Thursday, March 17, 2011

EBDS Special Post #6: Tour '74

The amusing thing about Bob Dylan's Tour '74 is that, because of the simply sprawling range of Dylan's entire career, a small offshoot of said career (if you can call something of Tour '74's magnitude "small" - after all, the tour grossed over $90 million, nearly twelve million people applied for the half million seats available, and it was widely considered the biggest tour in rock's nascent history up to that point) is pretty much forgotten by the public at large while still debated and argued over in the Dylan community to this day. And with good reason - the sound that Dylan and his gang of hoodlums cooked up over the two-month jaunt across America is the kind that makes you feel like you have to choose sides, both in its gutbucket rock electric form and the strum-and-snarl acoustic form Dylan adopted for the tour. And from that sound, and its evolution on stage, comes any number of arguments: "Is Before the Flood any good?" "Did Dylan do his fans a disservice with his shouty acoustic style?" "Did The Band do Dylan's fans a disservice with their shouty rock style?" "Why are the first shows on the tour so much better?" "Does the lack of variety kill the shows?" And so on, and so forth.

As any of you that have read my blog all the way through may or may not know, I have a very special place in my heart for Tour '74, as my interest in the tour dovetailed rather neatly with my exponentially increasing interest with Dylan himself, during my college years when I had enough disposable income and free time on my hands to dive as deep into Bob's extensive unofficial catalog as I cared to. And during that time, having familiarized myself with his more well-known albums and Live 1966 and all the truly essential stuff, I found myself falling more and more in love with Before the Flood and with the bootlegs I was amassing of that 1974 tour. What really grabbed me was what Dylan later complained about when asked about the tour - that raw power they were injecting into the music, any trace of nuance being washed away in a sea of synthesizers, ferocious guitars, and Bob & Co. blaring through every song at full throat (IMO, 74-76 Bob was in his best voice; too bad he overextended himself in 1978 and basically ruined it forever). I even put the more maligned acoustic tunes on repeat, not bothered by how they didn't sound like they did 8 years previous (let alone 10 years previous) and not concerned by the idea that Bob was rushing through them, because the speeding up of tracks usually taken at a measured (and in 1966, soporific) pace gave them a brand new style of their own.

And that, to me, is what Tour '74 was all about - the idea of the brand new applied to Bob's music, in this case a revved-up style that was all about pure energy and possibly not much else. It wasn't like Dylan and The Band didn't know what they were doing or didn't have a plan with where they were taking their music; the thirteen-plus hour rehearsals cranked out in November 1973 kind of speak against that, unless you assume they were like the Get Back rehearsals with all the faffing about that entailed. And while the performances definitely got tighter, more anodyne, and more reliant on the energy that came from being on stage (as well as from other things, of course), the show Dylan played in Chicago is recognizably performed by the same group as the one that recorded Before the Flood in LA, with perhaps a few more bum notes and some more obscure songs thrown in. Dylan and The Band wanted the songs to sound this way, and whether or not you want the songs to sound that way, you have to respect them for making something new out of something old.

And that, in a sense, is the biggest problem most people (including myself, to a certain degree) have with Tour '74 - in the end, Dylan and The Band only seemed interested in making something new out of something old. Only a cursory glance through the tour setlists shows a group increasingly falling back on Bob's mid-60s repertoire, and even more increasingly falling back on Bob's hits, to the point where the only songs Bob performed that he'd written after the crash were "All Along The Watchtower", "Lay Lady Lay", "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", and "Forever Young". All the Planet Waves songs ("Something There Is About You" was abruptly yanked for "Highway 61 Revisited", which isn't too bad because their version of "Highway 61 Revisited" absolutely smokes, but still), any of the rarer tracks ("Hero Blues", "Girl of the North Country", "I Don't Believe You"), and anything the audience might not be extremely familiar with (which wasn't much, if the appreciative reaction to the one-time-only performance of "As I Went Out One Morning" is any indication) was simply chucked over the wayside, in favor of a Greatest Hits performance that smacks of the cynicism that would preclude any number of tours after this that owed a debt to Tour '74 in so many different ways. And that, in a sense, is Dylan's biggest crime on this tour - unsure of himself and of his audience's capacity to embrace him if he didn't just come out and act as a jukebox wearing sunglasses every night, he forsook the adventurous side that had made him so famous to begin with (and which he'd more or less embrace in his older years, as his NET setlists tend to bear out, one too many performances of "Nettie Moore" nonwithstanding).

And that's what makes the legacy of Tour '74 so muddled - that increasing retreat into the protective cocoon of his first musical peak, even as the second peak was just around the corner. Basically everything good and bad about the whole tour - the massive applause line of "It's Alright Ma", proof positive of Dylan's continued relevance and cheap crowd pop all in one; the revelatory rarities like "Fourth Time Around" and "Mama, You Been On My Mind"; the trench-soldiers-going-over-the-top bravado of BTF's version of "Like A Rolling Stone"; and the weary realization that, nope, we never will get to hear this ensemble doing "Going, Going, Gone" or "Tonight I'm Staying Here With You" or even an unusual one like "Queen Jane Approximately" - springs from that fact, that even with all the money banked and the crowds uniformly adoring, Dylan and The Band voluntarily chained themselves to the past in order to not have to deal with their uncertain futures (The Band were past their commercial and creative peak, Dylan you all know about). But that doesn't mean that they didn't make some magic on stage, or that the '74 rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" doesn't have some fire and spark to help offset the original's weary emotion, or that their versions of "Most Likely You Go Your Way" and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" aren't essential (in the latter's case, I'd say more so than the original). Tour '74, for all its backward-looking issues, still has importance musically, and ultimately career-wise as well, as the Dylan that emerged from 1974 was vastly different from the one that entered it. As we shall soon find out.

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