At 81, Bob Dylan is Still Full of Surprises: Live Review

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What people find most fascinating about watching sports, perhaps, is that it’s one of the few areas in modern life where anything can happen, where the outcome is not predetermined and is equally unknown by all.

Sort of like a Bob Dylan concert.

Even in this new era of Dylan concerts, where the setlist rarely varies from night to night, after many years when consecutive shows would yield several different songs (perhaps his loved ones intervened to insist on a standardized setlist, to make it easier on his octogenarian ass—the aging rocker’s equivalent of taking away dad’s car keys), there remains a sense of chaos, of anarchy, bubbling under the surface of Dylan’s performance. At times, despite being in full control of his accompaniment and arrangements, he still presents like an ornery mule trying to buck the band off his back.

As a musician, his relationship status to melody, key and rhythm is most definitely marked, “It’s complicated.” As a singer, too: One enjoyable pastime at Dylan’s show in Portland on May 31, 2022, was to keep an eye on the two alternating ASL interpreters at the front of house, as they struggled gamely with Dylan’s never-more-idiosyncratic phrasing, so behind-the-beat that a line would often be sung where a conventional approach would dictate the song’s next line should begin. The poor gals had a teleprompter to aid them, but clearly didn’t want to sign a lyric until the singer himself had actually uttered the phrase. (Anyway, despite the use of some cool, recessed floor lighting, it was too dim to make out Dylan’s facial features, so why not watch the interpreters at times?)

Yet, rarely, in certain songs, he would seemingly choose to be well-behaved, reining in his knack for hitting off-notes on the keys, and making an extra effort to intone lyrics cogently. Still, that incipient chaos (or was it the threat of an imminent train wreck?) loomed, as his overwhelming aura of don’t-give-a-fuckness permeated the air above the stage.

Listen to “Every Grain of Sand” from another date on the tour

Yes: the keys. If you weren’t aware, one of the world’s most iconic figures-with-a-guitar has, for over a decade now, chosen to almost never brandish one onstage. Other than a few forays center-stage, where he wields a mic stand like a fighting stick, he’s mostly stayed behind the piano. Which is why the first surprise out of the gate in the opening “Watching the River Flow” was the silhouette of Dylan, all the way upstage—and, indeed, facing upstage, his back to the crowd—with axe strapped on, briefly mixing his own lines with those of the two other guitarists in the band, before sitting down at the piano to sing. It was the first time he’d done so since 2019.

Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he picked it back up several songs later, on the recent “False Prophet,” and soloed extensively, eventually carrying it from that upstage perch over to his seat at the piano, where he played it a bit more, even leaning over it to sing into the piano mic. And he sounded good on it, confidently delivering a few fluid, concise lines, without his old (as in, early ’00s) bad habit of getting stuck on repetitive, one- or two-note figures. It was good to hear him play again. Hooray for his new arthritis meds? (Dylan has gone on to play guitar, during the opening song only, on roughly half of his subsequent shows on this tour.)

Listen: Here’s a recording of Dylan playing guitar at the Portland show. (Ed. note: The sound quality is a bit dicey. We’re including it for historical reference.)

As for the piano, he approaches it with a seeming nod to the oblique style of (if nowhere near the actual ability of) Thelonious Monk. It’s far from the honky-tonk/boogie-woogie-derived style that once characterized his work on the instrument. When that type of outside-the-box playing is the defining element in a rock ’n’ roll band, it makes for a very odd overall sound. And this band really does sound like no other. They seem almost to hover around Dylan’s central presence, more a hive than a band.

Listen: Dylan performed the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” at another stop on his current tour

Dylan seldom names his tours, but is so obviously enamored of his latest album that he’s insisted on labeling this jaunt the “Rough and Rowdy Ways Tour,” and dominating the setlist with all but one of its songs. Dylan, who these days is singing more clearly than at any time since perhaps his early folkie days, elicits laughs and cheers from audiences for specific witty turns of phrase in the new album’s songs. The idea of an audience being able to hear unfamiliar lyrics clearly enough as to elicit laughter, or any sort of reaction, is nothing short of miraculous, given the indifferent mumbling that too often defined Dylan’s vocal delivery in concert less than a decade ago.

Related: Dylan has a new book due this fall

It’s not just the clearer diction, though, but his recent lyrics themselves that seem to come across so well to listeners. He’s packed his verses with common turns of phrase, and stray lines from older songs, a practice that some might experience as clichés or marks of lazy writing. But watching him sing them, it becomes clear that he’s doing so as a conscious effort to “speak the people’s language,” rather than the language of a poet. He must love that feeling of connection with an audience, as they pick up what he’s putting down, which is why he’s so devoted to delivering these new songs onstage.

Highlights? “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which—despite beginning with guitarist Bob Britt switching to a Flying V and bassist Tony Garnier (also the musical director, who’s been backing Dylan now for an astonishing 33 years!) swapping the stand-up for an electric, indicating that some serious rocking might commence—started with several slow-burn verses delivered by Dylan almost unaccompanied, before the band ultimately kicked in and made good on that choice of instrumentation. “To Be Alone with You,” one of the numbers where Dylan was on his best behavior, given a nicely syncopated arrangement more delicate than the original. “Every Grain of Sand,” played in an appropriately reverent manner, and delivered by the composer as if reflecting on the lyrics from a distant height. “Melancholy Mood,” a perfectly pitched, if too-brief, Sinatra cover.

Watch Dylan perform “To Be Alone With You” at a 2021 concert

Among the new songs, “Black Rider” stood out, sung diffidently by Dylan from upstage center. (Even when he did emerge from behind the piano, he always remained all the way upstage, never approaching the audience, and doubtless frustrating those who’d paid good money to sit close, only to have their view of him blocked by the piano all night.) And “Mother of Muses,” which capably followed the Sinatra tune in an alliterative pairing.

The show didn’t necessarily inspire an emotional experience in this reviewer, but a delightful and fascinating one nonetheless. One can no longer really expect to commune with Dylan as a fellow human being, but rather to observe him as an increasingly distant, orbiting alien. We’re lucky to have had him in our solar system all these years. If this tour happens to be the last time we ever see him in the flesh, may he have a good trip home.

Listen to the entire concert from the Albuquerque stop on the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour

Tickets to see Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour are available here and here.

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  1. Linda
    #1 Linda 16 June, 2022, 11:58

    Although I read the entire article, appreciated some viewpoints, my hair stood up on my arms at other times. I did like the arthritis joke, since my hands hurt at 70 years.

    I couldn’t help but wonder if writer was a Dylan fan? An “earworm” bubbled up from the past in a Jerry Jeff Walker song. “…like some writer talkin’ to the wall…”

    Saw Dylan again to see/hear his Masterpiece, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour in Eugene. We LOVE Bob Dylan his lyrics, style, element of surprise and HUS way.

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