Dylan’s Return to a Live Concert in NYC Came 50 Years Ago This Week

As a young man, the writer jumped on the LIRR to take in Bob Dylan’s reuniting with The Band in a triumphant return to live concerts. He’s since seen many Dylan performances live and wrote a book on the enigmatic troubadour, but says this 1974 concert at Madison Square Garden was the best Dylan performance he ever witnessed.

| 22 Jan 2024 | 05:24

New York has hosted its share of memorable rock and roll concerts over the years. Remember The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, No-Nukes in 1979 and The Concert for New York City in 2001? Then there were high-voltage evenings with The Rolling Stones and The Who.

But for me, nothing can eclipse what I saw on the afternoon of Jan. 31, 1974, at Madison Square Garden. Fifty years ago, to the day, Bob Dylan, with The Band accompanying him, returned to play in his adopted hometown of New York City. It is burned into my brain.

I was in my freshman year at Stony Brook University at the time. Without a second thought or a shred of guilt, I cut classes that day and took the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan for the show. (The specialness of the day took on a new meaning after the concert, when my brother took me to John’s Pizza for the first time!)

This show was a big deal. Dylan had stopped touring in 1966, making the atmosphere of expectation in the hall that afternoon almost beyond belief.

In fact, Dylan hadn’t headlined a show of his own in the city since Oct. 1, 1965, at Carnegie Hall.

I attended that Jan. 31, 1974, matinee, and I remember the sense of excitement everywhere. The tension was thick in the Garden. We were waiting for Dylan to perform his magic – but we also wanted to respond appropriately. Beatlemania-like screams were out of the question, for we wanted The Bard to know that we were sophisticated! We wanted to hear the lyrics, of course, but this was also a rock and roll show! We were going to dance in the aisle when he sang his most loved song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” weren’t we? You bet.

On the so-called “Tour ’74” that winter, Dylan and The Band played 40 concerts spread over 42 days, in 21 North American cities. The shows featured Dylan and The Band playing Dylan songs together, The Band performing its own stuff without Dylan and, most exciting of all, Dylan hitting the stage for a set of solo material, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack.

To see Dylan alone performing “The Times They Are-A Changin,” “Gates of Eden,” Don’t Think Twice,” “Just Like a Woman” and others was nothing less than thrilling. It reminded the concertgoers of Dylan’s power and glory in the early 1960s when he helped shine a light on the protests of civil rights inequities and the Vietnam War.

Dylan desperately wanted to avoid presenting some sort of a nostalgia act, though. He wanted to honor his old songs but not remain a captive of them. He performed his beloved songs in a new way, with a fresh vocal delivery and an ear-splitting arrangement.

Dylan chose the right musicians. The Band was sensational. By then, The Band was an accomplished quintet on its own – they had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1970, after all – and were inspired, not intimidated, at the thought of playing behind Dylan.

The show I saw was sensational (so were the bootleg tapes I have heard). Dylan sang-shouted and The Band galloped along at a hundred miles an hour, especially Robbie Robertson on lead guitar.

It was a different time. The top prices for tickets was $9.50 ($48, adjusted for inflation) – and still, fans screamed “rip-off!” Tickets were available by mail order and were advertised in newspapers. Promoter Bill Graham estimated that $92 million worth of tickets had been ordered by fans ($556 in 2022 money). This was Taylor Swift mania before Taylor Swift in 2023.

I’ve seen Dylan play dozens of times since that day in 1974. No matter what songs he plays – both old-reliable hits and obscure favorites – it’s always a pleasure to see a living legend on stage.

But Dylan has never come close to matching the excitement that he delivered on Jan. 31, 1974. He never toured again with The Band, either, which was a shame because they brought out the best in him on stage.

That’s fine, though. One memorable was enough. Dylan remarked in 1991 that “nostalgia is death.” He’s right, of course. It’s foolish and useless to live in the past.

But cut me some slack this time. You’re favorite concert of all time only comes across once, right?