Travel back to 1974 and Bob Dylan's return to the stage following a seven-and-a-half-year touring hiatus. As Dylan and the Band journeyed across North America during the first two months of that year, expectations were tremendous. The tour was the hottest ticket in town, so much so that the US post office had to set up extra mailboxes for ticket orders in many of the major cities. Over five million paid mail orders were reportedly sent in for the 650,000 tickets available over the course of the tour, making them the most in-demand ticket in the history of rock music. Forty concerts were performed in 43 days, culminating in three performances at the Forum in Inglewood, California, where the bulk of the live album, Before The Flood, was recorded. From the start, a live album was planned, the first of Dylan's career, and his new label (he left Columbia for David Geffen's Asylum label the previous year) had high expectations. These pressures were likely insignificant compared to Dylan knowing he must transcend his legendary status and the expectations of his audience, which, despite his absence from touring, had only grown stronger in the intervening years.
Also contributing to the nearly rabid anticipation for this tour was Dylan teaming back up with the Band, who with the exception of drummer Levon Helm, had backed Dylan on the infamous tour of Europe in 1966 and played on the Basement Tapes. Indeed, with the exception of his first electric performance at Newport in 1965 and his guest appearance at the Concerts For Bangladesh in 1970, the Band were the only group to back Dylan publicly up to this point in time. Through the bourgeoning underground network of bootleg recordings, Dylan and the Band's musical relationship had taken on a near mythical and legendary status, despite having never been released or even heard by the vast majority of fans at the time. Since Dylan's touring hiatus began in 1966, the Band had become one of the most respected and influential groups on the planet, having released a series of albums that remain some of the most compelling and distinctly original of the late 1960s. Performing less frequently, the Band were a considerable draw on their own by this point, and with their 1971 Cahoots LP being their last to contain new original music (1973's Moondog Matinee was an album of covers), they too were faced with daunting expectations.
As the tour progressed, Dylan and the Band experimented with song selection and sequencing, consciously avoiding the standard opener/closer routine and instead mixed things up a bit within each set. Performing within a basic two set format, each set presented The Band performing both with and without Dylan, plus following the intermission, Dylan began each second set solo acoustic, something he hadn't attempted in quite some time. Once a few adjustments were made, the pacing and sequencing of the concerts worked well and stayed relatively consistent, giving both Dylan and the Band opportunities to perform together and alone. Revealing that Dylan was quite aware of audience expectations, he chose to perform a variety of his most revered songs, including quite a few from the 1966 tour setlist, while avoiding recent material from Self Portrait and New Morning. With the notable exception of "Forever Young," Dylan even avoided material from Planet Waves, the new album recorded with the Band, released a few week's into the tour. Instead, he returned to many of the songs that established his reputation in the first place, but as would become more prevalent in the years to come, he often revamped or rearranged them, bringing entirely new meanings to a lyric by emphasizing different words or occasionally by changing the lyrics altogether.
Dylan and the Band together on stage was an event to be celebrated, and few left disappointed, but what one gets out of these performances has a lot to do with the baggage they bring to listening. The same applied to the audiences on this tour. While nearly everyone was celebrating the event itself, those with the fewest preconceptions had a greater chance of unhindered discovery, while those fixated on the 1966/67 era bootlegs of Dylan and the Band were destined to have their enjoyment hindered by comparison. Needless to say, Dylan had continued moving forward, even within the context of older songs, many of which had evolved or changed since their earlier incarnations.
Other than the January 30th and 31st dates, when three sold-out performances were scheduled for Dylan's previous home stomping grounds in New York City, the most highly anticipated dates of the tour were saved for last when the tour was scheduled to hit California for five performances. Two shows were scheduled for the Bay Area's Coliseum in Oakland followed by three additional shows in the Los Angeles area, which would conclude the 40-show concert schedule. Here we present in its entirety, Bill Graham's recording of the evening performance in Oakland exactly as it happened. Recordings from the final nights at the Inglewood Forum figured prominently on the live document of the tour, Before The Flood, but nothing from Dylan and the Band's triumphant return to San Francisco (Oakland, technically) was ever officially issued, making this nearly flawless professional recording of particular interest.
Two prime examples of how Dylan had revamped older songs to fit his current state of mind are included in the opening six-song sequence, which features Dylan and the Band performing together. Both of these songs, "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" which kicks off the set, and "It Ain't Me Babe" several songs later, now speak directly to Dylan's audience, declaring his independence from their expectations. Both are strong, engaging performances. Stage banter was kept to a minimum on this tour, but following the opening number Dylan conveys his excitement by exclaiming "Back in San Francisco at last!" The remainder of this first Dylan/Band sequence includes a revamped "Lay Lady Lay," two of his most enduring counterculture/drug influenced songs, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35" (with humorous new lyrics). This first portion concludes with Dylan's ultimate "us vs. them" song, "Ballad Of A Thin Man." On every one of these songs, the Band proves just how well they adapt to Dylan's idiosyncrasies, playing in a truly collective manner that is full of fire.
In the middle of each set, Dylan takes a break so that the Band can perform original material. Here they open with the title song off their third album, Stage Fright, with Rick Danko fronting the group on lead vocals. The remainder of their set focuses on material from their most beloved album, their self-titled sophomore effort. These are all highly engaging performances, from the classic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "King Harvest" to the more obscure "When You Awake," concluding with the percolating "Up On Cripple Creek." The Band has the innate ability to seem loose and relaxed, while playing in an incredibly tight manner. These are prime examples of that cohesiveness, with each member contributing to the collective whole, with little grandstanding or superfluous soloing. Instead the intensity is generated by the energetic piano playing of Manuel, the unparalleled flavoring of Garth Hudson's keyboard arsenal and Robertson's controlled biting leads—all weaving in and out of the supple rhythm section of Danko and Helm, who are superb here, both on their instruments and as lead vocalists.
To conclude the first set, Dylan returns and together these musicians deliver three more songs together, beginning with a fast and furious arrangement of "All Along The Watchtower," with an overt similarity to Jimi Hendrix's take on the song. Here one can enjoy the Band at their most blazing. A radically revamped "Ballad Of Hollis Brown," one of Dylan's vintage topical songs, is next. Practically unrecognizable compared to its original incarnation, this has been transformed into another searing rocker, with Dylan growling out the vocals, Robertson interjecting biting leads, and the collective group bearing down hard and heavy between the verses. They wrap up the first set with an emotionally engaged vocal performance from Dylan on "Knockin On Heaven's Door."
Following the intermission, Dylan returns to the stage alone, sporting just his acoustic guitar and harmonica. This alone was enough to send waves of nostalgia through the audience and was likely the most challenging part of the nightly performance for Dylan. Thankfully, the clarity of these recordings help to eliminate the lack of intimacy of performing solo acoustic in a giant sporting arena, allowing the listener to hear the nuances of Dylan's performance. Again, his choice of songs reflects his willingness to give the audience what it wants and this solo set not only includes two songs from his pivotal Bringing It All Back Home album, but two additional songs from his earliest albums and the hit from Blonde On Blonde. Dylan begins his acoustic set with "The Times They Are A Changin'," another song that takes on new meaning in the context of Dylan's return to the stage. The versions of "Don't Think Twice Its All Right," "Gates Of Eden," "Just Like A Woman," and "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" which follow are equally engaging, with Dylan forcefully enunciating certain words to help get them across to such a large audience. While the delicacy of a song like "Just Like A Woman" is somewhat lost in this translation, other songs become more powerful in the process. This is particularly evident on "Don't Think Twice," "Gates Of Eden" (which begins in progress due to a tape stock change), and particularly, "It's Alright Ma," which Dylan performs here at a near-frantic clip. With the tour coinciding with the doom and gloom of Watergate and a disgraced presidential administration, this song elicited massive reactions at every show when Dylan hits on the line "even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked," which deeply resonates around the room.
Following Dylan's acoustic set, the Band return to the stage for another four numbers on their own. The mix balance is way off at first, which detracts from the first two songs a bit, but is otherwise another delight. Beginning with "Rag Mama Rag," featuring Levon Helm on lead vocals and Rick Danko playing fiddle and ending with "The Weight," the group's most famous song, this second mini-set is quite engaging, despite the mixing flaws. In between, they also treat the audience to "This Wheels On Fire," a writing collaboration with Dylan sourced from the infamous Basement Tapes era. The mix is straightened out during this number and remains quite good for the duration of the performance. A thoroughly enjoyable romp through "The Shape I'm In" is also featured before concluding their portion of the second set with "The Weight."
All of this leads up to the grand finale featuring Dylan and the Band again performing together. This final three-song sequence begins with "Forever Young," the sole representation from the new Planet Waves album when it was fresh and new. A unique and fiery reading of "Highway 61 Revisited" follows, before they conclude the set with the song nearly everyone was anticipating, "Like A Rolling Stone." Propelled by Levon Helm's propulsive drumming and Garth Hudson's soaring organ lines, this is a remarkable performance with Dylan and the Band thoroughly in the moment. While comparisons to the 1966 live versions are inevitable, this is an equally strong performance with Dylan belting out the choruses and tearing into nearly every word. Gone is the weariness and arrogance of the 1966 era performances, replaced by a more inclusive celebratory feel that perfectly caps off the night.
With the audience ecstatically encouraging an encore, Dylan and the Band return to the stage and tear into "Maggie's Farm," a song performed on only three other occasions during this tour. Following this, Dylan closes this final Bay Area gig with an electrified take on "Blowin' In The Wind." Considerably different than its acoustic incarnation, this closing number features a wonderful guitar break from Robertson amidst Dylan continuing to experiment with his vocals. He seems to intentionally obliterate meaning from the lyrics by enunciating unexpected words, turning what was once an anthem into a more abstract feeling—which, in true Dylan form, leaves his audience guessing. It is yet another example of Dylan's approach to his songs as something continuously evolving.
At this moment in time, the tour would stand as one of the most successful ever and it certainly went a long way toward rejuvenating interest in both Dylan and the Band. In his second volume of "Performing Artist" books on the subject, Crawdaddy! founder, Paul Williams put this tour in context most succinctly when he stated, "The performances that resulted are not among the best of his career; but they are frequently very moving and represent a crucial transition: Dylan's reclaiming of the stage after a long and stifling silence, his rediscovery and reassertion of himself as a performing artist."
Written by Alan Bershaw