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

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by Jon Friedman
January 2, 2014 2:38 PM
17 Comments
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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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17 Comments

  • Mark | February 1, 2014 9:49 PMReply

    I saw them 1/25 in Ft. Worth and I gotta tell ya' it was stunning. As it turns out it was my first concert- what away to start! I have to agree that Before the Flood, although interesting, didn't measure up to the experience of being there. Perhaps it could be remixed/ remastered. As to comparing '74 to '66, based on recordings I've heard of '66 I'd give than tour the edge. In hindsight, '74 was a bit too shouty compared to '66. But if I had a time machine I'd settle for going back to 1/25/74!

  • Manuel Mariño | February 1, 2014 1:21 PMReply

    The picture is taken from my blog (http://bobdylansgear.blogspot.com.es/2011/02/sunburst-epiphone-casino.html).... where you can find all the guitars Bob played through his career...this one, an Epiphone Casino belonged to Robbie Robertson....

  • Joe Sweeney | January 31, 2014 7:34 PMReply

    Came down from Gunnison to the Denver show at the Coliseum (Stock Show venue), don't know how we got tickets (mail order like Dead ticket purchases 'back in the day' maybe...), sure was good to see Bobby and the Band, kind of foggy on the details though...

  • Kris | January 31, 2014 3:52 PMReply

    Great post, Jon, and for the record, Before the Flood has always been my favorite recording of both Dylan and The Band. I'm with you in wishing they could remaster it.

  • chris | January 31, 2014 12:59 PMReply

    "The Stones were all about entertainment in 1972." The stones were not about entertainment in 72...when Mick Taylor Left they then became entertainment

  • amir fasaad | January 31, 2014 12:54 PMReply

    ...anyone know if those early '65/'66 concerts were taped (audio/visual) !?!

  • kwhisperer | January 31, 2014 12:01 PMReply

    I saw Jan 9 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. I had heard poor reviews and a fair number of people walked out during the show. I loved it. The sound was crystal clear and there was an incredible atmosphere. LARS with the lights on was probably the best thing I've ever seen. (Then I saw Rolling Thunder the next year and loved it even more....)

  • Jon Friedman | January 8, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    I love you one and all and respect your right to disagree with me. But I'll stick to what I believe. Why should I worry about what anyone, let alone Bob Dylan, thought of Tour '74? He probably didn't love the fact that The Band got such high billing on his comeback tour, didn't appreciate having to schlep from gig to gig by airplane (check out the Biograph liner notes and his 1975 interview with Ratso), the enormity of the media coverage, the general pressure he felt to please everyone under the sun and, perhaps, his lack of faith in the strength of the Planet Waves material (otherwise he would have played more of the songs on stage, and earlier in the shows in 1974). As for Dylan fans never saying that Before the Flood was one of their favorites, again, why should I care what other people say? I care what I say.

  • Bob W. | January 31, 2014 12:26 PM

    How very interesting! I was at this same concert. I rank it on my very short list of being one of the best shows that I've ever been to!

  • Eric Wishart | January 3, 2014 7:23 PMReply

    Followed reports of this tour in the Melody Maker and NME from Britain, both fascinated and frustrated because Dylan was back on the road after eight years but you couldn't see him and there was no YouTube or any internet back then. Finally got a hold of a reel to reel bootleg recording a week or two after it started and remember this amazing roar I think in Philadelphia when he sang 'Even the president of the United States sometimes has to stand naked'
    His voice had changed and he opened and close the shows with the same song ..was a strange experience. Wonder where no film of the shows ever emerged, sad. Why didn't they film it??
    I think though that the 1966 tours were in another time and space

  • Michael Gray | January 3, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    This thrust of this article seems to me wildly misjudged and very unrepresentative. No-one who has really listened to, and watched, the 1966 live material could try to argue that the 1974 tour measures up to it, let alone beats it. There's an abyss between them. The artist isn't always the best judge of his or her own work, but in this case Dylan was surely right, dismissing it years later as having been all mere energy. So I'm with Mark Bittner on this, and so, apparently, is Bob. And no long-term Dylan afficionado has ever named Before The Flood as a favourite Dylan album. No-one. Ever.

  • Tom | January 3, 2014 3:49 PMReply

    "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."

    I have both this soundboard and the night before - a two night run with the Gratefule Dead - who frankly blew the disheveled Band away on the 31st - The Band came back for the show on the 1st in a BIG way and upped the ante - excellently recorded by the Dead's road crew it's been in circulation for years - you can thank the Grateful Dead for the spark in my opinion

  • Mark Bittner | January 3, 2014 11:09 AMReply

    I saw one of the Oakland Shows near the end of the tour. I thought it was hideous. All bombast, no soul or subtlety at all. I had to walk out toward the end. I liked what the Band did, but Dylan was forced and shouting the lyrics in a completely insensitive way. I thought, "No, he's not a poet. This is show business."

  • David Barry | February 1, 2014 12:55 AM

    Having been present at the Watkins Glen show, I can happily report that The Band blew the Dead out of the water that day.

  • Kevin Cramsey | January 3, 2014 10:53 AMReply

    It would be nice to hear some of the unreleased songs performed live on the tour but not included on the album - "Hollis Brown" and "Hero Blues" to name two, and I'm sure there is more, though from what I've read the set list didn't vary too much from show to show. Perhaps the "Bootleg Series" will catch up with this material one day.

  • Cristiano | January 2, 2014 10:38 PMReply

    There's a video on YouTube with Hero Blues, the first song from the first concert from that 1974 tour.

  • Harold Lepidus | January 2, 2014 7:13 PMReply

    Thanks, Jon.
    I saw the 1/29 show at Nassau.
    Changed my life!
    I agree with much of what you wrote.
    Some of your best writing …

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