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Getting The Band Back Together
1974-01-03, Chicago Stadium, Chicago IL
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January 3rd is the earliest in the year Bob Dylan has ever played a concert. Indeed, it will be a few weeks before our chronological-jumping-around begins, because he's only toured in early January this once. But few tours have been as historic as his 1974 reunion with The Band. Few as divisive too.
Even Dylan himself later seemed to look down his nose at the proceedings. In the Biograph liner notes a decade later, he told Cameron Crowe, "I think I was just playing a role on that tour, I was playing Bob Dylan and The Band were playing The Band. It was all sort of mindless. The only thing people talked about was energy this, energy that. The highest compliments were things like, 'Wow, lotta energy, man.' It had become absurd."
Energy is certainly in abundance during this tour opening at Chicago Stadium - and not just from Bob, but from the crowd too. At the end of the first song, a rewritten version of rarely-played Freewheelin' outtake "Hero Blues," which he would soon drop, someone near the taper hollers "Ow! Rock and roll!" That kind of sums up the vibe this evening. The band is loud; the crowd is louder. The opening of Dylan's mid-show acoustic set gets entirely drowned out by all the cheering. (Though they were apparently tamer than the crowds a Performance magazine reviewer was used to, as he noted that "only one crazy at the very front of the main floor represented the usual horde of overdosed freakouts.")
Dylan told Rolling Stone he'd wanted to play small venues on this tour, but promoter Bill Graham talked him out of it. He adjusts to the larger hall in a way he wouldn't deign to today, playing a loud, boisterous and, other than the new songs, largely hits-driven set. The recording quality is distant and muddy, which is a shame. Robbie Robertson's guitar cuts through the murk more than anything, and it's a good thing Dylan is in full-holler mode for many songs. Subtlety would likely be lost, but that sometimes leads to truly fiery performances like "Tough Mama.”
Being Dylan's first proper tour in eight years - during which time he'd released seven albums, with an eighth (Planet Waves, his only actual album backed by The Band) already in the can - debuts abound. He previews a handful of Planet Waves songs a few weeks before their release: "Forever Young," "Tough Mama, "Nobody 'Cept You," "Something There Is About You." He also plays Blonde on Blonde's "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" live for the first time, and "Lay Lay Lady" for the second. Most notable is Dylan's first-ever performance of "All Along the Watchtower." He's already ditched his original acoustic concept in favor of Jimi Hendrix's electric guitar reimagining. Save for an occasional MTV Unplugged oddball, he's never really gone back to playing it acoustically. The audience explodes when they recognize "Watchtower"; on the song's first night, it's already a standard.
Also of note, this show marks the only time on the tour that Dylan played during one of The Band's own sets. Specifically, he stayed onstage for "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Stage Fright," and "Share Your Love With Me," playing guitar and maybe harmonica. Some reports indicate he sang a little too. Whatever he did makes little impression on the tape. I was frankly skeptical of his purported participation at all after listening to the recording, but this very grainy video of "Stage Fright" does indeed show one too many guitarists (visible at 2:29). So a fun historical curiosity, but more or less irrelevant to the resulting music. Maybe that's why he never bothered again.