Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Saturday, 16 May 2015

15. Before The Flood (1974)

And so, I finally get to hear my first ever Bob Dylan live album.  I've resisted the temptation to go on over to Spotify to listen to any of the live stuff from the Bootleg Series such as the '66 Albert Hall Concert and the Rolling Thunder Revue (although these are both on my birthday wishlist!), so I don't yet have anything to compare it to.

The tour of 1974 took place over eight weeks, beginning on the 3rd of January and ending on St. Valentine's Day. Dylan and The Band played 40 dates in 21 cities and were flown around in a Boeing 707 named Starship One.  Before The Flood is composed mainly of tracks recorded in LA on the final date's two shows, a few from the day before, plus a single track from a New York concert on the 30th of January.

The album features Bob and The Band together and apart, and is structured in the same way that the concerts were, beginning with half a dozen full-band Dylan numbers.  It's soon apparent that although it's a hit-heavy set on both sides, the delivery means that this is no nostalgia performance.  An impassioned Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) sets thing off at a thrilling pace and is followed by an enjoyable - if shouty - Lay Lady Lay which although doesn't compare to the sexy original is still great, with Robertson's playing a highlight.  BTF has been criticised a lot for its reliance on power over subtlety, particularly in terms of Bob's singing; an article from Rolling Stone magazine from March 1974 quotes Joan Baez's sister Mimi Farina as complaining,
" I brought Kleenex with me.  I was ready to cry.  But I never had an inkling of emotion, of the poetry behind the songs".
Obviously no-one had told her she was attending a rock concert, because apart from a few acoustic numbers, this is clearly Dylan and his old pals rocking their way across America (plus a couple of dates in Canada) powered by electricity, aviation fuel and very likely some white powder, too.

Crowd favourite Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35 is next, the original's woozy brass and tinkling piano replaced here with synthesiser, bluesy guitar and carnival organ, all held up by Levon Helm's muscular pounding.  Garth Hudson had been experimenting with an early version of a synthesiser embedded in a Lowrey H25-3 organ which although works well on this track, is less welcome on Knockin' On Heaven's Door which follows (the sole recording from the NY Madison Square Garden show).  The churchy organ is effective though, making a good replacement for the original's haunting backing vocals.  Bob slips an extra verse into the middle so that what was a rather short song is made more satisfying.  It goes,

"Mama wipe the blood from my face,
I'm sick and tired of the war,
Got a lone black feelin' and it's hard to trace,
Feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door".

It's true that much of the emotion and tenderness of the original is lost, but it's more than made up for in boisterous fun and sheer energy - Bob and The Band are together again, on the road and having one hell of a good time.  On their raucous translation of It Ain't Me, Babe they sound like a proper gang, a real band of brothers with a mission to bring the party to town.

It's not on youtube, so here it is on Spotify instead: 

Ballad Of A Thin Man rounds out this first section.  The spooky organ of the Highway 61 version is a chirpy whistle here, and we only get six of the eight verses - there's no one-eyed midget or sword swallower - but it's still a tremendous rendition and the audience evidently appreciate it. They sound as amped-up as those on stage, which must have felt amazing for Dylan and co. compared to when they played this on the 1966 world tour, where the reception was rather different.

The rest of CD 1, which would have made up Side 2 on the first disc of the LP, is given over to The Band, who perform five of their best known songs including Up On Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  They sound really strong here but by this stage the tour has taken its toll on some of their throats.  Danko's voice sounds absolutely shredded on Stage Fright and poor Manuel croaks his way through I Shall Be Released.  I never liked his falsetto on this song anyway, but it's more pitiful than ever for the want of some Chloraseptic.

Bob takes to the stage alone with just acoustic guitar and harmonica for the first three tracks on CD 2.  He strums rather than picks his way through a coarse but vigorous Don't Think Twice, It's Alright and sounds like a completely different man from the one on Freewheelin', which of course he is.  Despite the obvious strain on his vocal chords after weeks of touring, he's actually in very fine voice, in the same way he was on Planet Waves, even when he enters Vic Reeves territory on Just Like A Woman ("jussa lakka WO-man").  Best of all is It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) which he whizzes through next.  Although it's a truncated version, there's a palpable anger, and the audience's response to the line "Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked!" is especially pleasing, since at this time the Watergate scandal was at its height.

We then get another three numbers from The Band, including a painfully husky Danko singing When You Awake, and their colossal The Weight on which an unscathed Helm lends much-needed vocal support.  To be honest, I'd have preferred the album to feature fewer Band songs.  I can take or leave them really as their own material can be a bit dull sometimes.  The attraction of The Last Waltz for me was definitely all the guest stars, and I feel that 8 out of 21 songs on Before The Flood is a few too many.  But in this setting they suit Bob's needs very well and we're treated to four more ensemble performances to finish the record.

They gallop through a menacing Hendrix-inspired (and sadly too short) version Of All Along The Watchtower where Robertson's playing is never more frenetic, followed by a country-rock Highway 61 Revisited that bears little resemblance to the original but isn't bad at all.  The crowd go nuts for an excitable Like A Rolling Stone and Bob's newly found confidence really shows in his voice.  It's certainly way better than the straggly IOW version on Self Portrait.  The set ends with Blowin' In The Wind, composed of two different performances from the afternoon shows of the 13th and 14th of February, spliced together.  It's a gentle, plodding arrangement that with the guys' hearty backing vocals makes a fitting closer.

Overall I found Before The Flood to be an interesting, often exciting document of the '74 tour. Although Bob often plays fast and loose with the melodies, there's no self-indulgence.  As I mentioned in the previous post, no songs from Planet Waves appear, nor any lesser-known songs from his back catalogue.  It's a solid set of tried and tested crowd pleasers guaranteed to appeal to casual fans as well as Dylanites, and I suppose for his first tour in eight years this risk-free approach seemed the safest bet, even with the re-workings and the less sensitive treatment in terms of vocals.

On Planet Waves it sounded like Bob was getting his songwriting mojo back.  Here it's obvious that his appetite for playing to his fans and with his pals has also returned.  With his marriage reportedly already on the rocks, it appears that a new chapter is about to begin.

Do you like Before The Flood?  Can't be doing with it?  Leave your comments below.

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