America’s troubadour reinvents his classics on tour’s last US stop
The only thing that sounds even older than Bob Dylan’s ancient yet continuing canon of songs - a musical Mount Rushmore of folk, blues, gospel, and pop that’s been both carved into, and chiseled out of, the bedrock of American music - is, well, Bob Dylan’s voice.
For half a century now, it has been an instrument (or weapon or albatross, depending on one’s point of view) of endless debate, much like the mercurial man himself. It’s been a polarizing force of nature, will, and carefully cultivated mannerisms; at once revered and reviled, but rarely ignored.
As anyone who has heard him in concert during these past 10 or 20 (or, some would argue, 30) years well knows, that preposterously grizzled bark has become an essential and inescapable element of the Dylan experience, along with that storied catalog of music whose melodic and rhythmic components he blurs and bends at will. And it long ago caught up with the wizened, world-weary sentiments of the songs initially expressed by a 20-year old folkie from Duluth, Minn.
Last night at a sold-out House of Blues, the last US date of what has come to be known unofficially as Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour’’ (launched in 1988 with a title he has every intention of making good on, it seems), that voice - along with the rest of the man and his skillful five-piece band - recast brain-ingrained chestnuts like “Simple Twist Of Fate’’ and “Like a Rolling Stone’’ as conversational, almost off-the-cuff, meditations. That treatment, like Dylan himself, made for a charming and provocative paradox.
A loose and rollicking reading of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’’ kicked things off on a promising note. In fact, for much of his 110-minute set, Dylan was an animated (for him) presence, alternating between organ and electric guitar, and playing a good amount of bleating - and bleeding-around-the-edges - harmonica. A knotty pair of expressive, satisfyingly cluttered harp solos imbued the slow simmer of “Tangled Up In Blue’’ with a disheveled fervor, while the newer “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’’ also benefited from Dylan’s harmonica coloring a gospel-tinged groove.
To a man and a note, the band sounded as impeccable as it was dressed, with lead guitarist Charlie Sexton and rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball leading the sure-handed charge on roughed-up romps of old ramblers like “Highway 61 Revisited’’ and salaciously opaque nods on selections such as “Ballad Of A Thin Man.’’
While one could not have asked for better examples of the Dylan legend as an encore - on this night we got “Like a Rolling Stone,’’ “All Along the Watchtower,’’ and “Blowin’ in the Wind’’ - one wondered whether more forceful, passionate distillations would have better served that legend, and these masterworks. Rendered as they were last night, as seemingly carefree romps devoid of their original urgency, passion, or political imperative, you couldn’t help but wonder if anyone would have noticed them, in these forms, in the first place. But then, not everyone has the prerogative of having the voice - dividing and divine - of Bob Dylan.