Before The Flood
Bob Dylan/The Band
Released: June 1974
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 19
Certified Gold: 6/74
Throughout Bob Dylan's performances on this in-concert album there is evident an effort to match the material -- nearly all from much earlier in his career -- with a suitable style of delivery, a vocal stance which can express in a later year the brilliant and sometimes malevolent energy contained by these pieces when they were first created. Dylan's principal solution is to sing in aggressive, uptempo fashion, borrowing voltage from the Band's rock backing to substitute for the hungry power both he and the Band have outgrown. Sometimes, as on the opening "Most Likely You Go Your Way," the emphasis is effectively placed. More often, singer and band display an unseemly awkwardness.
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" becomes melodramatic, as Dylan breaks single syllables in two, is voice throbbing with artificial emotion á la Eddie Cochran. "It Ain't Me, Babe" is a stiff country march, glomphing along to an unk-cha! beat. "Ballad of a Thin Man," despite some spooky organ, is dispirited.
"Lay Lady, Lay," with funky guitar fills, is attractive, even though the altered bridge with its ascending end note gives a jarring feel. "Rainy Day Women 12 & 35" no longer has a cutting edge, is now more of a consolation.
The Band, costars of this concert production, have similar difficulties in finding the proper feel for their own numbers, the arrangements of which are generally over-busy in a laconic way. They do seven familiar vehicles and the previously unrecorded "Endless Highway."
An acoustic Dylan segment includes "Don't Think Twice," an entertaining modern rendition of a decode-old folk song. "Just Like a Woman" has not the wasted lovely quality of Blonde On Blonde nor the gorgeous richness of the Bangladesh concert reworking; it is a harsh, ungainly thing. "It's All Right, Ma" is taken at blistering speed, and here the lyrics are well served by the rush of notes as Dylan spews out the words with sentiment absent from the original recording. Here, for nearly the first time in the concert, he seems to have a personal stake in a song; the effect is relatively thrilling.
Back with the Band, he scores on "All Along the Watchtower," an unqualified treat which gains from becoming a real rock vehicle, the sort of inspired transformation we have come to expect from Dylan's revampings.
- Tom Nolan, Rolling Stone, 8/29/74.
In 1972, a critic asked plaintively, "When is Dylan going to start being Dylan again?" Well, with Planet Waves and now Before the Flood, Asylum's live document of Tour '74, that question has been more than satisfactorily answered. Dylan is indeed Dylan again, and perhaps that is one of the nicest things about this new album, that it finally puts the gravestone on the period of Dylan's career represented by Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait, when, for reasons I have never understood, he attempted to peddle the myth that he was an empty-headed c-&-w crooner. The man who wrote such depressingly banal stuff as "Country Pie" may indeed have been the same man that gave us "Memphis Blues Again" or "Highway 61," but I doubt that even Dylan ever really believed the former, and the fact that he is owning up at last is just one of the many delights of the new Asylum package. Another, and perhaps more important one, is that in its irrefutable rock-and-roll power and majesty, Before the Flood absolutely gives lie to the various cosmically dopey comments made about the tour and Dylan's music by writers who should either know better or who simply have never understood what the hell the man does that makes him so special and important (or what, for that matter, makes rock so special and important -- but that's another story).
I will spare you any further longwinded analysis, and simply mention that the Band (whose own sets on sides two and three, though at times moving, I would gladly have traded for more of the songs they did in tandem with Mr. D.) are brilliant here beyond words, particularly Garth Hudson, whose crazed keyboard work is possessed of a ghostly mysterioso that frames Dylan in a spooky splendor at times even more appropriate than the backings on the classic originals. Further, the rocked-up versions of some of his early folk material ("It Ain't Me, Babe," for instance) are killers, and even a piece of emphera like "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is transformed here by the intensity of its performance into something quite grand. Finally, despite my quibbles about what was left off the record, this is never less than, in Greil Marcus' phrase, "rock-and-roll at its limits." Between them, Dylan and the Band have now made not one but two of the albums of the year, and frankly I can't wait for more. It is the stuff, quite literally, of legend.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 9/74.
This document of the most memorable tour of the year proves that a live LP can indeed be done in a realistic manner. Unlike many live sets, this one follows the actual song schedules of the concerts, and while not a substitute for having been there, certainly gives the listener the feeling of what it was all about. There is an aura of excitement at the beginning of the LP that explodes when Dylan and the Band move to the stage. The show begins with six Dylan cuts. Side two features the Band. Side three is divided in half and side four is again Dylan. This is not the Dylan with the raspy voice from 1964, but a full voiced singer with one of the tightest bands in the world behind him. Highlights are the acoustic segments and the Band's biggest hits, as well as the "Blowin' in the Wind" encore. One of the few albums that can be called an historical document as well as a record. Best cuts: "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," "Ballad Of A Thin Man," "Up On Cripple Creek." "The Weight," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," "Like A Rolling Stone."
- Billboard, 1974.
At its best, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded. All analogous live albums fall flat. The Rolling Stones are mechanical dolls by comparison, the Faces merely sloppy, the Dead positively quiet. The MC5 achieved something similar by ignoring musicianship altogether, but while the Band sounds undisciplined, threatening to destroy their headlong momentum by throwing out one foot or elbow too many, they never abandon their enormous technical ability. In this they follow the boss. When he sounded thin on Planet Waves, so did they. Now his voice settles in at a rich bellow, running over his old songs like a truck. I agree that a few of them will never walk again, but I treasure the sacrilege: Uncle Bob purveying to the sports arena masses. We may never even know whether this is a masterpiece. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
A kick-ass live effort, on which Dylan applied his revisionist approach to his old material, effectively trashing prior meanings and moments. The Band wails like banshees and Mr. Tambourine Man whips on a new mask for his seventies audience to contemplate. Released in 1974, these recordings were made during the last three performances of his 1974 twenty-one-city tour with The Band. Ever since the late sixties, when bootlegs of this musical combination's Basement Tapes were widely circulated among aficionados, the opportunity to see these two "naturals" perform together was compelling. Are the revised renditions of his classics successful? Not really, but obviously what matters was his willingness to do it in the first place, and, ultimately, that's what makes this first-rate rock & roll. The interspersed performances of The Band doing their own material are consistent with the whole and burn with raw energy. Given that these are dated live performance recordings the sound is surprisingly clear and punchy. There is some compression and some mudiness in the bottom end, but overall, not disappointing. A
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
This double album chronicles Bob Dylan and the Band's U.S. tour of January and February 1974. It features souped-up performances of many of Dylan's hits and best songs as well as a good selection of work by the Band. * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
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