I go to see Bob Dylan perform every chance I get. If Picasso were going to paint tonight in the public square and I could get a ticket to watch, I wouldn’t miss that either.
Dylan shows are idiosyncratic, spontaneous and far more adventurous than those of most young acts, much less other established superstars. His set lists vary wildly every night, though a pattern emerges. There are usually a few revamped versions of some of his classics (on this night, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”). While such high-wire acts can be magical, those two numbers were the least exciting of the night for me, perhaps because the arrangements relied too much on Dylan’s vocals, which can’t carry a song by themselves anymore and can sound jarring compared to the original.
Then there is the more recent material — for this show, “Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee”, “Honest With Me”, a rollicking “Summer Days” and an especially powerful “High Water” (all from Love And Theft), “Standing In The Doorway” from Time Out Of Mind, and the magnificent “Things Have Changed” from the Wonder Boys soundtrack. Dylan seems thrilled to be playing his newer material, and this stuff jumps.
Best of all are the nightly surprises — either covers or reworked versions of less well-known tunes from his catalogue. Dylan unveiled his country-fried new lineup, featuring some top younger talent in violinist Elena Fremerman (Hot Club Of Cowtown) and multi-instrumentalist Don Herron (BR549), by opening with “Drifter’s Escape”. The band hit it out of the park three songs later with another song off John Wesley Harding, “Down Along The Cove”, via a fiery arrangement which mined a monster groove that they subsequently worked through most of the rest of the set. They were still in that groove much later when they went deep lounge for a swingin’ version of “If Dogs Run Free”.
Two covers were aimed at special guests: a sublime version of opener Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home”, and a full-on country version of “A-11″ penned by Hank Cochran but popularized by Buck Owens (who happened to be in the audience).
Dylan was set up on the far left side of the stage, standing behind a small upright electric piano with a vocal mike set so low he had to stoop to get to it. An empty mike stand hinted he would move to center stage at some point, but that didn’t occur until the final song of the evening, “All Along The Watchtower”. That perfect song and this great performer continue to resonate.
Beneath whatever political and other superficial differences Dylan and Haggard might have, they share a deep working knowledge of American music, a tremendous work ethic, Hall of Fame songwriting skills, and an abiding respect for the underdog. Haggard put on a thoroughly satisfying set with his superb eight-piece band the Strangers (“We’re a juke joint band”), delivering the hits — “Big City”, “Mama Tried”, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink”, even “Okie From Muskogee”. He almost apologized for the latter, saying, “Since I wrote this, I’ve learned quite a few things, including that I want to move to Oregon.” He probably feeds all the blue states a similar line, but it worked, as he had even the aging tie-dyers in the palm of his hand.
Newcomer Amos Lee’s opening set was impressive. It’s clear the former schoolteacher is not a bad student either, as he’s learned plenty from the masters — Dylan, Prine, Otis Redding. His soulful voice and smooth delivery easily won the audience over.