By Chris Klimek
Friday, November 13, 2009
Even Bob Dylan can't be Bob Dylan all the time.
The 68-year-old Boy From the North Country born Robert Allen Zimmerman has been trying to break his own myth since the mid-'60s, when he alienated fans of his early folk albums by plugging in and rocking out. Since then, his muse has come and gone, but his contrarian streak has been a constant.
For the past 20 years, the road has been constant too. Dylan tours endlessly, turning up at a half-full arena or a minor league ballpark near you again and again, as if to prove he's no sage, just an itinerant song-and-dance-man. Though late-period albums like "Time Out of Mind" and "Love and Theft" have evinced a creative renewal, he's often been erratic, even indifferent onstage. Still, there's something noble in his doggedness, singing on even though thousands of shows have curdled his voice into a viscous, gut-shot croak. On a good night, he can still remind you why people worshiped him in the first place.
Wednesday was a good night.
At the Patriot Center, Dylan seemed interested, even invigorated, as his crackerjack five-piece band tore through a set that emphasized the brilliant extremities of his ocean-deep discography. He kept mum save to utter a single "thank you" and to introduce the players at an auctioneer's tempo. But his singing was clear and direct -- and his manner determined.
Though his main instrument is the keyboard these days, he strapped on a guitar to hack his way through a bloody "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "The Man in the Long Black Coat" early in the set, always a good sign. He stayed in front of his lithe, limber combo to blow harp on a buoyant "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," swaying and preening like . . . well, like a frontman. A queasy smile radiating from beneath the wide brim of his hat, and sporting a day-glo shirt to match the trim of his undertaker's suit, he looked like Jack Nicholson's incarnation of the Joker. But just seeing him appear to take pleasure in his songs and his band was enthralling.
Maybe it was the freshness of the material that kept him so attentive: He played more songs from the present decade than from the '60s. Though he now favors arrangements that place the roll above the rock, "Highway 61 Revisited" felt doubly urgent and volatile sandwiched between "Workingman's Blues #2" and "Ain't Talkin,' " both from 2006's terrific but more mannered "Modern Times." "Ballad of a Thin Man" swirled with noirish menace.
And then it was over. By the encore, Dylan had burned whatever elixir had made the main set so electric. "Like a Rolling Stone" was all flaccid sentimentality. He punctuated "All Along the Watchtower" with those oft-parodied, arbitrary hiccups of inflection, punching the end of each line like a Beastie Boy: "Businessmen, they drink my WINE! Plowmen dig my EARTH!"
So that's 90 inspired minutes out of 105 onstage. A victory by decision is still a victory, and the tour goes on.
Klimek is a freelance writer.