Fifty years ago this week, Bob Dylan and the Band launched their landmark Before the Flood reunion tour with a pair of shows at Chicago Stadium. Dylan had been off the road for eight very long years at this point, and demand to see his return was so intense that promoters received 5.5 million ticket requests via a cumbersome mail-order system. To put that in perspective, that was four percent of the entire population of America.
The last time that Dylan and the Band hit the road, they were met with choruses of boos many nights by enraged folk purists that hated seeing their hero playing with an electric band. At England’s Manchester Free Trade Hall, one fan famously screamed out “Judas!” before the final encore. Speaking to Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore in 2012, nearly half a century after the incident, Dylan was still grumbling about it.
“Judas, the most hated name in human history!” he said. “If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”
There were very few of those “evil motherfuckers” when he returned to the road in 1974. The 1966 tour took on a mythical status very shortly after it ended, and bootleg recordings spread to fans all across the globe. Folk purists became an endangered species once the psychedelia movement began in 1967. Dylan was tucked away in Woodstock by then, raising his young kids, cutting the occasional album, and not even contemplating any sort of tour. His former bandmates, meanwhile, dubbed themselves the Band and quickly became one of the most acclaimed acts in rock.
When rumors began flying that Dylan and the Band were contemplating a reunion tour in late 1973, many Americans were desperate for anything that could transport them back to an earlier time, even if just for a couple of hours. The pointless Vietnam War was sputtering to an end, the naked criminality of the Nixon administration was in the news every day thanks to the Watergate hearings, and the Arab oil embargo caused massive lines at gas stations nationwide.
“Where were you in ’62?” read the tagline to the box office sensation American Graffiti, which took viewers back to the era of sock hops, drag races, and greasers. The throwback band Sha Na Na was packing concert halls, Grease was the biggest hit on Broadway, the Beach Boys were suddenly playing massive shows after years of struggle, and ABC gave the green light to a new show called Happy Days.
But no singular person embodied the Sixties like Bob Dylan. He walked onstage that first night at Chicago Stadium to roars of applause, and not a single cry of “Judas.” He opened the show with the ludicrously obscure “Hero Blues” from 1962, and then broke out “Lay Lady Lay” and “Tough Mama” before the Band took over. For the only time of the tour, Dylan became the sixth member of the group and played along to songs like “Stage Fright” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” They wrapped up the night with “Like a Rolling Stone,” “The Weight,” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine).”
The tour continued Jan. 4, 1974, with a second show at Chicago Stadium, which you can hear right here. It featured the first live rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Dylan’s career, and the final performance of “Hero Blues” to date. Unlike opening night, where their songs were sprinkled in throughout the night, the Band takes over for two mini-sets near the beginning and end of the show. Dylan was offstage while they played, and would remain so for the rest of the tour.
“With minor variations, we played that show for the next six weeks,” Levon Helm wrote in his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s on Fire. “I sometimes had a funny sensation: that we were acting out the roles of Bob Dylan and the Band, and the audience was paying to see what they’d missed many years before. We all felt that way, including Bob. We couldn’t help it. The tour was damn good for our pocketbooks, but it just wasn’t a very passionate trip for any of us.”
The tour was chronicled on the double live LP Before the Flood, which was largely recorded at the Forum in Los Angeles at the very end of the run. The bootleg market was flooded with audience tapes from other nights. Before 2024 comes to an end, all of those recordings — along with whatever official recordings the Dylan team has in the vault — will enter the public domain in Europe if they aren’t released. This quirk in copyright law forced Dylan to release a 36-disc set of 1966 concert recordings back in 2016. It’s quite possible something similar will arrive this year.
In the meantime, listen to this Jan. 4, 1974, tape. It’s a voyage back to a time where Bob Dylan seemed like an old man at age 32, $9.50 seemed like an absolute fortune to spend on a concert ticket, and a basketball arena was a novel place to visit for a concert. The Sixties nostalgia craze continued later that year when CSNY hit the stadium circuit on their infamous Doom Tour, but Dylan and the Band did it first. It set the template for every reunion tour that followed.