavinet, piano, synthesizer, saxophone; Richard Manuel: vocals, piano, electric piano, organ, drums; Robbie Robertson: electric guitar, backing vocals.

Title: Bob Dylan and the Band: Before the Flood | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: Columbia Records


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