#8. Before the Flood
As any reader of my blog has noticed, I truly enjoy both Bob Dylan and The Band. So, to have a live album chronicling their first tour since the amazing shows of ’65 and ’66 sounds like an immediate favorite. But, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Before the Flood—released on June 20, 1974 and taken from shows in January and February of the same year—is essentially a two-disc greatest hits album that features a lot of yelling by Dylan. But unlike the effective use of this style of singing during the first leg of Rolling Thunder, it comes across as rather annoying in a quick amount of time.
I realize that I’m in the minority when it comes to my opinion of the album (Robert Christgau wrote “At its best, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded” and gave it an A) but although I appreciate Dylan’s radical interpretation behind the songs and The Band keeping right up with him, the album comes across as sounding a little thin. But maybe (like New Morning) this is an album that you had to be there to understand; the press behind Dylan and Band working together again was massive and this was also the tour that received 5.5 million pieces of mail in order to get tickets. Not to mention the then extravagant ticket prices of $9.50…and to think, I paid $120 for my first Dylan ticket at the New York City Center.
Like every show but the first during the tour, the album opens up with “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” which although not the best song Dylan ever recorded, it is an interesting song to open your first tour in eight years. Oddly enough, the first song performed during the tour was “Hero Blues,” a great cut that appears on the Genuine Bootleg Series.
Maybe the reason I don’t appreciate the album is the track listing chosen. After “Most Likely,” the next songs are “Lay, Lady, Lay,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Only one of those songs, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” could be construed as a personal favorite of mine.
The rest of the first disc is populated by Band songs: “Up on Cripple Creek,” “I Shall Be Released” (I still consider it to be a Band song), “Endless Highway,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Stage Fright.” I like the fact that they included “Endless Highway” and, to the end the first disc, “Stage Fright.”
Outside of the first concert, the shows took a standard formula: an opening six-song Dylan/Band set, a five-song Band set, three more Dylan/Band performances, a five-song Dylan acoustic set, a three to four song Band set and a joint finale. I am happy that whoever put this album together kept that in place; it gives the listener more of a feeling that they were actually there.
The second disc opens with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Just Like a Woman,” with “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” following. “It’s Alright, Ma” was arguably the most popular song on the tour because the Watergate scandal was in full swing and that song contains the lyric, “But even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” On the album, you can hear the crowd give this line a nice ovation.
The next three songs—“The Shape I’m In,” “When You Awake” and “The Weight”—were all written by The Band, with “The Weight” being the fan favorite song of their set. I’ve heard the song seemingly hundreds of times but Levon’s vocals always sound amazing to me.
For everything you hear about The Band, not much attention is paid to the number of instruments each of them could play. On this album alone, Rick Danko played guitar and fiddle; Levon Helm played drums and mandolin; Robbie Robertson played the guitar but can pound the drums; Richard Manuel would preside over drums, electric organ, piano while Garth Hudson, most amazingly, would play Hammond organ, clavinet, piano, keyboard and saxophone. That’s quite impressive. Not to mention that three of them can really sing. Sorry, Robbie…
The album ends with the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower,” two songs from Highway 61 Revisited, the title track and “Like a Rolling Stone,” while the last song, somewhat predictably, is “Blowin’ in the Wind.
In The Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll, the album would place #2 for 1974 (Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic would win) while Planet Waves was down at #7. I’d disagree with this ranking and that should be pretty obvious since I haven’t done a posting of Planet Waves yet.
Overall, Before the Flood is a good souvenir album but not an essential one.
(Tangent: Why did Neil Young’s On the Beach place at #28 for 1974? It’s not his best album, but it’s still a great album.)