He hadn’t toured since the spring of 1966. And when he did it was with The Hawks, who would become The Band. So when Bob Dylan and The Band joined forces for a short North American tour in January and February 1974, it was big news. More than 650,000 tickets were sold for the 40 shows they put on in 21 different cities in the course of six weeks. The last three shows on Feb. 13 and 14 in Los Angeles provided all but one of the songs on the double LP Before The Flood, released in June 1974.
How much demand was there? Tickets were sold by mail only and it’s estimated more than twelve million were requested. While the tour would be the most successful in rock history to that time, the performers and promoters weren’t the only ones getting a cut. As one writer put it, “Ticket scalpers were as plentiful as suckerfish on a shark in some cities.” Although the most expensive tickets were supposed to be $9.50 (still a bargain considering that is the equivalent of roughly $40-$50 today), they were selling for $15 to $75 on the street and garnering an average price of $25-$30.
Still, it was not only a unique opportunity, the shows — and the eventual LPs — presented a Dylan putting a kick-ass spin on many of his songs. Perhaps only Hard Rain, released two years later, presents more ferocious and biting live reworkings of Dylan’s songs. The album follows the format of most of the concerts, which generally consisted of 18-19 songs in two sets and one or two encores. Six songs with Dylan and The Band would open the show, followed by four or five songs by The Band and another three with Dylan before intermission. The second set opened with five or six acoustic songs by Dylan, the Band would then perform four songs before they joined to wrap up the set with three songs. The encores usually consisted of one or two songs by Dylan and The Band. In comparison, the first side of the first album in the Before the Flood, set is Dylan and The Band while side two is exclusively The Band. The first side of album two opens with three Dylan acoustic numbers, followed by three tunes by the Band. The final side is four tunes by Dylan and The Band, with “Blowin’ in the Wind” closing the album, which was the final encore song for about a quarter of the shows on the tour. Each LP is on one disc is the CD editions.
The attitude of Before the Flood is there from the start, as Dylan and The Band kick off with a highly up tempo “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine).” The same feel carries over to songs that were originally softer, such as “Lay Lady Lay,” from 1969’s Nashville Skyline, and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” from the 1972 soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. This is also a Dylan Dylan with a fuller, more mature voice. And with The Band, he puts different structures on many tunes, including “All Along the Watchtower” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” There is also a ferocious rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” as the penultimate song on the LP.
It is important not to overlook The Band’s contribution to this record. From one standpoint, Before the Flood could serve as a live greatest hits production for it, particularly the way the two-LP set was packaged. More important, the sound and feel The Band provides now seem a precursor to the type of musicians Dylan has used throughout most his so-called Never Ending Tour. It is their style that helps add new layers to Dylan tunes that are classics. As such, this is a “must have” for fans of Dylan and The Band alike.
There is one final note perhaps worth mentioning. There are some claims the album cover started the tradition of saluting songs with lighters at concerts. But to me, that kind of begs the question. If it started the trend, then why are all the people on the cover holding lighters or matches in the air?
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only
“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Bob Dylan