It’s telling that when it comes to Bob Dylan—hands-down the greatest singer-songwriter of all time—one needs to practically apologize for wanting to see him play live. Dylan, ever the confounding contrarian, does not put on casual-fan-friendly shows, often reworking beloved classics to the point of absurdity and croaking his way through sets of obscure material. He has long shirked the “voice of a generation” tag and simply considers himself as a song-and-dance man. His so-called “Never Ending Tour” has been ongoing for nearly 30 years. He’s 73. He has that weird little pencil mustache thing going on. He probably won’t play your favorite song, and even if he does, you probably won’t recognize it. Why would you want to see that live?
But fuck all that, because Bob Dylan’s sold-out show at the Riverside Theater Wednesday night was really good. In the interest of cutting to the chase and avoiding using the word “legendary” 8,000 times, here are some pertinent questions (and answers) regarding last night’s show.
Did he play faithful renditions of all his classic hits?
Of course not. As stated above, Dylan reworks his old material to fit the style of his newer material—that style typically being either mid-tempo blues or mid-tempo country. “Tangled Up In Blue,” for example, was stripped of almost all its recognizable rhythm Wednesday night and transformed into a mellow blues ballad. “Blowin’ In The Wind” became a laid-back honky-tonk song. And so on. With that being said, those songs were far from unrecognizable, and garnered huge applause from the devoted crowd. Sure, it occasionally took until the chorus to realize you had been listening to, say, “Simple Twist Of Fate” for the past two minutes, but those bafflers were few and far between.
How was his voice?
Really good. Seriously! The days of the SNL “Tennesseeeeee! Tennesseeeeee!” Bob are long gone. Dylan’s voice—while still unmistakably his own—was relatively clear and full of bite Wednesday night, finding unexpected moments of life in newer songs like “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” and even more unexpected moments of melody in old songs like “She Belongs To Me.” His voice has obviously aged over the years, but it was refreshing to hear an artist not only accept that age, but revel in it.
How was his band?
No fuss, no muss. The show was billed as “Bob Dylan And His Band,” and the latter half of that billing proved perfectly up to task. Tuneful, tasteful, and tight, Dylan’s five-piece band—which included longtime bassist Tony Garnier and lead guitarist Charlie Sexton—played like seasoned pros. There was room for stand-up bass, violin, mandolin, and plenty of pedal steel throughout the night, but the majority of the instrumentation was meat-and-potatoes guitar, bass, and drums. As for Dylan himself, he alternated between squaring up to a center-stage mic (his little boot-scootin’ dance moves between verses were adorable) and taking a seat at a piano.
Did he play “Like A Rolling Stone”?
No. Dylan’s show was only two hours long (plus a 20-minute intermission), and to list all the classic songs he didn’t play would take, well, almost two hours. No “Like A Rolling Stone.” No “All Along The Watchtower.” No “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” No “Street Rock” duet with Kurtis Blow. He did play a lot of material from 2012’s Tempest, however, which sounded better than expected. “Duquesne Whistle,” “Pay In Blood,” and “Scarlet Town” were highlights of that album’s selections, each benefiting from a loose feel and the gnawing sense that Dylan—gasp!—was having fun up there.
Did he play harmonica?
Yes! A lot! And it was really good! If there’s one aspect of Dylan that has clearly improved over the years, it’s his harmonica playing. (Though the live version of “Simple Twist Of Fate” could almost give the original a run for its money. Almost.) Each solo was precise and well constructed, and was greeted with wild applause from the audience.
How was the between-song chatter?
Ha. Dylan’s only spoken words came immediately before the intermission: “Thank yoooouuu! [mumble mumble] We’ll be right back!”
Was there any photography—professional or otherwise—allowed at the show?
No. You’d have a better chance of Periscoping an entire Jack White show than snapping a pic of Dylan on stage Wednesday night.
At one point, was there a dude flipping out and dancing in the balcony, unconsciously channeling that “Soy Bomb” guy who crashed Dylan’s 1998 Grammy performance?
Yes. What was up with this dude? He was totally flailing around like one of those giant blow-up noodle things you see in used car lots. Or, you know, exactly like that “Soy Bomb” guy who jumped on stage while Dylan was playing “Love Sick” at the 1998 Gram…wait. This dude was flipping out and dancing like a madman while Dylan was playing “Love Sick” at this show, wasn’t he? Ha! Nicely done, dude!
Did he play any songs from his 2009 Christmas album, Christmas In The Heart?
No. It’s almost summer, after all.
Did he play any songs from his 2015 Frank Sinatra standards album, Shadows In The Night?
Yes, two of them, and they were the highlights of the show. Dylan capped his proper set with a delightfully weird, almost Lynchian performance of “Autumn Leaves,” and ended his two-song encore with a surprisingly lovely take on “Stay With Me.” (The other encore song was “Blowin’ In The Wind.”) Both covers found Dylan in full-throated crooner mode, which suited him surprisingly well. His voice, again, was unmistakably his own, but it was fascinating listening to him, you know, sing.
Was it possible to momentarily ignore Dylan’s legendary status and enjoy the show on its own terms?
Yes. By reworking his music to such a serious degree and relying on old standards, Dylan makes this easy. Forget that you’re watching the guy who woke up Robert Zimmerman one morning and eventually re-awoke as Bob Dylan. Forget that you’re watching the guy who wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Forget that you’re watching the guy who sneered “Play it fucking loud!” while being booed for going electric. Forget that you’re watching the guy who crashed his motorcycle in 1966 and wrote Blood On The Tracks in 1975. Hell, forget that you’re watching one of the Traveling Wilburys. Instead, settle in and watch the guy on stage, doing the only thing he knows: being a song and dance man, being an entertainer, putting on a show, never stopping.
SETLIST [via Tap Milwaukee]
Things Have Changed
She Belongs To Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
Workingman’s Blues #2
Waiting For You
Pay In Blood
Tangled Up In Blue
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Simple Twist Of Fate
Early Roman Kings
Spirit On The Water
Soon After Midnight
Long And Wasted Years
Blowin’ In The Wind
Stay With Me