It's hard to know what to make of Bob Dylan these days. In that sense, nothing has changed. Over his six-decade career, the Hibbing, Minn., songwriter has perfected inscrutability — winning over devoted fans with his genius and frustrating them with his studied mysteriousness. Even his autobiography reads like a fable.
At the Anthem on Tuesday night, the 76-year-old Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner only added to his reputation for intrigue, performing a 20-song show that felt both riveting and oddly removed.
Dylan has never been one for engaging with an audience, but over the years that lack of interest has compounded. During the 90-minute show, he neither acknowledged the crowd nor spoke a single word. Even his superb five-piece band went unintroduced. It was almost as if they were playing before an empty house.
At times, the approach felt passively hostile. Between every song, the lights darkened and various band member would pluck at strings or thump on a drum, creating a soundcheck cacophony that soon melted into the next choice. This was deliberate, but to what end? A way to keep the crowd at bay? Or just another artistic decision from the man of many masks?
It didn't always matter. The songs connected even when the singer didn't. He and the band galloped through "Desolation Row's" mad cast of characters and delivered a blistering version of "Early Roman Kings," a 2012 song that felt as essential and intense as anything Dylan has created.
And Dylan fully embraced his latest incarnation as a broody nightclub crooner with lovely covers of "Melancholy Mood," "Once Upon a Time" and "Why Try to Change Me Now." They're all suffused with nostalgia and a sense of mortality that even geniuses can't elude. None felt sadder than "Autumn Leaves," a standard popularized by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole that Dylan made his own with a version as gritty as it was haunting.
Some of Dylan's own songs didn't fare as well. For many years he has been putting his most famous compositions through a blender, changing arrangements and delivery so radically that the songs become unrecognizable. That's an artistic choice to explore different possibilities — or, more likely, fend off crowds that want to sing along. Depending on how you view these things, it's either the height of artistry or the depths of contempt. Either way, the results vary.
At times, as on "Highway 61 Revisited," he sounded less like Bob Dylan than someone doing a comically bad Bob Dylan impression, complete with nasally wheezes and froggy croaks. And he and the band turned the perfect "Tangled Up in Blue" into a choppy, bouncy mess. But no song suffered as much as "Blowin' in the Wind," a protest anthem that had all of the power sucked out of it by the defanged arrangement.
Is it worth nitpicking an artist whose work shaped generations and legitimized a genre more than any other? Probably not. Why try to change him now?
Opening for Dylan was the great Mavis Staples, another septuagenarian who, along with her family, has impacted American music for decades. Unfortunately for her, the arena was only half-filled for much of her show. It wasn't that people didn't want to see her, they just couldn't get in. Anthem is a handsome new venue and a welcome addition to the city, but it is still working out the kinks. Many hundreds of fans stood in long lines for 30 minutes or more and missed the entirety of Staples's surging set.
With her snappy five-piece band, Staples delivered the lovely "Build a Bridge" from her new album "If All I Was Was Black" and visited the bluesy "Love and Trust" from last year's "Livin' on a High Note."
But it was her trip back to the early '70s for "I'll Take You There," the biggest hit for the Staples Singers, that was the set's indisputable highlight — and a reminder that replicating the works that connect most with your audience is often a good idea.