I'm a Bob Dylan fan, but let's face facts: He's 70. His most recent album, 2006's Modern Times and 2008's Together Through Life, have both been phenomenal efforts, but sounding good in the studio is very different than sounding good live.
Before last night, I had listened to live Dylan bootlegs, watched him live on YouTube, listened to alternate versions of songs, and played Dylan albums on nonstop loops, but I had never seen him perform in concert.
Friends had warned me -- mostly people who don't like Dylan's recent albums -- that "all he does is sit at the keyboard and sing, or, sort of sing, at least."
Expectations can be a weird thing. Clearly I knew I wouldn't be getting a performance by the beatific 20-something Dylan, or the raging "electric Judas" Dylan. I wouldn't be witnessing the ragged, down-and-out Dylan of records like Street Legal, or even the charming pop-star, Dylan as "Boo Wilbury."
No, none of those Dylans showed up, but the one I got was truly something. The Bob Dylan I saw on stage was a sly old man, endlessly screwing with the cadence of his lyrics, but utterly engaged in what was going on. He played an organ-emulating keyboard, and didn't just putz around on it. He soloed, and guided the band with tricky melodies. He strapped on a guitar for a few songs, playing off the expert backing of guitarist Charlie Sexton. He prowled around the stage, wiggling his foot along with the music, casting a long shadow on the backdrop as he raised his arms theatrically, and blew into his harmonica.
Opening with "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat," it was clear that Dylan's voice is as ragged as its ever been -- or, more correctly, more ragged than its ever been. Clearly, this turns some people off (one guy in the bathroom: "I mean, you can't call this 'music,' you know?"), but I absolutely love it. Dylan has never been known as a classically great singer, but his current state of voice is something to behold, a gruff, slurred thing, echoing the blues singers who defined his early ideas about music.
There's a funny thing that happens at Bob Dylan concerts these days: the crowd starts cheering well into songs, as opposed to the beginning. It's understandable -- Dylan and his band have come up with new arrangements for nearly every song, and it's often only possible to know which song is which when Dylan starts singing. "It Ain't Me Babe" showcased his particular flair for delivery. All but abandoning the song's original melody, Dylan barked and growled the lyrics. It added a beautiful sense of menace to lines like "You say you're looking for someone/who's never weak, but always strong."
"Beyond Here Lies Nothing," my favorite song from Together Through Life, featured Dylan picking up a guitar and joining his band in a tangled web of Latin-inspired melodies. I missed the studio version's accordion, but the guitar workout approach was interesting, and proved that Dylan still fiddles around with the six string.
If asked to pick a favorite Dylan record (and I was asked, last week in the New Times parking lot), I would have to say Blood on the Tracks. When Dylan tore into "Tangled Up in Blue," I was floored. His harmonica playing was expressive, and the band was absolutely tops, with gorgeous pedal steel work from Donnie Heron and a firm low-end courtesy of Tony Garnier, who's played more shows with Dylan than any other musician.
When Dylan started into "Desolation Row," my brother, also a huge Dylan-phile, noted to me that "if he plays the whole song, it's going to be 30 minutes long." With the original clocking in at 11:21 at a much faster tempo, my brother could have been right. Dylan cut the song short, but managed not to sacrifice the spirit of the song in the process.
The "Never Ending Tour" band fleshed out a take on "Highway 61," working in the sounds borrowed from Chicago blues, country swing, and rockabilly, genres Dylan clearly flavors these days. "Simple Twist of Fate," another Blood song, featured an interesting, nearly ambient ending, recalling Dylan's work with Daniel Lanois on Oh, Mercy.
Dylan closed out his set proper with a thoroughly beefy take on "Ballad of a Thin Man." Dylan's lyrics echoed out courtesy of some tasteful delay, while Sexton coaxed all the sinister intent he could out of the song's riff. It was the most straightforward of Dylan's renditions, and the band seemed to get off doing it.
Dylan and his players emerged for an encore after a few fevered minutes of audience hollering. They jumped into "Like a Rolling Stone," which the crowd (attempted) to sing along to. As they finished the classic, Dylan thanked the crowd, his first vocal gesture to us, and introduced his band. The night closed out with "All Along the Watchtower," a song that never fails to lose its apocalyptic tone.
The rumors I had heard of an unengaged Dylan weren't confirmed last night. While he certainly wasn't a chatterbox, the music demonstrated a man who, even at 70, is artistically restless, twitching around with a desire to provoke and create. In that way, it was exactly like seeing the Dylan I know from records: poignant, powerful, and more than a little ornery.
"Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat"
"It Ain't Me Babe"
"Things Have Changed"
"If You Ever Go to Houston"
"Beyond Here Lies Nothing"
"Tangled Up in Blue"
"Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum"
"Simple Twist of Fate"
"Thunder on the Mountain"
"Ballad of a Thin Man"
"Like a Rolling Stone"
"All Along the Watchtower"
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Last Night: Bob Dylan at Comerica Theater
The Crowd: One of the most age-diverse crowds I've seen in a long time. Standard grey haired rock fans, but lots of fresh faced high schoolers, indie rockers, and kinda burned out looking hippie kids (young and old).
Overheard in the Crowd: The guy a few rows over shouted "BOOOOBBBB DYYYYLLLAAANN" after every song, but quit after he realized that we all knew who we were watching.
Personal Bias: If you don't have a connection to at least one Dylan album or song, you haven't listened to enough Dylan albums or songs.