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The Greatest Rock Tour: Bob Dylan & The Band in 1974 — 40 Years Later

The Greatest Rock Tour: Bob Dylan & The Band in 1974 -- 40 Years Later

Tour ’74, the six-week extravaganza of Bob Dylan and The Band in early 1974, turns 40 years old on Friday

The greatest rock and roll tour of its era — and maybe of all times — kicked off in freezing Chicago on the Thursday evening of Jan.3, 1974. It marked the return to touring of Dylan, following a 7 1/2 year break. Some 658,000 tickets were immediately snapped up in late 1973 by fans eager to see if Dylan still had the same on-stage charisma that had catapulted himself to stardom a decade earlier, first as folkie, then as a rock and roller.

Having The Band, one of the world’s most acclaimed groups, along was simply the cherry on top. Dylan and The Band, close friends and one-time neighbors in Woodstock, N.Y., made magic on stage. The members of The Band were stars in their own right by 1974. They had graced the cover of Time’s Jan. 12, 1970 issue (under the banner “The New Sound of Country Rock,” a genre Dylan had popularized during his recording excursions in Nashville).

As The Hawks, The Band had backed Dylan in 1965 and 1966, sans drummer Levon Helm who left the tour in November 1965 because he hated the constant booing. The results speak for themselves in official and bootleg accounts of the shows. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better live act at any time.

At any time — except perhaps in January and February of 1974, that is.

I saw the Jan. 31, 1974 (matinee) performance at Madison Square Garden, at about the mid-point of the rigorous 40-concerts-in-42-days grind. It was a remarkable show in many ways. First, musically, I’ve never seen a more dramatic show, featuring performances by Dylan and The Band as well as Dylan’s long-awaited solo spot and some sparking playing by The Band when Dylan left the stage.

The Band was in terrific form. They rocked harder than I had ever seen before, as if they took the responsibility for pushing Dylan out of his comfort zone — unless it was the other way around. I didn’t attend the rehearsals in late 1973 in Los Angeles and I haven’t heard any recordings of the process. So, I couldn’t say for sure if the transformation occurred because of Dylan’s prompting or The Band’s. Considering the rigors of their traveling in the dead of winter, it’s a real tribute to the fellows that they kept their stamina up as well as they did. I’ve heard recordings of the tour from five or six stops and the quality is high at each one.

As a series of concerts, it now seems anything but easy on the musicians. They were constantly performing and traveling from show to show. The unwieldy tour moved from Chicago to Philadelphia-Toronto-Montreal-Boston-Washington and so on, making it necessary for the musicians to fly to virtually every stop instead of being able to relax in a tour bus. 

The guys must have been energized for their MSG shows, part of a five-performance stop in the New York metro area. It was the greatest concert I’ve ever seen. I hadn’t yet heard any tapes of prior performances so it was all new to me. Dylan sang his radio hits like a demon, and The Band smoked behind him.  

In particular, lead guitarist Robbie Robertson was a rock beside Dylan. It’s fair to assume that Dylan was nervous about embarking on his first tour since 1966. Robertson, who always looked calm and in control on stage, gave him a massive security blanket. Dylan tinkered with the arrangements and The Band became his perfect foil. “You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Lay Lady Lay” and so many others sounded magnificent in their new styles — largely thanks to Robertson’s inventive guitar work. Robertson’s solos, particularly during The Band’s sets on “Endless Highway” and “Stage Fright,” were marvels to behold.

Dylan and The Band made everything they’d done together before sound tame by comparison. How did this happen? My theory is that The Band’s Aug. 1, 1973 show at Roosevelt Stadium, days after playing at massive Watkins Glen, paved the way. The 8/1/73 concert features The Band like I’d never heard them — loud, utterly raucous, ringing with Robertson’s guitar solos. They continued the form on tour with Dylan.

Plus, Dylan may have received some musical inspiration of his own. He is said to have greatly admired The Rolling Stones’ 1972 show at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps he secretly wanted to try in some way to out rock — or perhaps out-earn –The Stones. Of course, the 1970s were infamous for the influence that cocaine had on the entire entertainment community. Were the shows fueled by special substances, too? Beats me.

Who knows, with Dylan, what’s really going on.

What struck me, too, was how tense the audience seemed to be.It was as if we were worried about letting Dylan down somehow. We wanted to gain his respect. It was not like seeing Mick Jagger — The Stones were all about entertainment in 1972. But Bob Dylan, then and now, stood for something — intellect, intelligence, crusading. Whether Dylan wanted to wear the heavy mantle of Spokesman For a Generation or not, he was stuck with it. And we in the audience wanted him to know we wanted him to respect us.

Dylan fanatics will argue till next month about which of his tours was better, the 1965-66 shows, featuring his first rock and roll concerts and incessant booing by furious folkies all over the world, or Tour ’74? It’s a great question, which nobody can answer conclusively. On sheer inventiveness, I’d give the nod to 1966.

But in terms of other factors, you have to reward 1974. Dylan faced enormous pressure because he had so much to live up to — his own shadow, the touring success of such peers as The Stones and The Who (and somewhat newer heavyweight acts like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Elton John) and the older contenders for his throne, such as Neil Young and the solo Paul Simon. Then there were also the up-and-comers, Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. who were making names for themselves. Dylan was the king of pop when he retired form the road in 1966.Now, he was a face in the crowd who had the burden of showing everyone that he was still the master.

Not only had Dylan not toured in so many years, he also had not put out an album of all-new compositions since 1970. He and The Band hastily recorded an album in November 1973 in Los Angeles — a pace that Dylan preferred when he was in the studio. Originally entitled Ceremonies of the Horsemen (a phrase from his 1965 gem Love Minus Zero/No Limit), Dylan decided instead to call it Planet Waves and do the cover artwork himself. The last-minute changes resulted in the new album awkwardly coming out in mid-January, two weeks after the concert had begun.

More pressures: Finally, Dylan had new business partners, too, to impress and be impressed by. David Geffen, the music mogul (who later became an all-round mogul), had shrewdly recruited Dylan and The Band to his Asylum label and masterminded the tour. He enlisted the fabled promoter Bill Graham to work out the details. Planet Waves became Dylan’s first No. 1 album, though the sales seemed to drop off fairly suddenly after reaching that lofty level.

Of course, there would be the required live album as well from the tour. Before the Flood came out a few months after the final gig on Feb. 14 in LA. Musically, the album had few peers but the production quality didn’t excite me. I wish that we could get a new version of it, something matching the recording quality of 2013 releases marking the 1969 Dylan/Band one-off Isle of Wight concert and The Band’s own engagement at the very end of 1971, formerly known as Rock of Ages.

I look back fondly on this period in Dylan’s (and The Band’s) legacy. He became, as critic Paul Williams later noted in his great Dylan books, a committed artist again. After Tour ’74, Dylan became a dedicated working musician. He proceeded to tour in 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981 before taking a break. He then came back to tour with Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead before launching the so-called Never-Ending Tour in 1988.

You could say that any of Dylan’s later success stemmed from what he accomplished with Tour ’74, the greatest series of concerts in rock and roll history.

Jon Friedman is the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius For (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution” (Penguin, 2012)

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