Bob Dylan Comes Full Circle with Unforgettable Shows
Words by Chad Berndtson
It was Bob Dylan who re-opened our glorious Cap in 2012. Then, as last night, he kicked off his show with “Watching the River Flow,” and got to business, not so much delivering songs as crafting a set reflective of where his long-running tour and band was at the time, the music he felt like making and performing, and the nods (sometimes oh-so-casual, sometimes largely unrecognizable) to the legendary corners of his unequaled songwriting oeuvre. The band’s changed some in nine years since, but on Tuesday night, here again was Dylan, now 80, businesslike but also swaggering, sporting an uncharacteristically frequent smile and showman’s persona (was that a hip swivel, Bob?), visiting us once more, and very much inhabiting where he is, and where his band is, right now.
Where is “right now,” exactly? Right now is some of the best touring Bob Dylan in ages, and a seemingly even richer vibe than the “all-timer” whispers that followed his exceptional shows just before the pandemic. It’s also Bob the troubadour deeply comfortable with where his band is and what it’s intended to do, a feeling justly captured in Dylan’s 2020 album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” which ranks with top Dylan from the past quarter century, and whose songs, unlike in some Dylan tours that have appeared near new album releases, are the centerpiece of the current tour, not just an addition to it. Eight of 10 “Rowdy Ways” songs appeared in the 17-song setlist on Tuesday, as they have throughout the tour thus far. Remarkably, it was those songs that controlled the concert’s energy. They were sequenced among Dylan classics that have been such for ages, but impressively owned the orbit around which the whole show presented itself.
Some of what makes “Rough and Rowdy Ways” so appealing is that, as a listen, it has breathing room, and it takes its time. It’s an unhurried record, even at its angstier, death-haunted moments, but it’s also casually aggressive—raffishly autumnal, not sad-resigned autumnal. There’s so much in it—enough to inspire another shelf in the long-building library of Dylanology—but one thing to pick out is that it truly is a band record, deeply reflective of the ensemble sound Dylan’s sought for at least a decade, a band that can put the deliberate hues in not just any pensive ballads, but these pensive ballads, and put the casual, eh-fuck-it regard in these late-evening blues shuffles. It’s so accessible an album, on so many levels—even with such dense wordplay at times—that the typically enriching Bob-ness of it creeps up on you, steeped in, but also unintimidated by, its namesake’s own six-plus decades of mythology.
Dylan and team sustained that vibe through an entire 90-minute show (and they’re back at it again tonight). They teed off with “River Flow” and then leaned into a chugging rearrangement of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine),” but the show truly started with “I Contain Multitudes,” the sly and pensive “Rowdy Ways” track that sounds much more like Dylan wanting to go his way, and being A-OK with you going yours if you don’t feel like sticking around, still knowing you will, and you’re intrigued.
The band is deceptively simple: a perfectly attuned ensemble disguised in what passing ears might think is a merely sturdy backing band. Well, of course it’s a sturdy backing band: mostly unadorned, definitely unostentatious, with Dylan himself taking almost all the solos or filigree on keyboards. But it moves as if its leader said “I want exactly this, but a lot of space to breathe within in that ‘exactly this.’” Sounds contradictory—this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about—but then comes 90 minutes of elegant understatement: no hot dogging, no side conversations, no fuss. Laid-back but locked-in.
The guitarists, Bob Britt and newbie Doug Lancio, have gelled into a tandem, gently jousting, never tangling, serving the shuffles, ballads, and studied digressions. Drummer Charley Drayton, another new recruit, gets to a supple pocket with longtime Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, and just connects, prodding the group without pushing the group. And, as seemingly ever, there’s Donnie Herron, master colorist, serving up accordion, violin, mandolin, lap and pedal steels—accents, grace notes, shadings, cohesion.
At the center of it, of course, is Bob himself, playing mostly keys, coming out from behind the keys on occasion to stand and sing and enunciate. The sound and crispness of the vocal parts has been much-remarked-upon this tour for good reason, not least for how they retain, yep, that quintessential Bob-ness in the phrasing. At 80, he’s made a true weapon of his later-years croon-and-croak, and he used it to hypnotic effect throughout the night, never more so than “My Own Version of You,” which pulled all the room’s energy into focusing on his mesmerizing delivery.
Go, the band does, using this framework, judiciously applied, whether to the sneering trudge of “False Prophet” or the country-ramble reworking of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which were two early standouts in the set. They shuffle, they pause. They strut (“Early Roman Kings”), they rollick (“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”), they dig in and choogle a bit (“Gotta Serve Somebody,” a hot one for sure). The night’s showpiece, as on the album, was “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a moody, wistful thing, graced with Herron’s accordion, and up there with the kind of evocative Bob Dylan meditations where you know—you feel—the place he’s talking about even though you’ve probably never been there. Dylan went for a steady stream of those evocations in the latter half of the show, actually, from the Frank Sinatra-familiar “Melancholy Mood” (a brief nod to his last decade’s worth of albums saluting traditional pop standards) to the spooky, but hymn-like “Mother of Muses” before another nudging shuffle, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” put a bow on the set.
You couldn’t quite call it an encore—the band didn’t leave the stage, and went into introductions instead with a bit of winking from Bob. (Audience member: “You’re the greatest, Bob!” Bob: “I don’t know anyone named Bob, you must have the wrong show.”). “Every Grain of Sand” was then the benediction, pleasantly stated and feeling like a peace offering, or at least a calming salute.
This concert—really this whole tour—feels like another very Dylanesque puzzle box: delivering a show as composed and pre-planned as a philharmonic with the wiggle room of a laid-back, no-pressure charm of a bar band on a had-to-be-there night at the roadhouse. It sounds implausible, or too good to be true? But then, you know Bob Dylan, at least you think you do, and if you let it get to you, you’re richly rewarded.