Dylan Opens to Hero's Reception

The Big D kicks off a new tour and brings his music's timeless power

Bob Dylan
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
January 31, 1974

The woman, 25-years-old, screamed and shouted, rock & roll style. She'd been in high school when she first began to follow the words of Bob Dylan, and she'd been there the last time he played Chicago, in 1965. Now, as the man sang "Times They Are A-Changin' " and, from his first album, his "Song to Woody," the woman seemed to be re-learning her lines.

She turned to a friend, looking hopeful in the darkness and the marijuana mist. "It seems like it hasn't changed," she said. "It's the same kind of feeling."

Behind her a couple of rock freaks hung on the lyrics of "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." The first guy exulted: "Man, that song hit me," and his friend agreed: "Yeah, he got down!"

Later, the Chicago Stadium would burst into little flames, as many of the 18,500 first-nighters acclaimed "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" by striking matches, turning the hockey arena into a three-tiered crown of light.

Chicago – Bob Dylan, praise him, is back. On January 3rd, in the first winterlude of '74, he successfully kicked off his first tour since early 1966, when he completed the winter-long grind of a US and world tour and wrecked his neck in that motorcycle accident at Woodstock. By the time he finishes next month, he will have performed 39 concerts in 21 cities before a total of 658,000 people.

The tour, conceived last summer when Dylan and the Band got together in Malibu, the Southern California beach community, is more than what Dylan originally wanted: a chance to hit maybe a dozen cities, just to get out and play. Told by promoter Bill Graham that times had changed, that economic reality forbade short jaunts and that other realities made a small tour in front of small audiences impossible, Dylan agreed to a larger schedule, with ticket prices as high as $9.50 in some cities, bringing an expected gross of more than $5 million.

"I paid $40 for mine," said a young man after the Chicago opener, "and it was worth it. I was offered $50 for it."

Chicago saw a moving, 2-1/2-hour show, carefully planned – if not yet rehearsed down pat – to show off the Band as more than Dylan's backup, as it was in 1965, 1966 and at the Isle of Wight in 1969, and to show Dylan as a healthy, confident man at ease with all the identities and roles he has created and that have surrounded and sometimes saddled him over the years: protest voice, radical poet, absurdist folk-rocker, romantic loser, country gentleman, family man.

But Dylan, still refusing to play any role, did all the songs – folk, rock, country and pop – in one shockingly strong voice, the songs mostly rearranged into what might best be called basic Band rock, searing and soaring, unified and precise, on a bedrock of backwoods America. Excellent in itself; perfect as a support for Bob Dylan.

The careful planning has Dylan and the Band all together for an hour (therefore saving the Band the task of being the opening act, the stall before the arrival of a god, then Dylan by himself, the Band by itself and a group finale. Sound thinking and a full show. But a sample of reactions after the concert indicated a clear desire for more Dylan, less Band. As one woman put it: "Who came to see the Band?" No matter their quality, they were seen – and preferred – as backup.

On opening night, the first discovery for the audience was an attempted coziness on the stage, through props reminding one of Neil Young, Martin Mull and an Uncle Sol furniture sale. There wasn't just a rug, some candles, a sofa and a coat rack, but also a Tiffany-styled table lamp, a roll-top desk, an antique rocking chair, a set of conga drums, a bunk bed with frumpy blue mattresses, a multi-colored wood chest housing a fire extinguisher and, at the bottom of the stage steps, a mat reminding the stars to Wipe Your Feet. It was just Dylan and the guys playing their music for 18,500 drop-ins.

Dylan came out wrapped in a gray muffler, as if direct from the 13-degree weather. He wore a short black suede jacket, with a white shirt hanging out underneath, and blue jeans. He had an almost-growth of beard. His harp-brace was strapped into place, around the neck. He picked his way between the amps and the antiques and picked up his guitar. He said nothing as he received the first of numerous standing ovations, just strummed his electric guitar as the group moved into a rocking "Hero Blues," a little-known, on-the-highway song from the early days.

Dylan seemed edgy, staring out to a fixed spot in the rear of the arena, but he was easy in his stage movements, bending his knees with the beat, swaying easily, slowly, back from the mike between lines. The voice was reminiscent of Highway 61, the transitional rock voice, with less of the harshness, more of the confidence.

On "Lay Lady Lay," Dylan dropped the Nashville affectations, the country-boy softness, stretching out last words of lines, snapping them off, talk-singing notes. Now he seemed more aware that he was on a stage again. He assumed an early Elvis stance, legs wide apart, firmly planted, guitar diagonal. After a third number – from the new Dylan/Band album – the Band rolled into "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Levon Helm singing from behind the drums, Dylan facing him, his back turned to the audience, just a sideman. Rick Danko did "Stage Fright," with Robbie Robertson, shaven and looking like a better-fed Stevie Winwood, playing a weeping, sweeping lead while Dylan held down the rhythm.

Dylan then sang "It Ain't Me Babe," going back to a nine-year-old album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, doing the song more slowly, with a more pronounced beat, holding his guitar against his side, like a rifleman, for the second verse. The Band excelled, with Danko, Robertson and Helm taking turns on the fills. "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat," circa '66, was done circa '74, humor intact.

Richard Manuel did "Share Your Love," with Dylan doing the fills on harp, and then it was "All Along the Watchtower," from John Wesley Harding, Dylan, crouching, animated, earning his third standing ovation for this, his third look back. On opening night he did songs from all his albums except Freewheelin', Self Portrait and New Morning.

Dylan appeared, after a Band number, with shades, took the piano for "Ballad of a Thin Man," and went back on guitar for "I Don't Believe You," pausing after the first line and accelerating the Band to match his mood: super-sneering, whipping out each line at this woman he seemed to be remembering so well from 1964. Another ovation, and funny, for this was the song that had drawn paper plates, cups and boos in August, 1965, at Forest Hills, New York, Dylan's first concert after the disaster at Newport Folk. With him in his then-new half-acoustic, half-rock show: Robbie and Levon.

Dylan addressed the audience for the first time. "Back in 15 minutes," he revealed, and the group left.

At intermission, Al Aronowitz, the New York pop critic and long-time friend to Dylan and the Band, glowed and gloated. Among the four Chicago papers, his piece alone predicted an outright Dylan triumph. Others asked "Can he do it?" – that is, live up to the various roles – and expressed hope, but with a touch of depression, at the thought of a man having to try and live up to a legend. Aronowitz, in whose house Dylan had written "Mr. Tambourine Man," called Bob a heavyweight with a career "just beginning," who had not deteriorated a bit. Now, as if he knew, he promised: "You ain't seen nothing yet."

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