A touch of greatness: Tour '74 with Bob Dylan and The Band, 50 years ago

Dylan and the Band kicked off their 1974 tour at Chicago Stadium.

Ron Pownall/GettyImages
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Fifty years ago today – January 3, 1974 – one of the biggest events in popular music history began. OK – maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but suffice it to say, it was really big. And oh how I wish I could have been there, in the old Chicago Stadium, to witness the kickoff of Tour ’74, the whirlwind series of concerts played by Bob Dylan and The Band that covered the USA, and hit a couple of cities in Canada as well. Between January 3 and February 14, Bob, Robbie, Levon, Richard, Rick, and Garth performed 40 shows.

Apart from a few guest appearances, Dylan had not performed a full live set since his devastating motorcycle accident in 1966. That’s eight years out of action. It’s not as if he simply disappeared. Dylan continued to put out new albums after his seminal Blonde on Blonde in ’66. But those albums seemed a little more subdued. More mellow. He veered away from the electric sound of the mid-‘60s toward what today we would call “Americana.” Some of it – like 1967’s John Wesley Harding – was still pretty awesome. Other albums, like 1970’s Self-Portrait, didn’t fare so well.

But Dylan was still a huge name. When the tour was announced, it generated enormous buzz. Dylan had begun playing with guitarist Robbie Robertson while working on Blonde on Blonde. After the motorcycle accident, he holed up with Robertson and his bandmates in the Hawks to work on a wide range of music (which would eventually be released as The Basement Tapes.) But Dylan was neither in the mood nor the condition to tour in the late ‘60s. That led Robertson and friends, now rechristened as The Band, to release their own material, mostly composed by Robertson.

By 1974, The Band had released several masterpieces of their own. But they were beginning to fade. Though The Band had technically only been together for several years, they had in fact been performing together as a backing unit since the late 1950s. In 1973, they released Moondog Matinee, an album of covers that generated minimal attention.

Bob Dylan and The Band created a sound like few others can emulate

Dylan had some new material for an upcoming album. It was his strongest collection of new songs in several years and it signaled that he might be ready to return to his role as America’s most important singer/songwriter. He got the Band together to back him on what would become Planet Waves. And he and Robertson, along with producer David Geffen, began discussing a tour.

Which brings us to January 3, 1974, in Chicago. Geffen intended to release a live album documenting Tour ’74, but that first show would not be part of it. He only arranged for a few venues – in New York and Los Angeles – to be recorded. They all wanted to grow into the tour. Play around with set lists. Eventually, they would settle on a pattern that worked. But that first night in Chicago, it was a very casual affair.

Dylan and The Band hit the stage with “Hero Blues,” one of his very early songs that was never released until bootleg recordings began appearing decades later. It is a song Dylan tinkered with over the years, and this was one of the few times you could have heard it with a full band accompaniment. He would open his first two Chicago shows with the song, and then put it back in the vault.

There was a whole lot of other cool stuff you could have heard if you were lucky enough to be there for that first Chicago show. Dylan debuted three songs that would appear on Planet Waves, which dropped a couple of weeks into the tour. “Forever Young,” “Something There Is About You,” and “Tough Mama” were all heard for the first time in concert. A fourth song planned for Planet Waves, but ultimately dropped – “Nobody ‘Cept You,” also made its debut.

And since he hadn’t toured since 1966, you would have also heard the live debuts of two older songs – “All Along the Watchtower” from John Wesley Harding and Blonde on Blonde’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine),” which closed that first show.

The Band also played a couple of cuts from Moondog Matinee – covers of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Share Your Love With Me,” and an Allen Toussaint composition made famous by Lee Dorsey, “Holy Cow.” That first Chicago show was the only time on Tour ’74 that The Band played them. It was the only show where you would have heard Robertson’s beautiful “Life is a Carnival.” Dylan performed a couple of other old protest songs that would not become part of the regular setlist – “Song to Woody” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

And then there were the classics. Dylan sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and “The Times They Are a-Changing.” With both Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson on stage, there was no need for Dylan to play piano – but he did on what I have to believe was a devastating version of “Ballad of a Thin Man.”  As for The Band, they did “The Weight,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “Stage Fright,” among others.

That first show had a casual structure, with Dylan and The Band trading off songs. Beginning with the following night’s show, a more formal pattern would begin to take shape, with more proscribed sets developing. That became much clearer on the album which came out later in 1974 – Before the Flood. Side one opens with six Dylan numbers, back by The Band. Side two follows with five songs by The Band. Side three has Dylan performing three songs solo, then followed by three songs by The Band. And side four has the final four Dylan songs, with The Band offering full-throttle backing.

Eight of the songs that would appear on Before the Flood were not played in that first show. Thirteen songs did eventually make the final album, though they were all recorded at later shows. In all, Dylan and The Band played 28 songs on January 3, 1974. That means fifteen of them were not on the concert album. But how glorious it must have been.

Judging from what we did ultimately get on Before the Flood, those songs must have sounded leaner and tougher than the original recordings. Maybe angrier too. Bob Dylan has spent a lifetime redefining every song that made him famous. He writes new lyrics. He radically alters tempos and rhythms. He experiments with orchestrations. We get all that on Before the Flood. As with any time, Dylan veered away from his known material, which bothered some people. It shouldn’t have. It’s simply what artists do if they want to stay relevant.

The Band was in the process of breaking up. Robertson didn’t want to tour so much. He needed a fresh start. They would go out with the titanic Last Waltz concert a few years later, and documented in Martin Scorsese’s epochal concert film, released in 1978. Chicago Stadium, the grand old arena on West Madison, which saw Michael Jordan win an NBA title, and Sugar Ray Robinson pound out a TKO over Jake LaMotta – which hosted Sinatra and the Stones, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson – it closed for good twenty years after the Tour ’74 kickoff, and was demolished in 1995.

But Dylan? As it turns out, he wasn’t anywhere near being done. After the decent success of Planet Waves, he would produce two of his greatest albums in the next two years – Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976). In between those two releases, The Basement Tapes, culled from those sessions with The Band in the wake of his motorcycle accident, came out. We get a taste in both The Basement Tapes and Before the Flood of what that night in Chicago might have sounded like. How cool would it have been to see it and hear it live?

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