BOB DYLAN: BEFORE THE FLOOD (1974)
1) Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine); 2) Lay Lady Lay; 3) Rainy Day Women #12 & 35; 4) Knockin' On Heaven's Door; 5) It Ain't Me, Babe; 6) Ballad Of A Thin Man; 7) Up On Cripple Creek; 8) I Shall Be Released; 9) Endless Highway; 10) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 11) Stage Fright; 12) Don't Think Twice, It's All Right; 13) Just Like A Woman; 14) It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding); 15) The Shape I'm In; 16) When You Awake; 17) The Weight; 18) All Along The Watchtower; 19) Highway 61 Revisited; 20) Like A Rolling Stone; 21) Blowin' In The Wind.
Nowadays, with the Bootleg Series out on a steady roll, we have easy access to the «Bob Dylan live experience» at all sorts of stages — early acoustic shows, mature acoustic shows, classic era electric shows, and even Bob's major post-crash live appearance with The Band at the Isle of Wight in 1969, previously known only through brief glimpses on Self Portrait, is now available officially for all those who are too honest, or too lazy, or both, to indulge in bootleg study. We have it all, for historical knowledge and personal enjoyment alike.
Back in the day, though, in 1974 there was not yet a single Dylan live album available, and Asylum Records decided to seize the occasion. Now that Bob was back in the saddle again, and embarking on his first major American tour in eight years, and with The Band at his side once more, what was to prevent him from finally giving the fans what they wanted — not to mention, what was almost demanded by the Golden Era of the Double Live Album?
The tour only lasted around two months, and although plenty of recordings were made, most of the record is comprised of takes from the very last two shows, played on February 13 and 14 at the Los Angeles Forum in Inglewood, California — possibly these shows were thought to reflect the band at their most «well-flexed». The setlist is mixed, so that this is, in fact, «Bob Dylan & The Band» rather than «Bob Dylan, backed by The Band»: the first part is Dylan classics played by everybody, then there's a Band part without Dylan, then there's an acoustic solo Dylan part, then another chunk of Band stuff, and finally, back to big-band Dylan arrangements: a circular ABCBA structure, probably symbolic of something we'll never know for sure.
Time has not been very kind to the album. When it first came out, critical praise was nearly universal, but in a couple of years, everybody seemed to forget that it ever existed, and later on, with live shows from 1964, 1966, 1975, etc. coming out as official releases, we began to understand the prophetic meaning of the title: Before The Flood was lucky enough to have been released, well-bought, well-reviewed, and orderly appraised... before the flood of archive performances came in and duly washed it away. Not completely, but, well, put it back in its proper context.
Do not be too afraid — every live Dylan album before the man completely lost his voice is worthy in at least some respects, and, for that matter, after he'd completely lost his voice he stopped releasing new live albums completely. But there are two major problems with Dylan & The Band as far as these shows, and recordings, are concerned. The first one is about Dylan — the second one, as you may have guessed, is about The Band.
The problem with Dylan is that he is just too goddang loud on this tour. It is almost as if some hypnotizer fed him two words — «ARENA RAWWK!» — or as if he'd been to a Led Zep show and it temporarily blinded him or something. Even while playing his acoustic on the solo spot in the middle of the show, he flails it like a madman — and then there is the singing: not a murmur, not a grumble, not a whine, not a croon, but a warrior-style scream through and through. And if it works fairly well on numbers like ʽMost Likely You Go Your Wayʼ, anthemic and inflammatory from the get-go, songs like ʽLay Lady Layʼ and ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ shift dangerously close to self-parody in the process. You try to invite your lady to lay across your big brass bed in that kind of voice, and she'll probably be off calling 911 in a second.
In less than two years, when the Rolling Thunder Revue came along, Dylan would learn to cope with that problem — adjusting his singing to the appropriate musical backing and once again diversifying the moods and attitudes of the individual performances. But on Before The Flood, all of the thirteen numbers performed are reduced to the same common denominator: power, power, and still more power, subtlety and stealth be damned. Perhaps that was an experiment: the man had to see if he still had it in him to win over a huge crowd. Perhaps he just thought it a good way of re-establishing his grip on 'em, or perhaps it was sort of a «sweet revenge» thing after the mixed reactions to his risky concerts of 1965-66. Whatever be the answer, Before The Flood is very much of a «stadium rock» thing, and Dylan is not quite Dylan, I'd say, when he is donning that sort of attitude.
Then there is Robbie and the gang. When they do their own songs, they do them reasonably well, the way they are supposed to — although they never venture beyond the ordinary setlist, and most of these numbers can be found in equally good or better versions on the classic Rock Of Ages album. But when they back up Dylan, they become his trusty Hawks, and fully indulge his «arena fetish» by providing a loud, crunchy, yet somewhat rustic rock'n'roll foundation. Garth Hudson gets a chance to try his trendy synthesizers on extra material, but really it is the Robbie show all along, as he plays Phenomenal Guitar God on almost every song, making his guitar scream as loud as Dylan's set of pipes. It works — at first — then quickly becomes predictable and tiresome. By the time they get to ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ, you just know they are going to go the Hendrix route, and they are not going to succeed. Why keep on listening?..
Play it all off a different angle, though, and it might strike you — well, why not? This is a live reflection of an arena tour, it is supposed to replace subtlety with crunch, and all of these songs deserve a little crunch every once in a while: heck, even ʽJust Like A Womanʼ is interesting to get to know in a hysterical version, now that you have already known it for so long in its original pensive mode. And it is also not as overloaded with extra bit players as the 1975-76 recordings, not to mention the Vegasy production of the infamous Budokan album — what's better, anyway, a mean and lean rock'n'roll backing or a choir of stiff gospel back vocalists? And is it possible to deny the sheer raw energy, the intensity of the show? One thing is for sure, there is not a minute here that could be described as «lax» or «limp».
In the end, leave it up to yourself, and history, to decide. Dylan himself had no fond memories of the tour, and seemed to acknowledge that he'd overstepped the limits where «power» and «energy» were concerned. But there is no need to agree with that opinion as long as you do not insist that this is exactly the way these songs always need to be done. At the very least, this is yet another curious page in Dylan history — and, for one thing, it is a very different «Dylan and The Band» from the «Dylan and The Band» that had just done Planet Waves not more than a few months ago. (For that matter, they did play some Planet Waves stuff at the beginning of the tour, but then ended up dropping most of it in favor of the golden oldies — this new personal shit was a little too hard for Bob to convert to arena-rock mode, and it probably didn't manage to get the crowds a-goin' in exactly the sort of way he'd like them to go). Still, you will probably be doing yourself a favor if you do not procure this as your introduction to the Live Dylan Experience — for which cause, Live 1966 or Live 1975 will be a much more beneficial choice.
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